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The long legal ordeal of Capt. General Augusto Pinochet appeared to come to an end in July 2001, when an appeals court in Santiago decided to drop charges against the ailing, 85-year-old former dictator for human rights atrocities committed by his regime after it found that he suffered from dementia. Pinochet was accused of covering up death squad activities following his seizure of power in 1973. The case, pursued both locally and internationally by courts and rights activists alike, helped to unravel both the myth of military impunity and the structure of the undemocratic institutions he bequeathed the country upon leaving power in 1990. Meanwhile, Socialist President Ricardo Lagos faced increasing public disenchantment with his government as unemployment neared ten percent and the country's once-booming export-driven economy downshifted to much lower growth rates. In December legislative elections, Lagos's Coalition for Democracy dropped to 47.9 percent support, down from 50 percent won in similar elections four years earlier, with a pro-Pinochet party positioned to become the country's largest. Analysts said that the country's high unemployment, particularly among Chile's youth, was largely responsible for an upsurge in robberies in the country's major cities. The economic meltdown in nearby Argentina caused some concern in Santiago, but experts said that they believed that Chile's economy would continue to grow.
The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the twentieth century until the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende by the military under Pinochet. More than 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared" during his regime; some of them were pitched from aircraft into the Pacific Ocean or pushed out of helicopters over the Andes. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could reject another presidential term for Pinochet. In the 1988 vote, 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 Concertacio for Democracy, was elected president over two right-wing candidates, and the Concertacio won a majority in the chamber of deputies. However, with eight senators appointed by the outgoing military government, the coalition 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 its 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 Concertacio candidate in the December 1993 elections, and he won handily over right-wing candidate Arturo Alessandri. Frei promised to establish full civilian control over the military but did not have the needed 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 that occurred under military rule.
The senate has 48 seats, including a senator-for-life position for Pinochet and 9 designated senators mandated by the 1980 constitution. In October 1997 Frei selected the army chief of staff as Pinochet's replacement from a list of names Pinochet submitted. In December, the ruling coalition won a convincing victory in an election in which all 120 lower house and 20 of 49 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 party receiving as much as 66 percent, resulted in pro-Pinochet forces retaining their veto on constitutional reforms.
The detention of Pinochet in London in October 1998, the result of an extradition order from Spain, where he was wanted for alleged rights crimes against Spanish citizens living in Chile, 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. However, as the months of imprisonment lengthened for Pinochet in 1999, tempers subsided somewhat. A number of the general's cronies were called to 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, Lagos, 61, a moderate socialist and the leader of Chile's Concertacio 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, where 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 fueled by an 11 percent unemployment rate and concerns about crime.
Lagos won the January 16, 2000, runoff election, taking a 2.6 percent lead over Lavin. Although the Concertacio coalition had 70 seats to the opposition's 50 in the lower house, it held just 20 seats in the senate, to 18 held by the opposition. A bloc of 11 others were either senators-for-life or had been designated under Pinochet's rules. Lagos's strong early performance appeared, by late 2000, to be threatened by economic woes and transparency issues. Although Lagos had high personal popularity ratings, Chileans faulted Lagos's government for Chile's soaring unemployment, price increases, and charges of government corruption. In October 2000 municipal elections, Lavin won 61 percent of the votes against 29 percent for Marta Larraechea, Frei's wife, in the contest for the Santiago mayoralty, one of 300 that were up for grabs. Although the ruling coalition won 51.2 percent of the votes nationwide, the opposition, capitalizing on the government's inability to bring down a 10.7 percent unemployment rate, raised its number of mayoral seats to 163 from 126, out of a total of 341, and garnered 40.9 percent of the vote. In December 2000, a judge stunned Chileans by indicting Pinochet on homicide and kidnapping charges, in a year that saw the judiciary expand human rights protections by ruling that allegations of crimes against humanity, including torture, kidnapping, and genocide, fell within its purview and were not subject to amnesty decrees. As the gruesome details about crimes Pinochet either knew about or ordered were made public during the effort to bring him to justice, even his once most-fervent supporters appeared less willing to defend his legacy.
In 2001, Lagos came under friendly fire from supporters and regional neighbors alike for his decision to "modernize" Chile's air force by purchasing ten F-16 fighter planes from the United States for $714 million. Critics of the decision said that the sale would eventually upset South America's military balance and force equally cash-strapped regional governments to spend more for military hardware. The Chilean right was also locked in internecine warfare; it was revealed that contending factions had engaged in a "dirty war" in which one group had employed former secret police personnel to blackmail a senior political figure into renouncing a bid for the senate in elections held December 16, 2001. In that contest, Chileans voted for a completely new lower house and half of the 38 senate seats that were to be decided by popular vote and Pinochet supporters made big gains in the legislative elections, although they failed to win control of congress from the governing center-left coalition. At the end of 2001, Lagos appointed a new armed forces chief widely viewed as non-political, a move hailed by some analysts has heralding a new civil-military relationship in Chile.
