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The October 2004 municipal elections, in which results favored the governing Concertacion coalition, were regarded as an important gauge for the forthcoming 2005 presidential vote. Meanwhile, the remnants of former dictator Augusto Pinochet's military regime were diminished further with the lifting of his immunity from prosecution for his role in mass murders committed in the 1970s, the restoration of the president's right to fire his military commanders, and the discovery of secret bank accounts held by Pinochet.
The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the twentieth century until the 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende by the military under General 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 eight more years of military rule, and competitive presidential and legislative elections were scheduled for the following year.
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 the December 1993 elections. 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 was also forced to retreat on his call for full accountability for rights violations that had occurred under military rule.
The October 1998 detention of Pinochet in London as the result of an extradition order from Spain, where he was wanted for alleged rights crimes against Spanish citizens living in Chile, was viewed as a reaffirmation of the rule of law, even though it was the result of foreign intervention.
In the December 1999 presidential election, Ricardo Lagos, a moderate 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; Lagos won the January 16, 2000, runoff vote. 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 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 December legislative elections, Pinochet supporters made big gains, although they failed to win control of congress from the governing center-left coalition.
Political corruption scandals dominated the headlines in 2003 in Chile, a country long viewed as a regional leader in clean government and transparency. Incidents of influence peddling, insider trading, and kickbacks resulted in the head of the central bank and two cabinet members - one a presidential confidant - leaving their jobs. Dozens of lower-ranking officials and several members of congress from the ruling coalition were indicted. In response to the corruption scandals, Lagos forged a working alliance with the opposition's strongest party, the Union Democrata Independiente, to push for reforms to eliminate what he said were the causes of the high-profile cases.
In July 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that Pinochet was unfit to undergo trial in the infamous "Caravan of Death" case involving the murder of 57 political prisoners following the 1973 coup. A week later, Pinochet resigned his honorary lifetime seat in the Senate.
In the October 31, 2004 municipal elections, the Concertacion coalition secured 45 percent of the vote, compared to the Alliance for Chile coalition, which captured 39 percent. More than a referendum on Lagos' government, the results of the elections were seen by many observers as an indication of the chances of the country's right wing to return to power in the December 2005 presidential contest after 15 years in the opposition. Although Concertacion has won a majority of votes in every municipal, congressional, and presidential election since the 1988 plebiscite, Alliance has gained increasing support, especially after divorcing itself from Pinochet and his regime's legacy of massive rights abuses. Lagos's continued popularity in 2004 was due largely to his deft handling of Chile's civil-military divide and the fact that the country continued to enjoy the longest period of economic growth in its history, the result in part of the state's involvement in the free-market economy. A multiparty agreement to undo what remains of the authoritarian elements of Pinochet's constitution appeared to allow Lagos the chance to claim that he had redeemed his campaign pledge to usher in "a constitution that passes the full test of democracy."
Facing possible prosecution for massive human rights crimes committed under his regime, Pinochet found he also had to fight a judicial rearguard action after it was revealed in July by a U.S. congressional committee that the former dictator had up to $8 million in personal funds stashed in secret accounts in the Riggs Bank of Washington, D.C. The Chilean Chamber of Deputies initiated an investigation about the possible illegal origin of the secret fortune and the Internal Tax Service filed a criminal complaint against him for failing to report the funds. The very fact of their existence appeared to finally cause Chilean conservatives - and even the head of the Chilean army - to distance themselves from Pinochet. His legal situation also worsened in August, when the Supreme Court ruled that Pinochet was not immune from prosecution for his role in mass murders carried out by Operation Condor, a secret framework for mutual cooperation against dissidents between six South American military dictatorships in the 1970s. In October, the Senate largely repealed the last vestiges of Pinochet's legacy, moving to abolish authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch and agreeing to restore the president's right to remove the commanders in chief of the country's armed services.
Citizens of Chile can change their government democratically. The 1999, 2000, and 2001 elections were considered free and fair, although low registration rates among young voters are a cause for concern. In 2004, a report from the Chilean Youth Institute said that the registry of young Chileans in the country's electoral rolls dropped by 50 percent between 1997 and 2003.
In response to public outcry over the political corruption scandals, congress passed laws in 2003 to prevent political patronage in high-level civil service jobs, increase government workers' salaries to reduce their susceptibility to bribes, create public funding for political campaigns, and require private campaign contributors names to be listed publicly. Chile was ranked 20 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Chilean media generally operate without constraint, although some Pinochet-era laws, such as the anti-defamation statutes, remain in effect and some self-censorship continues. Chile has no law guaranteeing access to public information. In August, the director of the government-owned daily La Nacion was fired, apparently because of his paper's coverage of a pedophile scandal in which senior figures in both ruling and opposition parties were implicated.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The right to assemble peacefully is largely respected, although police occasionally use force against demonstrators. The constitution guarantees the right of association, which the government has also generally respected. 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. In October, a violent government crackdown on dock workers - in which navy troops attacked picketing union members - led to the temporary closure of nine Chilean ports.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respects this provision in practice. Most sitting judges come from the career judiciary, and all judges are appointed for life. The constitution provides for the right to legal counsel, but indigent defendants, who account for the majority of the cases in the Santiago region, have not always received effective legal representation.
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. However, 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. Continued problems exist with police use of excessive force against demonstrators, brutality, and the lack of due process rights for detainees. In 2001, courses in human rights became part of the core curriculum in police academies for both rank-and-file police and officers, and similar courses were introduced at the academy for prison guards and officials. Prisons are overcrowded and antiquated, with facilities nationally running at about 163 percent of capacity.
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. Chilean courts have recently convicted several former military officers of heinous crimes, ruling that a 1978 amnesty decree set down by the Pinochet government was inapplicable to cases of enforced disappearance, which, they have held, is an ongoing crime. More than 200 former and serving military members now face trial. At the same time, the army, the military branch most implicated in rights crimes, has extended limited cooperation to judicial investigations. In mid-2003, President Ricardo Lagos announced a series of measures relating to the criminal prosecution of former members of the military - including transfer of human rights cases currently under review in military tribunals to the jurisdiction of the civilian court system - and to reparations for victims of past rights crimes and their relatives. In 2004, army commander General Juan Emilio Cheyre, who previously had made speeches distancing the institution from the military regime, claimed that the country's political class "still owes a debt" to the country's armed forces - a position challenged even by the head of the Chilean air force.
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, two-thirds of them Mapuches. Upon taking office, Lagos began to make good on a campaign promise that the "Indian question" would receive priority attention. In October 2003, Lagos proposed constitutional recognition for the country's indigenous peoples.
Violence and discrimination against women and violence against children remain problems. In March, congress passed a law that legalized divorce; Chile had been one of only a handful of countries in the world, and the only one in the Americas, to prohibit divorce. In 2000, Lagos appointed five women to his 16-person cabinet. One, Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet Jeria, is the daughter of a Chilean general tortured to death for his opposition to the 1973 coup. In late 2004, polls showed that Bachelet, who had resigned from the cabinet in September, appeared to have the greatest chances of becoming the ruling coalition's candidate for the December 2005 presidential election.