Chileans Consolidate Democratic Gains

Eighteen years after coup, public consensus supports free market, move to full democracy

ON Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte took power from the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende Gossens in a violent coup dtat.Eighteen years later, Chileans are working to consolidate a return to democracy that began with the March 1990 presidential inauguration of Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin Azocar. Interviews last week with citizens, politicians, and analysts found a deeply conservative framework for Chilean political life, in the form of a broad, two-pronged consensus. Determined to protect their emerging democracy from any threat, most say they support Mr. Aylwin's continuation of General Pinochet's free market economic policy, and they have attempted to avoid difficult political divisions over government policy that could lead to renewed instability and a military resurgence. But the novelty of benefits like free speech and the return of political exiles has begun to wear off. As Chileans engage in the everyday give and take of democracy in a country where 5 million people (40 percent of the population) are poor, the dual consensus is beginning to come under pressure.

Pressure for change "We are living a period of reconvivencia [of getting used to living with each other again]. There is a great will to come to an understanding, to avoid arguments. We are afraid of conflict, of the past, of the military," says Sergio Bitar, a federal deputy for the center-left Party for Democracy. "The question is, how long will this last?" says this former political prisoner. Signs of division have begun to appear in the last few months, with strikes by copper miners, transport workers, teachers, and last week, public hospital employees. "The government promised a wage increase for this year, and hasn't kept [the promise]. We don't trust the health minister. He hasn't take us seriously," complains Luis Gomez, a union leader standing outside the Hospital El Salvador. Next to him, in a white nurse's cap and a blue woolen cape, Erna Pinto says she spends her off hours caring for hospital patients on a private basis, earning an extra $6 a night. The government responded to the hospital strike by cutting pay for days not worked, but in other cases has acted to better distribute the rewards of an economic boom that began in 1985. Two weeks ago, Aylwin announced a $1.7 billion two-year program for transportation infrastructure. The government has also raised the minimum wage and created a fund for social needs.

Settling on economic policy Demands have also come from those who feel they have most contributed to Chile's success. Last week, business representatives met with government officials to air their concerns about falling investment levels. "The government has to decide if it wants to be an Asian 'Tiger' or a Sweden," says Jorge Desormeaux, an economist at Santiago Unversity. To follow the Korean or Taiwanese models, he adds, Chile must encourage private savings and investment, while keeping public-sector spending low, thus avoiding a return to high inflation. Mr. Desormeaux fears wage increases and the infrastructure program could cause a return of inflation, running Chile's world-renowned economic model off the narrow, cautious track laid down by Pinochet's ministers. The problem with economic austerity, though, is that with elections scheduled for each of the coming three years, the Christian Democrats may be tempted to increase public spending. Easy electoral promises find a receptive ear in Chile. Francisco Javier Errazuriz, of the Center Center Union party, captured third place in the 1989 presidential election on the promise of cutting mortgage payments. Last week, Sen. Eduardo Frei, son of the former president by that name, took a first step toward a run at the presidency as a candidate for the Christian Democratic Party. Yet those running for office are entering an uncharted area of transition to a fully democratic society. The challenge is to move past the accommodation that permitted Pinochet's placid departure from office, assured as he was that the civilian government would maintain his economic policy and not avenge the military's human right violations.

Tying the knot That accommodation allowed Pinochet to stay on as Army commander and permitted him tacit control of Congress, the Supreme Court, and municipal governments through nominations he made prior to Aylwin's inauguration. This is what Chileans call the amarre, or political knot that Pinochet tied to keep civilians in line. So far, the broad consensus for emergence to democracy has guided a gradual, negotiated, untying, and a grudging acceptance of Pinochet's continuing role until 1998, as the Constitution specifies. But, the realities of politics and poverty could eventually lead Chileans to think differently. "There could be a plebiscite for reform of the Constitution, to get Pinochet out," says Oscar Azocar, a leader of the Communist Party, which is today a discredited nonplayer in Chilean politics. Chileans were recently made to swallow yet one more Pinochet contribution. Commenting on the discovery of two bodies per grave in Santiago's General Cemetery, he applauded the "great savings" thereby accomplished. "How ashamed I feel, it makes me want to hide," says Catalina Bergamini, director of a preschool for children from low-income families. She pulls her turtleneck collar up as if to cover her face. "They say people have the government they deserve. How can we live with a person like this?" Today, the only opposition to the ruling center-left coalition comes from two political parties far to the right. Because of the chaos resulting from Mr. Allende's three-year socialist government, followed by Pinochet's repression of socialists and communists and the success of capitalism, the left is struggling to regain a place in Chile. "The seventies were so strong there is an indelible mark on Chilean society that transcends all social classes," says Federico Mekis, a deputy for the right-wing National Renovation Party. The void on the left could eventually be filled by Mr. Bitar's Party for Democracy, whose supporters maintain a grab bag of political views, but are united by support for a free-market economy and concern for social needs. Education minister Ricardo Lagos, a party member, is often mentioned as an alternative to the Christian Democrats.

Broad consensus holds Chilean society remains deeply committed to its dual consensus. Few Chileans believe the left could win the 1993 presidential election, for example. And supporting strong political change is, for most citizens, still too risky. "If we pressure [Aylwin] too much we could have the dictatorship again," says Hulda Vega, a housewife who lives with her family and in-laws in a cramped little house on the outskirts of Santiago, on an unpaved street. Her remarks are echoed by many of her countrymen. Chileans have a long tradition of democracy and community participation, which was not forgotten during the dictatorship. At that time, women set up communal kitchens and crafts industries. Citizens worked together to find missing family members. Today, political and community participation has shifted to center on less-ideological issues such as the environment, career opportunities, and women's rights. At a recent women's meeting on abortion, divorce, and domestic violence, lawyer Veronica Matos noted that Chilean law bans divorce and requires a husband's approval of a woman's business dealings. "We can't think of laws as being made by some guys who sit in parliament," she says, "but as something we can make happen by voting for [the right] guy." In today's more comfortable times, broad social issues seem to have lost the draw they once had. But this could change again, analysts say, as politics evolves. "The recent past was very traumatic because there was a lot of violence and many people were killed," says Ricardo Israel, a political scientist at the University of Chile. "Over several years, the political elite have made a big concerted effort to reach consensus about the political and economic model.... But a consensus is only a mean, not an end. "This country has not reached an agreement in relation to poverty, education, and health," he says. "There will probably be a confrontation on [goals], and then we'll go back to the reality of a country divided by class and politics."

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