Chile’s Coup Is No Longer Taboo
While international backers of Pinochet’s 1973 takeover increasingly admit blame, Chile’s resurgent far right is bringing defense of dictatorship back into the mainstream.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Chile revisits its 1973 coup, feminists celebrate a major Mexican court ruling on abortion rights, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro gets cozy with a cautious China.
Pinochet’s Long Shadow
High-level envoys from the Americas and Europe convened in Santiago, Chile, on Monday for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of Chile’s 1973 military coup, which overthrew democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende. Led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the coup ushered in a 17-year military dictatorship in which agents of the regime tortured tens of thousands of political opponents and left more than 3,000 dead or disappeared amid efforts to stamp out political opposition.
Legal efforts for justice have been slow and belated, but this week’s anniversary marked a shift in how politicians in Chile and abroad have reckoned with a violent chapter of history. This month, Chile’s government announced that it will for the first time aid in ongoing civilian investigations of unsolved disappearances. The United States—which under former President Richard Nixon provided those plotting to oust Allende with a range of diplomatic, financial, and propaganda support—declassified documents related to the coup in recent days. Spain, whose dictatorship not only recognized Pinochet’s government but issued him a military award for gallantry in 1975, did the same—and rescinded the medal. Officials from Brazil, whose dictatorship’s backing for the regime included weapons sales and interrogation training, publicly acknowledged and apologized for this support for the first time.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric—who has often said he is inspired by Allende—and Chilean human rights advocates celebrated those efforts as well as the foreign envoys’ presence at the ceremonies.
“Threats to democracy are not limited or constrained by national borders,” Boric said in a speech Monday. But while global leaders were vocal in their broad repudiation of human rights violations and affirmation of democratic principles, domestic politicians were less unified in messaging.
The event highlighted how a longtime taboo around discussing the coup is fading. Internationally, governments took new steps to acknowledge their roles in abetting Pinochet. In Chile, however, those who openly justify the coup are growing in number and in political power.
According to a survey published in May by polling partners CERC-Mori, the portion of Chileans who say the coup was justified rose from 16 percent in 2013 to 36 percent in 2023. The number of Chileans who believe that it is never justified to carry out a coup dropped to just 41 percent—the lowest level since CERC-Mori began surveys on the question in 2003.
This change in sentiment reflects the growth of Chile’s far right. After Chile officially re-democratized in 1990, center-left and center-right parties dominated its political landscape—that is, until mass anti-government protests rocked the country in 2019. Further-left actors, including Boric himself, became protagonists on the national stage, and the far right gained strength by campaigning against what it characterized as disruptive and overly radical change.
The highly popular party of José Antonio Kast, the runner-up to Boric in 2021’s presidential election, has downplayed the severity of Pinochet’s crimes in the past. Elsewhere on the country’s political spectrum, a coalition of center-right parties refused to sign a statement proposed by Boric condemning the coup on its 50th anniversary; it instead signed its own separate, vaguer declaration that voiced support for democracy but did not include the word “coup.”
Scholars have traced the resurgence of Chile’s far right to dissatisfaction with Boric’s government as it has carried out a drawn-out constitutional rewrite process against a backdrop of poor security and economic conditions. “History is always viewed from the present,” University of Chile political scientist Claudia Heiss told the El Hilo podcast. “And I think that today we are looking at Chile’s history … through the prism of the [2019 protests], the constitutional rewrite process, and contemporary debates.”
Among some Chileans, Heiss said that “there is an effort to link the destruction of public infrastructure in the [2019 protests]” with Allende as part of an over-generalized argument that “the left is bad, it’s disordered, it destroys things, and the dictatorship was necessary to impose order.” This kind of leap in historical reasoning “has been much more successful than what should be reasonable for any democrat,” she added.
Still, despite Chile’s internal divisions on the coup’s anniversary, the wave of foreign governments’ gestures added new weight to efforts to account for the dictatorship’s crimes.
Friday, Sept. 15, to Saturday, Sept. 16: Cuba hosts a summit of the G-77 group of developing countries and China.
Sunday, Oct. 1: Argentina holds a presidential debate.
What We’re Following
Mexico’s nearshoring boom. Earlier this year, Mexico surpassed China as the United States’ biggest trade partner, partly due to the rise of nearshoring. This week, Bloomberg looked at the effects of the United States’ push to source its purchases from countries closer to home; this push includes financial incentives for companies with production in countries like Mexico that have free trade deals with Washington. Foreign direct investment in Mexico in the first half of 2023 was around 40 percent higher than the same period for the previous year after atypical mergers and restructurings in 2022 were accounted for, and Mexico’s share of U.S. imports across several categories grew significantly between 2017 and 2023.
