Skidmore College

Chile Shows All Democracies Bend, Not All Break by Austin Albertson @ Skidmore College

Despite the youth of its democracy, the Chilean government consistently scores highly with third-party rating groups like Freedom House and The Economist Intelligence Unit.  Like many South American governments, Chile was operated by a militaristic dictator during the 70’s and 80’s.  It was in 1989 when authoritarian leader Augusto Pinochet was deposed, and a new democracy and constitution was drafted and implemented shortly thereafter.  Interestingly, Pinochet served as interim president for 8 years, which is uncharacteristic of many democratizing governments.  From 1989 until now, Chile has consistently expanded its citizens’ civil liberties and political rights, culminating in their Freedom House score of 95 out of 100.

That is not to say that Chile has not experienced cases where some those rights were called into question.  The primary example of this is the student protests of 2011-2013.  Pushing for increased education spending from the government, and ultimately free public college, students all around Chile peacefully protested to urge their government to hear their requests.  The protests themselves would not have had any impact on the state of Chile’s democracy, but the Chilean police force called the Carabineros responded harshly to the protests.  The violent response to the peaceful protest spurred more frequent and more fervent protests around the country.

Another point of uncertainty came when several Chilean government officials were connected to corrupt campaign finance.  Consistently ranked as the least corrupt South American government, it was surprising to see this occur in a country which had been able to avoid it, at least being discovered, for so long.  While not trampling on any civil liberties, it did call into question the legitimacy of some elections.  The negative impacts of this on a democracy’s effectiveness go without saying, as the entire system of governing depends on the bond of trust between the government and voters.

The final case of anti-democratic action has been the treatment of the indigenous Mapuche tribe.  Located in the southern region, near the famed Patagonia area, the tribe had repeatedly faced economic and social strife, and has constantly sparred with the Chilean government on many issues, including their independence.  Similar to the student protests in 2011-13, the Mapuche staged numerous peaceful protests which were also met harshly by the Carabineros.  In this case, however, it does not end there.  The Chilean government also employed Pinochet-era anti-terrorism tactics to prosecute protestors.  These tactics included anonymous witness testimonies and pretrial detention, all of which were of questionable integrity, and opened up a sore spot in Chilean politics, as the cloud Pinochet’s reign is still present in many Chileans’ political beliefs.

The silver lining to many of these issues, and ultimately the thesis of this post, is that they were solved.  All democracies face issues similar to these were rights are infringed upon, or the government acts contrary to the standard with which the public holds them. The key differential is that these governments do not “break”, or continue to transgress against the public it swears to protect, to the point where democracy is no longer an appropriate description of the regime.  In Chile’s case, the requests made by the student protests for expanded education spending was responded to, and a surplus of spending and reduced interest rates on student loans followed.  This shows democratic health in two forms: the public holding their officials accountable, and the officials responding properly to the requests of their constituents. Ideally there would be no protests or harsh responses, but that is not always the nature of democracy, hence the “bend” portion of the phrase.  In the case of the corruption scandals, increased legislation was passed to close the loopholes which were previously taken advantage of, and other measures were taken to ensure further corruption did not occur.

The issue concerning the Mapuche tribe is still ongoing in some ways.  The prior transgressions, such as the immoral prosecuting techniques and harsh treatment, have been righted, but the tense relationship between the Mapuche and the Chilean government still exists, and perhaps always will, at least as long as the Mapuche’s ultimate goal is independence.  Recent attention has been paid to the former Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia, and more specifically its sovereign Orelie De Tounens.  Somewhat scrubbed from Chilean history books, recent authors have begun to pay more attention to the quizzical figure, specifically those of Mapuche descent.  The legacy of this kingdom and its ruler has been passed down even to this day.  Even though De Tounens died without any children, he passed on his name as King Antoine through close friends, and according to The Guardian, King Antoine IV became the eighth King of Araucania and Patagonia to die in Europe, as De Tounens was eventually exiled and fled to France.  The new spotlight on this Kingdom has also brought increased recognition to the Mapuche, adding to their push for independence and the restoration of their ancestral lands, and furthering contention between the indigenous peoples and the Chilean government.

Nevertheless, the Chilean government remains exceedingly free, granting numerous rights and liberties to its citizens, achieving Freedom House scores rivaling those of the world’s foremost democracies, such as the USA, France, and the United Kingdom.  The issues it faces with the Mapuche and others occur in all democracies, in various forms and at various times.  The importance is the handling of the problems, and whether rights and liberties are expanded as a result, or further reduced.  Ultimately, these continual cases of democratic slips serve as a reminder of the imperfections of democracy, but also emphasizes its necessity for cultivating a society which celebrates freedom.



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1 Comment

  1. Jake Hempel

    May 1, 2018 at 9:42 am

    This post does a good job of highlighting some of the most evident democratic backsliding factors in Chile in the modern political realm, and provides solutions as to how the issues were solved and how they affected democracy as a whole. I agree with you that democracies can sometimes bend and not break, but I think you described bending as a non-issue. To me, reading the section about corrupt government funding and that it was not a break in democracy because it was solved is slightly troubling. That is to say that governments could silence the voices of their constituents, but as long as they stop eventually it’s not really backsliding? I think there are definitely more examples that would fit your thesis, but it also forms an idea that dips in democracy are okay and not regular, which are two different things.

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