The Crisis of 1982 and the Erosion of Military Rule

The Crisis of 1982 and the Erosion of Military Rule

From 1982 to 1990, Chile underwent a prolonged journey back to democracy. During that process, the country experienced five crucial changes. First, the economic collapse in 1982 provoked some adjustments to the neoliberal model and sparked widespread protests against the regime. That recession was compounded by the international debt crisis.

Second, although most of the regime's supporters in the business community and the armed forces held fast, the 1980s witnessed a weakening of their attachment to authoritarianism and a few defections from their ranks. Third, civil society became emboldened. A series of demonstrations against Pinochet during 1983-85 spread from organized labor to the middle class and finally ended up concentrated among the residents of the urban shantytowns. Fourth, the previously repressed and dormant political parties came back to life. They took charge during the 1988 plebiscite that effectively ended the Pinochet regime and the subsequent 1989 elections for president and Congress. Fifth, after being surrounded by like-minded dictators in South America, Pinochet became isolated as a tide of democratization swept the continent, and the United States and Europe began applying pressure for Chile to join the trend.

In sum, from its apogee in the 1980 plebiscite to its exit in 1990, the authoritarian regime lost support and saw its opponents gain momentum and eventually power. During its first decade, however, the dictatorship had brought about profound and seemingly durable changes. Politically, it had pulverized the revolutionary Marxist left. Economically, it had moved Chile's focus from the state to the market. Socially, it had fostered a new emphasis on individualism and consumerism, widening the gap between rich and poor, even while helping some of the most destitute. What it had failed to do was to extirpate the preference of most Chileans for democracy.

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