CHILE: Symbolic Change and Real Change – What Colombia Can Learn from Chile’s 1988 Plebiscite

Chile's 1988 plebiscite sheds light on Colombia's recent plebiscite in shocking detail.  Photo, (c) Wikimedia, Fer1997Chile's 1988 plebiscite sheds light on Colombia's recent plebiscite in shocking detail. Photo, (c) Wikimedia, Fer1997

The shock result of Colombia’s plebiscite on Sunday has understandably overshadowed other events in Latin America this week. However, the context of Colombia’s vote provides an opportunity to examine another event that has been largely overlooked- the 28th anniversary of the Chilean Plebiscite that failed to ratify (and thus ousted) Agusto Pinochet as President on October 5th 1988.

These two plebiscites have little in common, apart from the fact that ultimately they both rejected the will of their respective governments. However, there is one fundamental aspect of the rhetoric surrounding both Colombia’s vote on Sunday, and Chile’s 28 years ago that deserves to be examined: the possibility of change.

The Colombian Peace Deal offered a chance for real change. That is to say, it was not just limited to stopping the country’s violent civil conflict, but it also aimed to integrate the FARC into democratic politics. Allowing the former enemies of the state congressional seats and the chance to form a political party was undeniably a bold and contentious form of reconciliation. Both supporters and detractors of the deal recognized the its fundamental importance and mandate for change. This is no doubt why it proved so divisive- it was not merely symbolic.

This was not the case with the Chilean Plebiscite. Many have argued that little was fundamentally altered in Chile with  the success of the NO vote and the departure of the dictator from office. The change that was brought about by the plebiscite seems in retrospect to have been largely symbolic. Examining Chile’s plebiscite helps reinforce how uncommon game-changing proposals like the rejected Peace Deal are.

Anti-Pinochet propaganda from the period. Photo (c) Wikimedia

Anti-Pinochet propaganda from the period. Photo (c) Wikimedia

In 1988, Pinochet sought to have his 17 year dictatorship legitimized for a further eight years by the electorate. In keeping with the constitution that his military Junta had introduced, this had to be ratified through a popular vote. However, the Junta had long since fallen out of touch with many Chileans. Increasing civil unrest, the re-emergence of the political opposition and labor movements and a relaxation of state repression, meant that the plebiscite represented a credible threat to the dictatorship.

This bad blood towards the old Junta was harnessed by the  NO campaign, who sought to unseat Pinochet and re-establish democracy. However, what proved decisive in attracting support to this cause (and eventually in winning the plebiscite with 56% of the vote) was the NO campaign’s rhetoric of ‘change’. This was famously encapsulated by the cheesy, optimistic NO jingle, “Chile, la alegría ya viene”, which promised a brighter, happier future for a country which had endured years of division, violence and dictatorship. This song also explicitly stated “es el tiempo de cambiar” (it is time to change). Its message could not have been any clearer

Pinochet trying to define himself as a national father figure as part of the SI campaign. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, Chile

Pinochet tried to define himself as a national father figure as part of the SI campaign. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, Chile

The Chilean plebiscite bought an end to the Military’s authoritarian and repressive dictatorship, a feat that was by no means insignificant. And yet, the county’s return to democracy did not entail the societal change that millions had hoped for. Many of the problems that characterized the dictatorship era have persisted in Chile since democratization, including limited labor rights, a big wealth gap, poverty, and arguably even a lack of democracy.

The reasons for this are manifold.

Firstly, the Chilean constitution (which had been written and implemented by the dictatorship in 1980) was not fundamentally restructured when Chile embraced democracy.

Although the constitution was enlarged with the inclusion of 54 amendments, it ultimately retained and strengthened the dictatorships socio-economic agenda (democratic Chile has not deviated from the neoliberal path laid out by its military predecessors) and its political ambitions. This constitution placed limits upon political parties and labor unions. It also endowed the military with a great degree of autonomy from the state whilst simultaneously making them responsible for guaranteeing ‘institutional order’. If this does not sound sinister, then remember that this was the same military which had in 1973 usurped the Chilean leadership, replacing democracy with authoritarianism. Furthermore, the constitution established limits on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

By not scrapping and rewriting the constitution- and instead just introducing amendments- democratic Chile could not live up to the rhetoric of change surrounding the NO vote. Rather, by accepting and legitimizing the constitution, Chile’s leaders have made significant change increasingly unlikely in the decades since democratization.

The result of the plebiscite was rightfully celebrated, but were its achievements more than just symbolic? Photo (c),Wikimedia

The result of the plebiscite was rightfully celebrated, but were its achievements more than just symbolic? Photo (c),Wikimedia

Furthermore, during his last months in office, Pinochet introduced several decree laws. These too further impeded the possibility for change in Chilean society after democratization. Pinochet appointed a third of the senate himself, perpetuating his influence well into the future. Additionally, he introduced a binominal voting law for congressional seats which was clearly designed to protect the percentage of pro-Pinochet congressmen, whilst ensuring that the opposition was unlikely to ever get a substantial congressional majority (this was repealed, but only in 2013).

As if Pinochet had not already insulted Chilean democracy enough, after democratization he became an unelected senator for life. If the NO vote had campaigned on returning democracy to Chile, it had only partly succeeded.  Removing the symbols of dictatorship did not implicitly allow for a healthy democracy.

Pinochet, despite the public’s rejection of him, remained vocal during the transition process. He even threatened a second coup if the outgoing dictatorships terms and conditions for democratization were not followed religiously by the new administrations. Even after his retirement from public life, and his death in 2006, Pinochet’s legacy still casts a long shadow over contemporary Chile.

Pinochet's legacy is still very much intact. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, simenon

Pinochet’s legacy is still very much intact. Photo (cc) Wikimedia, simenon

The anniversary of the NO plebiscite deserves to be remembered and celebrated with pride; it marks the date that Chile sent a clear message of resentment and rejection to its brutal and out of touch dictator.

Yet, it should also be remembered that this dictator’s legacy is still at work within the heart of the nation; in its constitution and in its government. When Chileans voted to oust Pinochet many also implicitly sought to reject the institutions, systems and values that he represented. However, they only succeeded in removing him- an important yet ultimately symbolic victory.

Chile’s 1988 plebiscite and the unfulfilled hopes of the NO campaign should serve to remind us that symbolic change does not by implication represent a  break with the past, or facilitate a rejuvenation of the political panorama. It is rare indeed that the electorate is offered the chance to vote for such an opportunity, or that a country is actually capable of carrying out vitally important changes.

I believe that such conditions existed on Sunday in Colombia. However, this bid for real change was rejected.

Whereas in Chile an inflexible structural legacy prevented its society from severing all ties with its dark past, in Colombia the long struggle to peace, reconciliation and integration has been protracted by popular vote. We can only hope that a new resolution, with wider support, is reached before the ceasefire is suspended at the end of this month.