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Around midnight on October 5, 1988, the commanders of Chile's air force, navy, and national police entered La Moneda. They had received a summons from General Pinochet, who had just lost a one-man presidential plebiscite, in which Chileans had been asked to approve an eightyear extension of his regime. But there had been no official announcement, and the partial returns broadcast on Chile's controlled television channels suggested that Pinochet was winning. The three military commanders did not believe these reports.
Outside La Moneda, the streets of the Chilean capital were subdued and tense. Two buses belonging to the paramilitary police, the carabineros, were parked outside the palace and near the defense ministry one block away. Another carabinero bus was stationed near the headquarters of the Comando del No, a multipartisan coalition that had campaigned for a vote against Pinochet. Tear gas trucks had been positioned at major intersections, but there were few pedestrians, let alone demonstrators, anywhere to be seen. Leaders of the Comando del No had urged their supporters to vote, then to go home and stay indoors the rest of the day.
The junta had serious misgivings about Pinochet as a presidential candidate, believing that a conservative civilian might have a better chance of winning. In the months leading up to the vote, Pinochet had traveled extensively up and down Chile's narrow territory, ostensibly on government business but actually to campaign for his own reelection, even before the junta had officially nominated him. His secret police, the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI), had even organized a political party, the Avanzada Nacional. The group attracted few adherents other than those with ties to the military, but they appeared wherever Pinochet did, cheering, waving Chilean flags, and holding up banners. And the country's state-controlled television stations were careful to avoid images filmed from a distance that might expose the limited extent of Avanzada Nacional's membership.
During one such tour Pinochet claimed to have narrowly avoided an assassination plot when explosives were discovered at an airport where he was scheduled to land. He had canceled the visit the previous day, claiming he had a premonition that something was amiss, and the episode appeared to have been staged to boost his popularity. At times during his campaign Pinochet appeared in civilian dress, but he had no intention of ever giving up his role as head of the Chilean army.
According to air force commander General Fernando Matthei, the junta members had insisted that if Pinochet was going to prolong his presidency for another eight years, he should do so as a civilian and retire from his post as army commander. It was their role to nominate the regime's candidate on August 30, 1988, and they informed Pinochet they would only do so if he agreed to this condition. The dictator seemed to agree, saying he would announce his departure from the army in a speech on September 11, the anniversary of the coup that brought the regime to power. But Pinochet's speech that day contained no such announcement.
"That old gangster, he didn't say a word about this," Matthei said. And relations between Pinochet and the other service commanders cooled considerably in the weeks leading up to the vote, which Pinochet believed he would win. The Chilean economy had recovered from the severe slump it had suffered during the early 1980s, when low copper prices and high foreign debt gave way to mass protests against the regime. The country's gross internal product was growing by 7.3 percent that year, up from 6.6 percent the previous year, and most economic indicators seemed to augur well for Chile.
Pollsters, however, were detecting a different mood. One conservative research group, the Centro de Estudios Públicos, had taken a poll in June of that year and found that only 14 percent of those surveyed described their economic situation as good, with 56 percent reporting it was average and 30 percent describing it as bad or very bad. A quarter of respondents said they were worse off than they had been a year earlier. And most important, only 33 percent said they would vote for Pinochet if he were the regime's candidate in the forthcoming plebiscite, while 37 percent said they would not.
After seizing power in 1973, the regime had declared an indefinite "political recess," closing the Chilean congress and unleashing a campaign of arrest, torture, and imprisonment against the left-wing political groups supporting the Allende government. Thousands of Chileans sought political asylum abroad, fleeing to Europe, the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, Australia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. The Christian Democrats, Chile's largest political party, also became a target of persecution, with some of its leaders forced into exile and at least one the victim of an assassination attempt in Rome.
But Chile's political parties survived, with the help of their foreign counterparts, such as Europe's Socialist and Christian Democratic Parties. Within Chile, political party leaders often met under the cover of large social events, such as baptisms and weddings. Rafael Moreno, a Christian Democrat charged with clandestinely reorganizing his party in the mid-seventies, said that he and his colleagues quickly learned how to elude the security forces' surveillance and listening devices. "We had some of our best meetings in the bathroom, with the shower running," he recalled. The shared experience of persecution probably helped to ease long-standing rivalries and tensions among Chile's left and political center and to pave the way for the sixteen-party coalition that formed in early 1988 to campaign for a "no" vote in the regime's one-man presidential plebiscite. The coalition's ideological range extended from Salvador Allende's Socialist Party (which had split up into three differing factions) to the moderate wing of the National Party, which traditionally represented landowners and other conservatives. The bitter political disputes leading up to the 1973 military coup were now replaced by a well-organized, purposeful drive to bring democracy back to Chile. Led by Christian Democratic Party president Patricio Aylwin, the coalition began with a voter registration drive, followed by a grassroots campaign to urge voters to cast "no" ballots.
