SANTIAGO — Years ago, Chileans resolved political differences by voting. They took pride in a tolerant spirit of give-and-take and a reputation as a Latin American bastion of democracy. But somehow political give-and-take gave way to ideological push-and-shove--and democracy died.
Now, Chile is abloom with fresh signs of democratic life. You could see them on a recent Saturday morning in Santiago.
Providencia Avenue, the Main Street for the middle class, was bursting with political activity, part of a flourishing campaign for a national plebiscite expected later this year. Horns blared and banners flapped as a motorcade inched its way forward. Young people stood up in the backs of moving pick-ups and leaned out of car windows, waving flags and filling the air with leaflets. On a corner, a throng of demonstrators raised its own banners and shouted challenges to the passing motorcade.
And nothing happened. No violence. No police intrusion. The mood was cheerful, peaceful, tolerant--as if the democratic days of old were returning.
It will not be that easy, of course. Standing between Chile and democracy are formidable barriers of disillusionment, distrust, antagonism, fear and hate. These are the troubling legacies of democratic decay and dictatorial repression.
The late Chilean democracy, four decades old before it succumbed to a military coup in 1973, is still severely criticized by both the left and right. Leftists say it was a tool of moneyed elites who made sure that it could not be used for bringing social justice to the country's poor majority. Conservatives say the old system was dominated by demagogues who twisted democracy to their own purposes--that it was weak and unable to defend itself from communist manipulation.
The Christian Democratic government of President Eduardo Frei, a centrist, began a series of social and economic reforms in 1964 under a program called "revolution in liberty." Many conservatives accused Frei of destructive tampering and dangerous rabble-rousing, while many leftists called his program an empty shell of bogus reforms. In 1970, the majority of Chilean electors voted for leftist candidates and programs.
Salvador Allende, backed by a "Popular Unity" coalition including the Communist Party and his own Marxist-oriented Socialist Party, won 36% of the votes. A rival from the left had won 28%, while a rival from the right had won 35%.
Animosities swirled and swelled from the beginning of Allende's presidency. Political tolerance and accommodation waned. Hateful rhetoric became the norm.
The central committee of Allende's Socialist Party called for the destruction of anti-Marxist private enterprise. Workers were encouraged to seize factories and farms as a prelude to government control of factory management.
"State control is designed to destroy the economic bases of imperialism and the ruling class by putting an end to the private ownership of the means of production," declared an Allende's minister of economy.
Businessmen were increasingly alarmed. In mid-1972, they organized a nationwide strike against the government's economic policies. During the strike, protesters stopped traffic on Providencia with burning barricades.
From then on, the climate of conflict and turmoil grew. Political zealots clashed frequently on the streets. An extreme right-wing group, Fatherland and Liberty, carried out a campaign of destructive bomb blasts. An extreme Marxist group, the Revolutionary Left Movement, organized armed commandos. Militant workers took control of industrial-belt neighborhoods around Santiago, replacing police with popular militias.
Meanwhile, middle-class salaries were eaten away by inflation, and shoppers were forced to wait in long lines for scarce consumer goods. Many Chileans who once prided themselves on the country's democratic ways were calling for a military coup. Among them were top leaders of the Christian Democratic Party.
When the coup came on Sept. 11, 1973, it was unexpectedly harsh and bloody. Leftists were rounded up and interrogated, often under torture. Estimates of the number killed in the coup and its aftermath range from 3,000 to 10,000. Allende supporters say he was murdered in an assault on the presidential palace; others say he committed suicide.
Since then, Gen. Augusto Pinochet has ruled Chile with the precise measure of iron intolerance needed to maintain absolute control. Last year, he permitted political parties to reorganize and opposition newspapers to open. But human rights monitors claim that arbitrary arrests and torture continue nearly 15 years after the coup.
Politicians, especially leftists and Christian Democrats, are still disdained by President Pinochet and his followers. The feeling is mutual but not exclusive. Currents of loathing also flow from Christian Democrats to Communists, Communists to other leftists and leftists to Christian Democrats. The question now is how democracy can work in an environment so heavily charged with animosity.