“Not since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s has the country held the kind of allure for investors that is has right now,” the Bloomberg journalists wrote. However, though joining the trade deal caused a rush of investment, it didn’t result in high long-term growth. Indeed, Mexico’s overall growth has lagged behind many other developing countries: Turkey, Malaysia, and Poland were all poorer than Mexico at the start of the century and are now richer. Mexico’s growth since 1994 has also been lopsided, benefiting the industrial north far more than the poorer, more agrarian south. President Andres Manuel López Obrador has announced public investments in southern Mexico in recent years as a corrective, but private firms have been slow to follow suit.
All-weather friends. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro upgraded his country’s relationship with China to an “all-weather” partnership during his recent visit to Beijing. Though the deals signed this week suggest future investments could be on the way, they also reflect caution from China. After loaning and investing tens of billions of dollars in the country since the turn of the century, China took a financial hit when Venezuela’s economy shrank dramatically beginning around 2013.
Instead of immediately promising new funds, China is showing “it is willing to share its experience and carry out technology transfers to Venezuela but not take out the checkbook,” the International Crisis Group’s Mariano de Alba posted. Chinese President Xi Jinping “made it clear that ‘attracting capital, technology, and good administration’ depends on Venezuelans” and economic reforms, de Alba added.
Another side of Allende. Amid the many public reflections on the anniversary of Chile’s 1973 coup, a new English-language podcast called The Santiago Boys by technology writer Evgeny Morozov looks at a side of the Allende government that is lesser known internationally: its techno-utopianism.
Between Allende’s 1970 election and the coup, a group of Chilean engineers—the “Santiago Boys”—teamed up with a British management consultant in the capital city to create a control room for Chile’s economy that aspired to be something like an early version of the internet. Using telex, a text-based messaging service that preceded the fax machine, they aimed to manage state-controlled factories from a distance as part of Allende’s efforts to show a state-run economy could yield positive results. Those channels to businesses across the country were also used by the government to help dispel a truckers’ strike organized by right-wing political opponents in October 1972.
Morozov argues that while the “Chicago Boys”—the right-wing economic planners installed by the dictatorship—became more famous historically, the techno-utopian Santiago Boys are worth remembering given that control over key technologies continues to shape geopolitics today.
Question of the Week
The G-20 summit wrapped up over the weekend in New Delhi. India then passed the G-20 presidency baton to which Latin American country?
Next year’s G-20 summit will be held in Rio de Janeiro.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Deterrence in Taiwan Is Failing by Hal Brands
- A New Multilateralism by Gordon Brown
- Do Policy Schools Still Have a Point? by Stephen M. Walt
In Focus: Wins for Women in Mexico
It’s been a big month for women’s rights in Mexico. Last week, both the country’s ruling party and its main opposition coalition selected female presidential candidates for the 2024 election, making it highly likely that Mexico will have its first woman president next year. Additionally, the country’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion at the federal level, making Mexico Latin America’s largest country yet to do so.
Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, Metropolitan Autonomous University-Azcapotzalco political scientist Esperanza Palma said both developments are the fruit of years of organizing by Mexican women’s movements. “These are historic achievements, and we can feel optimistic,” Palma said.
In recent years, feminist activists successfully pushed for gender quotas in government roles that require half of all elected officials to be women. The fact that both ruling Morena party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum and opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez were selected by polls of party members show that the concept of women in politics has become normalized such that voters are comfortable with the prospect of a woman president, Palma said.
The abortion ruling also comes amid steady pro-legalization pressure from activists. Around a third of Mexican states have already decriminalized the procedure, and a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that overturned an abortion ban in the state of Coahuila increased the justification for more to do the same. This month’s ruling reinforced the court’s decision and guaranteed that women should be allowed access to abortions in federal health facilities even in states where the procedure is still illegal.
The 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade in the United States galvanized Mexican pro-choice activists to ramp up already-existing operations to ship abortion pills to women in the United States. Mexico’s court ruling showed it would not follow in the footsteps of the United States, but rather its more liberalizing Latin American neighbors. However, going beyond the reasoning of Colombia’s successful Constitutional Court case, which focused on protecting the health of pregnant women, Mexico’s Supreme Court also said in a statement that criminalization of abortion “perpetuates the stereotype that women and people with the capacity to get pregnant can only freely exercise their sexuality to procreate and reinforces the gender role that imposes motherhood as a compulsory destiny.”
Following the ruling, activists cautioned that full abortion access will only come when more Mexican state legislatures remove remaining legal barriers to the procedure. This would give private medical providers more confidence in offering it. Feminist groups also noted that despite last week’s advances, high levels of gender-based violence and other types of inequalities persist in the country. Nonetheless, last week’s landmarks provided a moment of hope.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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