Chile's electoral registry had been destroyed during the coup. The regime's two previous plebiscites—one in 1978 to support Pinochet in the wake of a United Nations condemnation of the regime's human rights record and another in 1980 to ratify the new, authoritarian constitution and to extend Pinochet's presidency for eight more years—had been held without lists of registered voters or electoral safeguards and, as was inevitable, showed a majority of votes cast in favor of the regime. But this third plebiscite would be different, with voter registration beginning several months earlier. Approximately 7.4 million Chileans, over 90 percent of eligible voters, had registered. Political parties could finally be officially recognized, if they gathered at least 33,500 signatures. And every political party was entitled to have observers at polling stations watching the voting and the counting of ballots. These provisions, along with the hundreds of foreign observers arriving in the country, convinced most political leaders that the voting process itself would be clean. But how would Pinochet react to an electoral defeat?
There were fears that Pinochet might use any available pretext to overturn the plebiscite, including sabotage by his own security forces. Two weeks earlier the director of the CNI had met with the intelligence chiefs of the Chilean navy, air force, and carabineros. He described Pinochet's plan for the day of the plebiscite "in case something goes wrong." Between five and six in the afternoon the voting would be interrupted, all the country's television and radio stations would be connected to a government broadcasting system, and a state of siege would be declared. Upon hearing this news, air force commander General Fernando Matthei called his naval counterpart, who told him he had received the same report. The service commanders then requested a meeting with Pinochet.
The meeting was held over lunch on September 27. The head of the carabinero police, General Rodolfo Stange, told Pinochet that the reports he had received showed that in several major Chilean cities, a majority of voters would be casting "no" ballots. Pinochet seemed surprised at this news and began taking notes and muttering that he was not going to leave. The other service commanders reminded him that the country's constitution must be respected, but then Pinochet repeated what the CNI director had previously stated: "If 'something goes wrong' he would give orders to send troops out into the streets, to set up a national broadcasting system, and request a state of siege.... Our reaction was silence."
Five days before, the plebiscite leaders of Civitas, a nonpartisan voter education program, had met with the army general commanding Santiago's military zone to discuss security protection for their offices on voting day. General Jorge Zincke was initially cordial but then began warning the civic leaders about "a communist plot" to disrupt the voting process: there would be various types of explosions and other terrorist incidents, goon squads would attack polling sites, massive power outages would take place, and the army would use tear gas and rubber bullets to break up any crowds that failed to disperse. The army, Zinke said, did not have the manpower to protect electrical towers but did have candles and matches to allow the election boards to do their work. The general's relaxed demeanor convinced the Civitas leaders that he was actually talking about a Chilean army plan to sabotage the plebiscite, not a plan by communists. They reported their conversation with Zincke to U.S. ambassador Harry Barnes, who sent an urgent cable to the State Department saying the embassy "took this information extremely seriously and urge[d] Washington to do so as well." This incident, along with two suspicious blackouts, prompted the U.S. State Department to call a meeting with Chile's ambassador in Washington, D.C., and to issue a statement requesting that the vote be respected.
Young campaigners for a "no" vote had reported numerous instances of police confiscating their identity cards, thus preventing them from voting, and a pile of around five hundred Chilean identity cards, torn into pieces, had been discovered in a hillside park in downtown Santiago. Opposition leaders had received reports that two carabinero buses had mysteriously disappeared from police installations, which looked like part of a plan to provoke disturbances in poor neighborhoods of Santiago. "We met with General Stange, who told us he had the same reports," recalled Ricardo Lagos, a socialist who would later become Chile's president in 2000. "He told us he had ordered that the roofs of all carabinero buses be painted with reflective paint, so as to be visible from the air. We never did find out exactly what was going on."