Citizens can change their government democratically. The 2001, 2000 and 1999 elections were considered free and fair, although low registration rates among young voters are a cause for concern.
In 1990, the 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 death 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, had, before the year 2000, blocked all government efforts to lift the amnesty.
Chile's civilian governments have investigated hundreds of human rights cases involving incidents occurring after 1978 brought to civilian courts. The investigations have resulted in a handful of convictions. In June 1999, a civilian judge decided that five senior military officers--members of the so-called Caravan of Death that summarily executed 73 political prisoners in several cities--should be tried for the crimes committed in 1973. In 1999, the army commander, General Ricardo Izurieta, began a dialogue with human rights groups not only to clarify the fates of many disappeared political activists, but also to identify those military officers who had ordered their torture and death. In September 1999, 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 crimes committed were kidnappings, not murders. Thus the crimes continued beyond the 1978 deadline established by the regime and could be prosecuted. In 2001, a much-touted report issued by the military about the fate of the "disappeared"--designed to show the armed forces' desire to be part of a reconciliation with large sectors of Chilean society--proved to be misleading at best.
Chile is in the midst of a multi-year transition from a closed judiciary--driven criminal legal system to a more efficient adversarial system that allows for opposing prosecuting and defending attorneys to make arguments in open court.
In a positive development, in April 2001 a new press law was passed that was hailed by international human rights advocates as an important step in protecting freedom of expression. The law repealed the controversial Article 6 (b) of the State Security Law that criminalized what it called "contempt of authority" and mandated prison sentences for those who "insult" public officials, such as the president, the commanders in chief of the armed forces, and members of congress and the supreme court. In a decade of democratic rule, some 30 journalists, politicians, and ordinary citizens had been prosecuted under its provisions. The legislation also protects journalists from any obligation to reveal their sources and ends the power of the courts to issue gag orders on the press for reporting on controversial criminal cases. However, a number of restrictive press statutes remain on the books, including a provision that allows judges to confiscate publications.
Chile has two national police forces--a uniformed force, the Carabineros, one of Latin America's best law enforcement institutions with a long history of popular support and respect; and a smaller, plainclothes investigations force. After the September 1973 military coup, the Chilean national police were incorporated into the defense ministry. Following the return of democratic rule, the police were placed under the operational control of the interior ministry but remain under nominal control of the defense ministry. The investigations police are responsible for criminal investigations and immigration control. The 30,000-person Carabineros force is responsible for law enforcement, traffic management, narcotics suppression, border control, and counter-terrorism throughout Chile. Carabineros also conduct extensive and visible civic action duties as well, such as search and rescue, and assisting with births in rural areas. In recent years, the Carabineros' prestige has been diminished somewhat as a result of complaints about inadequate numbers of uniformed police patrolling the streets and allegations that some officers have been corrupted by the drug trade. The police are also often the targets of accusations about brutality and the lack of due process rights of detainees. In 2001, the government inaugurated, in high-crime areas, a community-based policing program that included a variety of programs meant to lower public anxiety about crime through better street lighting, information sharing and other communications devices.
Prisons in Chile are often overcrowded and antiquated, with facilities nationally running at about 163 percent of capacity.
Workers may form unions without prior authorization as well as join existing unions. Approximately 12 percent of Chile's 5.7 million workers belong to unions. Private sector employees have the right to strike, but the government regulates that right and some restrictions apply. Public employees belonging largely to services considered to be essential for the public welfare are prohibited from striking, although in the past job actions have occurred.
Corruption among officials and senior law enforcement personnel is not a major problem. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index consistently ranks Chile in the top 20th percentile among the nations of the world for transparency in doing the public's business, close to the United States and way ahead of its South American neighbors. Allegations of official corruption in Chile are normally investigated--although much less so in the military--and, where appropriate, sanctions are meted out. Because of its growing size, relative sophistication, and antiquated laws, Chile's financial system is vulnerable to money laundering, although narcotics corruption is not a serious issue affecting Chile. Current laws do not mandate the reporting of either suspicious or high-value transactions, nor has Chile established a distinct governmental organization to undertake financial intelligence analysis.
Native American groups in the country's southern region are increasingly vocal about their rights to ancestral lands that the government and private industry seek to develop. Chile has some 1.2 million indigenous people, almost ten percent of the country's total population, two-thirds 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," an allusion to Mexico's trouble southern state. Upon taking office, President Ricardo Lagos began to make good on a campaign promise that the "Indian question" would receive priority attention. In May 2000, he announced the creation of a "historical truth and new deal commission" to consider the needs of Mapuche communities. He also announced that the Mapuche will be given 370,000 acres of government-owned land. In July 2001, one of the largest Mapuche demonstrations was held in the regional capital of Temuco, to protest against a raid at an Indian organization headquarters. The several hundred demonstrators clashed with police, damaged storefronts, and set up roadblocks.
In 2000, Lagos appointed five women to his 16-person cabinet. Violence and discrimination against women and violence against children remain problems.