The Dictatorship after Socialism: Exploring Chilean Politics and Society through Film

Salvador Allende’s election in 1970, the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America, led to social and political divisions that culminated in the successful military coup d’état and the subsequent 16-year military regime of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s rule, according to the 1991 report by the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, oversaw the torture or execution of approximately 30,000 people: committing numerous human rights abuses in the process. At the same time, the ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of classically trained American economists who advocated laissez-faire economics, rapidly transformed the Chilean economy with mixed results. 


The Economy under Allende

One effect of Allende’s presidency was how his socialist policies exacerbated political polarisation, dividing Chile between the rich and poor while fanning the flames of middle-class resentment that later manifested under Pinochet. Economic stimulus, combined with the expansive agenda of the ‘Dia de la Dignidad Nacional’ (Day of National Dignity) to nationalise the copper mines, factories and banks, reduced unemployment to a record 3% in 1971. This marked effect and the unionisation of 40% of the workforce bought Allende the respect and admiration of the Chilean working class.  Poor economic management, however, meant that inflation rose above 300%, due to the unfeasibly low fixed prices and rapidly increasing wages (an economically irresponsible tactic used to boost support for Allende’s party in upcoming legislative elections). The creeping rise of inflation and socialism struck fear into the elite ‘acomodado’ (affluent classes), which led to growing capital flight while the middle class had to endure rationing under the form of Price and Supply Boards (JAPs). The Americans also attempted to exaggerate the economic and political chaos in Chile through the CIA which spent $8 million on covert action between 1970-73 and the 40 committee approved a $1 million increase in the CIA budget to support opposition political parties. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security adviser at the time, fearful of the success of Allende’s socialist model and its potential to spread globally into Western Europe, even slashed Chilean National Aid from $260.4 million in 1967 to $3.8 million in 1973. 

The Domestic Political situation under Allende

However, Allende, undoubtedly also contributed to the underlying political tension due to his own divisive, verging on authoritarian, governing style. This is because many of Allende’s policies were legally dubious (potential property rights violations) and he was ultimately forced to rely on expansive ‘executive decrees’ instead of legislation due to his lack of a legislative majority in the Chilean bicameral legislature. This clear disregard for judicial independence meant the Chilean Supreme Court warned that Allende’s actions could cause the “imminent breakdown of the Judicial system” in 1973, as Allende and his supporters continued to publicly pressure and criticize judges with whom he disagreed with. 

Allende also lacked a decisive electoral mandate: as he only won the 1970 presidential election with a voting plurality of 36.9%; making his victory illegitimate for much of the Chilean public. Admittedly, Allende wasn’t solely responsible for these divisions, as some political infighting preceded his rule.  A split in the Right, caused by the previous Christian-Democrat president, Eduardo Frei, meant that the moderate Christian Democrats in the Chilean Parliament voted to elect Allende’s election. Frei, a supporter of a “middle way” between Marxism and Capitalism, lost conservative support because of the expropriation of land for peasants. Hence, the Right already felt betrayed before Allende’s presidency ever took effect. Therefore, while Allende’s action did exaggerate political division, the broader decline of the pragmatic centrist reform party (which was then the Christian Democrats), made politics more radical and extreme, which effectively legitimised both Allende and Pinochet’s presidencies.  

Machuca’s depiction of ‘Socialist’ Chile and the immediate impact of the coup

In the 2004 film ‘Machuca’, director Andrés Wood explores the class and political divisions under Allende’s Presidency through the setting of an elite private school, recently integrated with working class pupils. The two child protagonists, Gonzalo and the titular ‘Machuca’, clearly highlight the working-class experience of 1970’s Chile and later the cruelty of life under Pinochet. Meanwhile, No!’s director, Pablo Larraín, depicts the effects of the military regime, political repression and economic changes whilst also providing a largely optimistic portrayal of Chile’s future without Pinochet.

By revealing the corrosive political environment which led to the political coup, Wood’s Machuca brutally exposes a Chile divided under Allende while also hoping to remind the audience of their responsibility to remember, and never forget. The title of the film, Machuca,  a traditional working-class surname derived from the Spanish verb Machuchar (to pound) immediately forces the audience to confront the working-class narratives hidden under Pinochet’s regime. Meanwhile, Gonzalo’s surname ‘Infante’ connotes wealth and creates a powerful juxtaposition between his character and Machuca; mirroring the class conflict of 1970’s Chile. 

The age of the two protagonists, evocative of their childhood innocence, softens the film and allows the audience to form a collective memory of the dictatorship and the polarization preceding it. Secondary narratives, such as Gonzalo and Machuca’s sexual awakening, make the film tolerable to acomodado as large sections of the Chilean public were apprehensive to confront the regime directly. Machuca’s commercial success meant, Wood could further messages from previous directors (such as Patricio Guzmán’s three-part documentary, the Battle of Chile) covering the severe ideological warfare that occurred under Allende, to a wider audience.