On the eve of the vote, Pinochet invited the junta members back to La Moneda and showed them the vote tally computers installed in the palace basement. This system, an army colonel explained, would allow a rapid computation of voting returns as soon as they were reported, and he predicted that a likely outcome would be available as early as one hour after the first voting tables closed. The returns from every voting site would be monitored by officials, regime supporters, opposition activists, and hundreds of foreign observers throughout the country. The Comando del No and Chilean political parties would keep their own vote tally, but the only official returns would be announced from La Moneda.
On the day of the plebiscite the offices of Generals Matthei and Stange and Admiral Jose Merino were connected with the computers in La Moneda's basement. The service commanders watched the returns come in and heard reports that the Comando del No was expecting a victory based on their own estimates, but then at 7:00 p.m. their connections were cut off without warning. Repeated phone calls to La Moneda yielded only vague or evasive answers even as the first official announcement on national television reported that with a miniscule fraction—0.36 percent —of the votes counted, Pinochet was ahead with 57 percent. Another bulletin was promised by 9:30 p.m., but this was delayed by an hour, causing speculation that officials were tinkering with the results. What had happened to the efficient computing system?
At 10:30 p.m. the regime released a second set of very partial returns, showing Pinochet ahead by 51.3 percent. A government spokesman promised a third announcement within an hour, but as midnight approached, there were no more official bulletins. The regime, according to a cable sent by the U.S. embassy that evening, "is obviously sitting on the results and releasing them very slowly."
Meanwhile, leaders at the Casa del Si, Pinochet's campaign headquarters, were asking that they be allowed to celebrate this "victory" with a public demonstration in the center of the capital, though a ban on mass gatherings was in effect. Such actions would invariably spark counter demonstrations from "no" vote supporters, lending the regime a convenient pretext for launching a crackdown and suspending the plebiscite. General Stange refused this request and threw a police cordon around a twenty-block area of downtown Santiago, blocking the entry of any vehicles. Carabineros also arrested a group of men wearing balaclava helmets, who turned out to be agents of the CNI, and refused to release them. The army general commanding the Santiago garrison also refused the Pinochet campaigners' request that the ban be lifted.
Admiral José Merino was preparing to go home when the summons finally came from Pinochet. As the three service commanders arrived at the presidential palace, air force commander Matthei detoured away from his colleagues and did something that would forever earn him the opprobrium of Pinochet and his hard-line supporters. It was time to "pull out the detonators," as he later described situation. He approached a group of reporters standing in the palace's inner patio, waiting for news.
"It looks to me like the 'no' won," Matthei told the press. "And we are going to analyze this now." As the journalists scrambled to report this official acknowledgment of the regime's loss, the junta members descended to Pinochet's bunker underneath the presidential palace. The dictator, dressed in a suit and tie, appeared calm, but his volcanic temper would soon manifest itself. He was accompanied by his interior minister and another army general who acted as chief of his cabinet. The interior minister opened the meeting by saying that the plebiscite showed that Pinochet was still the most important political figure in the country, with 43 percent of Chileans voting for him. The opposition, on the other hand, consisted of multiple parties and political leaders.
Matthei sarcastically suggested opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and the interior minister fell silent. General Stange indicated that the regime should begin to make contacts with political opposition leaders and announce the free elections as stipulated in the constitution in the event of a plebiscite loss. Pinochet rejected this proposal, saying he was not going to leave and that if necessary he would fill the streets with troops and "sweep away the communists." He also threatened to fire "any general or admiral who speaks to the communists."
An argument then ensued, with Generals Matthei and Stange and Admiral Merino insisting Pinochet had no power to undertake such actions. The discussion turned to the plebiscite's results, which had come as a deep shock to Pinochet, as he had been convinced by his sycophantic advisors that he would win. The service commanders suggested that it might be time for a cabinet change. Pinochet seemed to agree, and then asked the junta members to sign a document that contained the minutes of the meeting they had just completed. Surprised that such a written report had been produced so quickly, the junta members examined it carefully and saw that it was not a record of their meeting but a document granting Pinochet extended powers, including greater control over the navy, air force, and carabinero police. Matthei picked up the document and tore it up; the other commanders also refused to sign. And with that, the slow process of ending one of Latin America's longest dictatorships began, with Pinochet fighting a fierce rearguard action every step of the way.
Excerpted from The General's Slow Retreat by Mary Helen Spooner. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted August 27, 2011
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