1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2

Ratings Change

Chile's political rights rating changed from 3 to 2 due to free and fair presidential elections held in 1999 and a decrease in overt military tutelage over the country's democratic institutions.


A photo-finish between presidential candidates from the left and the right in December 1999 elections meant neither candidate won sufficient support to avoid a January 16, 2000 runoff election to succeed President Eduardo Frei, who will step down on March 11 at the end of his six-year term. The continued house arrest in England of General Augusto Pinochet, who is awaiting extradition to Spain to answer charges of human rights abuse, actually helped the rightist candidate to escape from the shadow of the aging dictator, his former boss. Meanwhile the Chilean courts began to move against some of Pinochet's erstwhile uniformed allies for their role in the political repression that left some 3,000 dead in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in this century until the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende by the military under Pinochet. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could reject another presidential term for Pinochet. In 1988, 55 percent of voters said no to eight more years of military rule, and competitive presidential and legislative elections were scheduled for 1989.

In 1989 Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, the candidate of the center-left Concertación for Democracy, was elected president over two right-wing candidates, and the Concertación won a majority in the chamber of deputies. But with eight senators appointed by the outgoing military government, it fell short of a senate majority. Aylwin's government was unsuccessful in its efforts to reform the constitution and was stymied by a right-wing senate bloc in it efforts to prevent Pinochet and other military chiefs from remaining at their posts until 1997.

Eduardo Frei, a businessman and the son of a former president, was the Concertación candidate in the December 1993 elections and won handily over right-wing candidate Arturo Alessandri. Frei promised to establish full civilian control over the military but also did not have the votes in congress. In 1995, the military defiance of a supreme court ruling that Pinochet's secret police chief be jailed for the 1976 murder of an exiled opposition leader in Washington, D.C., finally ceased, and the army general was imprisoned. However, Frei had to retreat from demanding full accountability for rights violations under military rule.

The senate has 48 seats, including a "senator-for-life" position for Pinochet when he retires and 9 designated senators mandated by the 1980. In October 1997 Frei selected the army chief of staff as Pinochet's replacement – from a list of names submitted by the 82-year-old general. In December, the ruling coalition won a convincing victory in an election in which all 120 lower house and 20 senate seats were open. However, the binomial electoral system, which allows a party receiving only 33 percent of the votes to share power in two-seat constituencies with a parties receiving as much as 66 percent, resulted in pro-Pinochet forces retaining their veto on constitutional reforms.

Pinochet's detention produced a strong political polarization in Chile and resulted in several emergency meetings called by the new leadership of the armed forces, as well as a reunion of the National Security Council. The country, said one top general, was "in a critical situation." However, as the months of imprisonment lengthened for Pinochet in 1999, tempers subsided somewhat. A number of the generals' cronies were called into account by the courts for their own repressive roles, while the current armed forces sought a dialogue with rights groups and relatives of the missing.

On December 12, 1999, Ricardo Lagos, 61, a moderate socialist and the leader of the Concertación coalition, faced right-wing Alliance for Chile candidate Joaquin Lavin, the mayor of a Santiago suburb and a former advisor to Pinochet, winning 47.96 percent to Lavin's 47.52 percent. Both candidates, however, fell short of the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in a first round, whose results showed a strong polarization between right and left. Lavin's strong showing – historically the right never received more than 40 percent of the votes – was bolstered by an 11 percent unemployment rate and concerns about crime.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government democratically. The 1999 national elections were considered to be free and fair, although low registration rates among young voters are a cause for concern. The Pinochet extradition crisis showed that Chile's democratic transition remains incomplete and requires constitutional reforms to ensure civilian control of the military. Failure to eliminate some of the most egregious features – such as nine appointed senators, four named by the military – of the 1980 constitution imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship heightened the sense of emergency sparked by the retired general's October 1998 detention in London. Since Pinochet's arrest, however, some 40 officers have been arrested on charges of murder, torture, and kidnapping. And in 1999, Frei, making use of his constitutional prerogatives, announced that, barring a constitutional reform, he would join Pinochet as a senator-for-life.

In 1990, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to investigate rights violations committed under military rule. Its report implicated the military and secret police leadership in the deaths or forcible disappearance of 2,279 people between September 1973 and March 1990. However, in 1978, the Pinochet regime had issued an amnesty for all political crimes, and the supreme court, packed by Pinochet before leaving office, has blocked all government efforts to lift it.

The amnesty has not stopped civilian governments from investigating rights cases. Hundreds of cases involving incidents after 1978 have been brought to civilian courts, resulting in a handful of convictions. In late 1995, however, the aging supreme court, possibly under pressure from the military, began dismissing dozens of cases with alacrity and without the inquests required by law. On a positive note, in June 1999, a civilian judge decided that five senior military officers – members of the so-called Caravan of Death that summarily executed 72 political prisoners in several cities – should be tried for the crimes committed in 1973. The army commander, General Ricardo Izurieta, has also begun a dialogue with human rights groups that may help not only to clarify the fates of many disappeared political activists, but also to identify those military officers who ordered their torture and death. In September, the supreme court ratified a lower court ruling that the amnesty declared by Pinochet's regime was not applicable to cases in which people disappeared, because the absence of the victims' bodies meant the crime committed was kidnapping, not murder. Thus the crimes committed continued beyond the 1978 deadline established by the regime.

In Chile, military courts can bring charges against civilians for sedition, which is defined as any comment that may affect the morale of the armed forces or police. As the offended party is the armed forces, the military tribunal plays the role of victim, prosecutor, and judge. Physical abuse of prisoners, particularly by the Carabinero uniformed police, remains a problem.

Most laws limiting political expression and civil liberties were eliminated by constitutional reforms in 1989. However, a 1958 State Security Law punishes those who "defame, libel, or calumniate" the president, government ministers, parliamentarians, senior judges, and the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces. In January 1998 two journalists were jailed overnight for saying that a former supreme court justice facing allegations of narcotics-related corruption and two impeachment motions was "old, ugly, and had a murky past."

Scores of publications present all points of view, although self-censorship regarding Chile's recent political history is widespread. (For example, following a landmark January 1998 decision by a Chilean judge to launch a criminal investigation over Pinochet's presumed role in mass killings, Chilean newspapers buried the story in their inside pages.) Radio is both pubic and private. The national television network is state-run, but open to all political voices. However, certain movies have been banned. In 1999, a Chilean judge ordered the immediate confiscation of all copies of The Black Book of Chilean Justice, a well-researched exposé of corruption in the judiciary. Its author, journalist Alejandra Matus, was forced to flee to the United States.

Chile has a strong trade union movement. Government corruption is comparatively minor, when compared to other governments in the region, although military graft has been allowed to remain uninvestigated. Chile has around one million indigenous people, nearly all of them Mapuches. A 1993 indigenous rights law guaranteed that Indian lands could not be embargoed, sold, expropriated, or taxed. New development projects, promoted by the government, continue to threaten Mapuche lands in the south of Chile, where highly charged land disputes have resulted in the region's being dubbed the country's "little Chiapas." The appointment of a non-Native American to head the government's Indian development agency was viewed by Mapuches as emblematic of the agency's failure to protect them. In 1999, Indian rights groups, which have few ties to traditional political parties, became increasingly radicalized in the face of government inaction.

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