Chile | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Chile's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to President Ricardo Lagos's adroit handling of Chile's still thorny civil-military relationship.


Despite a slowing economy and opposition from within Chile's powerful business class, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos maintained high public approval ratings throughout 2002, as a result, in part, of his firmness in dealing with thorny issues ranging from strikes by bus drivers to civilian control of the military. Adroit maneuvering by Lagos resulted in the resignation of the head of the air force after the service's senior officer was accused of hiding details about human rights abuses during the dictatorship of Capt. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The affair allowed Lagos to reopen contentious constitutional issues concerning civilian primacy over the armed forces and came amidst a series of court actions against military human rights offenders. In July, however, the Chilean Supreme Court effectively ended efforts to hold Pinochet accountable for human rights abuses by ruling that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

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. An estimated 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared" during his regime. 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 8 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 Concertacion for Democracy, was elected president and the Concertacion 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, carried his Concertacion candidacy to an easy victory in December 1993 elections, defeating right-wing candidate Arturo Alessandri. Frei promised to establish full civilian control over the military, but he found he lacked the votes in congress, as the 48-seat Senate included a senator-for-life position for Pinochet and 9 designated senators mandated by the 1980 constitution. Frei also was forced to retreat on his call for full accountability for rights violations that occurred under military rule.

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 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, at first produced a strong political polarization in Chile. His continued imprisonment, however, was viewed as a reaffirmation of the rule of law, albeit due to foreign intervention.

On December 12, 1999, Lagos, a moderate Concertacion socialist, 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.

Lagos won the January 16, 2000, runoff election, taking a 2.6 percent lead over Lavin. Although the Concertacion 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 soaring unemployment, price increases, and charges of government corruption. In October 2000 municipal elections, Lavin won 61 percent of the votes in the contest for the Santiago mayoralty. Although the ruling coalition won 51.2 percent of the votes nationwide, the opposition raised the number of its 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 indicted Pinochet on homicide and kidnapping charges, in a year that saw the judiciary rule that allegations of crimes against humanity, including torture, kidnapping, and genocide, fell within its purview and were not subject to amnesty decrees. In July 2001, an appeals court in Santiago dropped the charges against Pinochet after it found that he suffered from dementia. In 2001, a much-touted report by the military about the fate of the "disappeared"--meant to show its desire to be part of a reconciliation with Chilean society--proved to be misleading at best.

In 2001 the Chilean right was 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 were decided by popular vote. Pinochet supporters made big gains in the legislative elections, although they failed to win control of congress from the governing center-left coalition.

In September 2002, the family of a constitutionalist Chilean military commander murdered in a botched 1971 kidnap attempt sued former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former CIA Director Richard Helms of orchestrating the covert activities that led to his death. Helms died of natural causes the next month.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. Since the return of democracy, hundreds of cases of human rights violations have been brought to civilian courts, and there were an increasing number of convictions. In August 2002, in a positive development, 12 people who served as officers under Pinochet, including four generals, were sentenced to prison terms for the 1982 killing of a prominent labor leader. In October, a judge indicted six current and retired army officers, including two generals, for the 1993 slaying in Uruguay of a chemist and assassin who worked for Pinochet's intelligence service.

Chilean media generally operate without constraint, although some Pinochet-era laws remain in effect and some self-censorship continues. Nevertheless, on October 30, 2002, the Senate approved a bill that will eliminate censorship of films in Chile.

Chile has two national police forces--a uniformed force, the Carabineros, one of Latin America's best law enforcement institutions with a history of popular support and respect and a smaller, plainclothes investigations force. In recent years, the Carabineros have been the subject of complaints about the inadequate number of uniformed police patrolling the streets and allegations of increasing narcotics-related corruption. Police brutality and the lack of due process rights for detainees are also alleged. Prisons in Chile are 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. 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, more than 10 percent of the country's total population, two-thirds of them Mapuches. 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 2000, Lagos appointed five women to his 16-person cabinet. The Chilean defense minister, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, is the daughter of a Chilean general tortured to death for his opposition to the 1973 coup. Violence and discrimination against women and violence against children remain problems.