Where many members of Chilean society failed to fully realise and condemn the extent of human rights abuses, Wood hopes to expose and highlight Pinochet’s human rights abuses to their respective audiences. Wood’s depiction of the Chilean National Stadium ( as a bridge between Gonzalo’s and Machcha’s house), where over 40,000 people were detained, foreshadows later crimes against humanity in the film. 

The horrific death of Silvana, a neighbour and friend to Machuca,  by gunpoint, in the initial aftermath of the coup, produces a visceral reaction that forces the audience to confront the pain countless Chileans had to endure. Her innocent childlike nature, memorialised through her death and corpse, gives her an instant ‘martyr-like’ status; a helpless victim of merciless soldiers. Wood brutally contrasts this horrific moment through the experiences of his natural ‘foil’ character, ‘Infante’, which highlight the importance of class in leading to the regime. The audience is further made painfully aware of the ongoing injustice, watching Roberto (Maria’s lover) confidently reading a newspaper saying Pinochet is not committing human rights violations after witnessing Silvana’s death. More importantly, the fact that Infante can escape unharmed (as the soldier sees his Nike shoes and realises he is not working class) is painfully symbolic of how some of the Chilean economic elite could avoid repercussions from Pinochet. Silvana’s death is made more poignant through what it reveals about Chile as a country – as Wood is cognizant that for some, only the explicit death of a child told by a member of the upper middle class could ever be sufficient to condemn Pinochet’s actions.

16 years of dictatorship  

The Coup

For Chileans, the military coup was a relief as many assumed the military would quickly restore democratic government. Largely, Chilean institutions were supportive of the Coup, with the President of the Supreme Court even sending a congratulatory message to the new regime. Moreover, the Chamber of Deputies, Christian Democrats included, voted to pressure the military to “place an immediate end” to Allende’s presidency on the 22nd of August. Chile’s entrenched democracy (as there had been only 13 months under military rule from 1830 to 1973) meant that Pinochet’s radicalism and his threat to democracy were underestimated. Pinochet quickly began to manufacture a war-like environment to gain power and crush potential Leftist dissent – at a brutal human cost. 

Pinochet’s declaration of a ‘State of Siege’ on September 12th invoked constitutional powers that meant he could restrict rights and exercise considerable privileges. Chile’s naturally conservative judges were initially too trusting of the regime; their mostly literalist view of the law blinding any consideration of the political context and inhibiting them from challenging government rationale in the defence of human rights. Such freedoms emboldened Pinochet to continue mass raids which eventually resulted in the interrogation of more than 45,000 people. At the same time, the death toll of civilians rose to 1500 by December 1963. Faith in the military exacerbated the human rights abuses, as the public mostly complied with the regime. An International Affairs Professor, Carlos Naudón, like most Chileans in the early days of the coup, voluntarily handed himself in but later found himself sent to the infamous Chile Stadium. 

Pinochet’s violence during his consolidation of power led to a wave of political violence against leftist individuals, who were now perceived as enemies of the state, illustrating popular support for Pinochet. This is most clearly illustrated in allegations of rural violence in 1973, such as in Mulchén, where nine peasants were killed by vigilantes in just two days. Other examples include when a communist alderman, also in Mulchén, was arrested and beaten to death inside the police station. Both these events were unquestionably motivated by personal and ideological vendettas – as they took place in rural areas where the criminals must have had some personal connection to the victim. This demonstrates the great resentment against Allende and his Marxist ideology by some in the right and suggests that the Coup did not take place in a top-down political vacuum;- enabling Pinochet to cling on to power for longer. 

Pinochet also exacerbated political divides through his ‘Plan Z’, essentially a CIA disinformation campaign that accused Allende of planning to assassinate key members of the military. While there was little evidence for this it justified the state of war, which later legitimised barbaric actions such as General Arrellono’s helicopter tour to combat any potential leftist resistance. While Arrellono himself denied any awareness of the killings, several accounts years later revealed that at least 62 people were killed during Arrellono’s frequent prison camp visits. In conclusion, the September 11 coup can be categorised as the natural result of long-standing political divisions which Pinochet ruthlessly exploited to seize and remain in power. 

