Aquarter of a century has passed since the Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown and died a violent death, while still remaining loyal to his people and his country to the end. A us-supported military coup put an end to the revolutionary period that crowned a decade of profound social reforms, during the 1960s and early 1970s, under the democratic governments of Eduardo Frei Montalva and Salvador Allende. The world is quite familiar with the ensuing long seventeen years of murderous military dictatorship, headed by Pinochet. A generalized popular protest, followed by defeat in a 1988 plebiscite, put an end to Pinochet’s rule. Two democratic presidents, Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, have presided through the 1990s over a slow and still unfinished transition to democracy.

The recent detention of Pinochet in London and the ensuing extradition process for his trial in Spain for crimes against humanity committed during his régime have shaken Chile in a quite unexpected way. The ‘poisoned fountain whence all evils of this country flow’ as De Gaulle once said, referring to Pétain, has dried up. And, ironically, this is due to the actions of the countries the Chilean upper classes traditionally considered to be their spiritual homelands, and whose institutions and modes of behaviour they mimicked: Spain and the United Kingdom, as embodied in Las Reales Cortes de España, the British Home Office and, most poignantly, the venerable House of Lords. This incident, coinciding with the devastating effects of the Asian crisis on the Chilean economy and of the El Niño drought on hydroelectric reservoirs, has brought the consumerist addiction and despair in which Chileans had wallowed during the transitional governments to a final and abrupt end.

Pinochet’s ordeal at the hands of the nascent universal human rights jurisdiction has highlighted worldwide the feebleness and collusion of the post-Pinochet governments, forced by army pressure and opportunistic, prudence-coated pusillanimity, to defend the ageing dictator. Signs of widespread discontent were already patent well in advance of Pinochet’s detention. The scale of the vote boycott and spoilt ballot papers in the 1997 national elections already pointed in the same direction, as did the violent riots that greeted Pinochet’s appointment as ‘Senator for Life’ in March 1998. But it is since the detention of the dictator that the situation seems to have started changing significantly, perhaps signalling that Chile’s long ‘transición a la democracia’ is finally entering its terminal crisis stage.

In a turbulent stream, mud rises to the surface—persistent efforts by human rights organizations at last seem to be bearing some fruit, as new accusations, trials and even some detention orders against active and retired military and secret police agents occur almost every week. These have been issued by an emboldened judiciary, somewhat depustulated of old Pinochetist hard-liners and fed by new revelations, trickling through ever-widening cracks in the mafia-style conspiracy of silence of human-rights violators, and aided by the us State Department document declassification process. However, this phenomenon has been fuelled mainly by the loss of fear on the part of witnesses and society as a whole, faced with the evidence that nothing terrible, save pathetic right-wing hysteria, has occurred during the continuing detention of the increasingly lonely and decrepit dictator. Recent polls show 41 per cent of Chileans want Pinochet never to return, a similar percentage want him to come back to stand trial and a mere 17 per cent feel he should not stand trial at all. Thus, Chilean society seems to be finally confronting the imperative of expressing at least a degree of the truth and justice it has been lacking over human rights issues, so as to rebuild its fabric in an ethically sound way.

Much needed political and institutional refreshment seems to be in the making as well, as candidates campaign for the December 1999 presidential elections, with the Socialist Ricardo Lagos as a frontrunner for the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, the Socialist–Christian Democratic ruling coalition. Outspoken Communist and Green candidates are making their weight felt to his left. Meanwhile, the arrogant and reactionary Chilean Right seems to be, for the first time since the 1988 plebiscite, entirely on the defensive, subjected to a degree of ridicule—on a global scale—not experienced by them since their historic 1970 defeat. They have managed to unite in support of a young presidential candidate who gained a national profile as a highly effective mayor of an upper-class Santiago district. But it seems unlikely that he can shed his intimate associations with Pinochet: a recent visit to the latter in Virginia Waters led to a decline of eight points in the polls.

A certain social awakening—much delayed and plainly justified, as we shall see later on, by the deep, violent and still festering social disintegration experienced by Chileans throughout the period—seems to be taking place as well. Spearheaded by increasing activism and land occupations by Native American Mapuches in the south of the country, and supported by continuing student protests over meagre scholarships and rising fees, somewhat wider working-class and social unrest could be in the making. Indignant consumers have taken to the streets on certain nights, protesting against blackouts by privatized energy companies, banging their pots and pans in a manner not witnessed since the anti-Pinochet ‘protestas’ of the 1980s. Worried at an unemployment rate that has once again reached double figures, workers have staged demonstrations under a recently renewed militant Communist leadership of the Central Unica de Trabajadores(cut). A recent editorial by the right-wing newspaper El Mercurio reckoned that ‘generalized discontent is spreading in Chile, fuelled by unemployment and economic crisis, electrical blackouts, Mapuche land seizures and Pinochet’s detention. In this climate, recent cut calls for a national strike may have a strong appeal. The decade seems to be ending in quite unexpected turmoil’. Coming months will test El Mercurio’s appraisal but, rightly or wrongly, some modest excitement seems to be returning to Chile’s appallingly tedious political landscape of ‘Transición’. God save the Queen!

This article will try to outline a comprehensive background for these events, attempting the hazardous project of analyzing certain economic and social aspects of this turbulent period as a whole, as a unity constituted by violent contradictions.