Eduardo Frei's Christian Democracy, 1964-70

Eduardo Frei's Christian Democracy, 1964-70

After the 1965 elections gave them a majority of deputies in Congress, the Christian Democrats enacted ambitious reforms on many fronts. However, as a single-party government, they were often loath to enter into bargains, compromises, or coalitions. Consequently, rightists and leftists often opposed their congressional initiatives, especially in the Senate.

One of the major achievements of Eduardo Frei Montalva (president, 1964-70) was the "Chileanization" of copper. The government took 51 percent ownership of the mines controlled by United States companies, principally those of Anaconda and Kennecott. Critics complained that the companies received overly generous terms, invested too little in Chile, and retained too much ownership. Nevertheless, copper production rose, and Chile received a higher return from the enterprises.

Frei believed that agrarian reform was necessary to raise the standard of living of rural workers, to boost agricultural production, to expand his party's electoral base, and to defuse revolutionary potential in the countryside. Consequently, in 1967 his government promoted the right of peasants to unionize and strike. The administration also expropriated land with the intention of dividing it between collective and family farms. However, actual redistribution of land fell far short of promises and expectations. Conflict arose in the countryside between peasants eager for land and landowners frightened of losing their rights and their property.

During the tenure of the Christian Democrats, economic growth remained sluggish and inflation stayed high. Nevertheless, Frei's government improved income distribution and access to education, as enrollments rose at all levels of schooling. Under the aegis of "Popular Promotion," the Frei government organized many squatter communities and helped them build houses. This aided the PDC in its competition with the Marxists for political support in the burgeoning callampas. At the same time, Frei enacted tax reforms that made tax collection more efficient than ever before. The Christian Democrats also pushed through constitutional changes to strengthen the presidency; these changes later would be used to advantage by Allende. The PDC also revised electoral regulations, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen and giving the franchise to people who could not read (about 10 percent of the population was illiterate).

Although friendly to United States investors and government officials, the Frei administration took an independent stance in foreign affairs--more collegial with the developing nations and less hostile to the Communist bloc nations. For instance, Frei restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and most of its allies. Chile also gave strong backing to multilateral organizations, including the Latin American Free Trade Association ( LAFTA), the Andean Group, the Organization of American States ( OAS), and the United Nations. Meanwhile, aid and investment from the United States multiplied. Under Frei, Chile received more aid per capita from the United States than did any other country in Latin America.

After the two governments that followed the Christian Democrats, Chileans would look back with nostalgia on the Frei administration and its accomplishments. At the time, however, it was hounded by the right for being too reformist and by the left for being too conservative. While some on the right began forming paramilitary units to defend their property, some on the left began encouraging illegal seizures of farms, housing plots, and factories. Among the masses, the Christian Democrats raised expectations higher than they intended.

As the next presidential election approached, Frei remained personally popular, but his party's strength ebbed. With no clear winner apparent, the 1970 campaign shaped up as a rerun of 1958, with the right, center, and left all fielding their own candidates. The right hoped to recapture power and brake the pace of reform with former president Jorge Alessandri as the candidate of the National Party (Partido Nacional--PN), established in 1965 by Conservatives and Liberals. In the center, the Christian Democrats promised to accelerate reform with a progressive candidate, Radomiro Tomic Romero. The left vowed to head down the road toward socialism with Salvador Allende as its nominee for the fourth time.

Under the leadership of the Socialist Party and the PCCh, the leftist coalition of 1970 called itself Popular Unity (Unidad Popular--UP). Joining the alliance were four minor parties, including the shrunken Radical Party and defectors from the Christian Democrats, most notably the United Popular Action Movement (Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario--MAPU). The coalition was reminiscent of the Popular Front of 1936-41, except that it was led by the Marxist parties and a Marxist candidate. Further to the left, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR), a small organization headed by radicalized students, scoffed at the electoral route, called for armed struggle, and undertook direct assaults on the system, such as bank robberies.

To the surprise of most pollsters and prognosticators, Allende nosed out Alessandri 36.2 percent to 35 percent in the September 4, 1973, elections; Tomic trailed with 27.8 percent of the vote. In the cold war context of the times, the democratic election of a Marxist president sent a shock wave around the globe. The seven weeks between the counting of the ballots and the certification of the winner by Congress crackled with tension. Attempts by the United States and by right-wing groups in Chile to convince Congress to choose the runner-up Alessandri or to coax the military into staging a coup d'état failed. A botched kidnapping planned by right-wing military officers resulted in the assassination of the army commander in chief, General René Schneider Chereau, on October 22, 1970, the first major political killing in Chile since the death of Portales in 1837. That plot backfired by ensuring the armed forces' support of a constitutional assumption of power by Allende.

After extracting guarantees of adherence to democratic procedures from Allende, the Christian Democrats in Congress followed tradition and provided the votes to make the front-runner Chile's new president. Although a minority president was not unusual, one with such a drastic plan to revolutionize the nation was unique. Allende was inaugurated on November 3, 1970.

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