Free-Market economics 

Despite this, Pinochet’s free-market economic reforms initially won him plaudits on the world stage for reversing several harmful socialist economic policies. However,  the 1982 recession proved that the Chicago Boys’ ideological zeal was harmful in managing the Chilean economy. Arguably, Pinochet’s sharp economic reforms were necessary evils due to the pressing economic situation left by Allende, where inflation was as high as 900% by 1973 and the trade deficit was up to 24.7%. This was what prompted Admiral Gottuzo, in charge of the economy at the time to devalue Chile’s currency to 280 pesos per dollar (on the advice of the Chicago Boys) to try and shrink Chile’s deficit. Devaluation (and subsequent cuts in public spending), meant inflation continued to remain high and unemployment rose, even though Pinochet’s economic policies in 1974 were relatively moderate and pragmatic in comparison. 1975 brought even more radical economic reforms, with a “shock treatment” to the Chilean economy drastically shrinking the state by cutting public spending by 27% in 1975. This policy had initially negative effects; in the short-term GNP fell to 13% while unemployment rose to 16.8% by 1976. However, it may have been crucial in improving Chile’s long term future by creating an economic boom as during the following 4 years, Chile experienced a 32% rise in GDP and the average inflation rate fell to below 50%. 

Although Pinochet made some effort to tackle deprivation, illustrated by the decline in child mortality from 82 to 17 per 100,000 people.  Largely, the traditional Chilean middle class (that was supported through state employment)  and rural areas were left stranded to survive in the free market. ‘Chile’s Middle Class: A Struggle for Survival in the Face of Neoliberalism’, written by Anthropologists Larissa Lomnitz and Ana Melnick, outlines in detail how Pinochet’s policies abandoned the traditional middle class. The reduction of state employees by a fifth, from 1973 to 1980, due to Pinochet’s free market reforms meant that most middle class teachers subsidised by the state became working class. Lomnitz and Melnick’s interviews with five different teachers highlight how the decline in state employment led to a severe reduction in their standard of living. Ultimately, the ideological inflexibility of the Chicago’s Boys’ meant economic growth was simply temporary as they failed to take the necessary actions needed to correct structural flaws in the economy. However, this economic growth was unsustainable as Chilean savings fell from 17% to 12% from 1963 to 1973 and the boom in consumer goods was reliant on cheap imports which had risen to $7.3 billion from $3.2 billion between 1978 and 81. 

The increase in both government spending and Pinochet’s ‘pragmatic’ Neoliberal policies after the 1982 debt crisis still primarily benefited the Chilean Elite.  Increased government spending was primarily focussed on socialising $7.7 billion in debt from the ‘Grupos’ (Chilean Business conglomerates), who were over-exposed to various international markets.  After closer examination, Chile’s perceived economic success during the 16-year military regime, such as Milton Friedman’s assertion of the “Miracle of Chile ” seems overblown, due to the rise of inequality and poverty at the same time. 

Ultimately Chile’s economy failed to benefit those at the bottom as Inequality rose from 0.42 to 0.56 on the Gini Coefficient, while poverty increased from around 20-22% in 1970 to a peak of 55% in 1983. Meanwhile, real wages fell from their pre-Pinochet high in 1972 (and would not recover till the 2000s). Therefore, Pinochet’s economic policies both before and after the 1982 crash were designed to help his rich conservative supporters, while a rise in inequality and poverty hurt Allende’s key supporters. Thus Pinochet’s economic policies cannot be separated from the social and class division that was fermented by Allende before him.

Larraín’s No! Exploring the transition to Democracy 

Meanwhile in NO!, Larraín wants to expose the comical, shallow Chilean transition to democracy and illustrate how elements of Pinochet’s regime are still deeply embedded in Chile’s political culture: namely the Free Market. Larraín’s decision to use a ¾ inch Sony U-Matic magnetic tape throughout the film helps create a seamless transition between the advertisements and the plot while it’s also a symbol for the blurred and shallow transition to democracy. Chilean Political Scientist, Tomás Moulian argues that the transition to democracy was an act of “political transvestism”, arguing that the Plebiscite was performed on Pinochet’s terms and the neoliberal elements of the Constitution were never removed. Larraín demonstrates this by centring the narrative on the ad-man, René Saavedra, who insists on commodifying and selling democracy as a product to be bought and sold “like Coca-cola”. René’s signature product “happiness” which is employed to sell microwaves and democracy and the jingle “Chile, la alegría ya viene” for the ‘No’ campaign represents a darker truth that René recognises immediately; many Chileans do not want to deal with the human rights under Pinochet but want to focus on the future. 

While Allende’s presidency was plagued by rising societal tension that led to the Coup, some observers may reasonably conclude Chile is again in danger of repeating history in light of the recent 2019-2021 protests.  However, this should be viewed optimistically as another ultimate rejection of Pinochet’s legacy, specifically his constitution, by the public. Political pressure caused by the protestors meant that a Constitutional Convention is now rewriting Chile’s original constitution that has entrenched neoliberal economic reforms. This opens the door for a new constitution, where new rights to education, healthcare and a larger safety net could be legally enshrined. While Chile’s political future and the outcome of this convention are uncertain, it is clear that the spectre of Pinochet’s ghost continues to set the stage for Chilean politics well into the 21st Century.

Leave a Reply