December 17

The Chilean constitutional crisis revisited

Media reports on the demise of General Augusto Pinochet invariably recalled his coup d’état on 11 September 1973 against the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. His military dictatorship lasted until 1990.  Chilean and world opinion remain divided over the coup.  One thing is clear.  The Chilean constitution offered no solution to the country’s extremely grave constitutional crisis of 1973, which was in the context of a massive economic and political breakdown. President Allende came to power with 36.61% of the vote, ahead of the other two candidates, one of whom had a similar programme.  He embarked on a “crash” programme to socialize the Chilean economy, involving the nationalization of industry and the seizure of larger farms.  When the courts ruled some of these invalid, Allende ignored them and directed the police not to act.  In 1971, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro spent a month in Chile, campaigning for President Allende and later arming his supporters. This reinforced fears among conservatives that Chile would follow the Cuban model. President Allende always denied this, insisting that he would achieve socialism democratically. In the meantime, the Chilean economy fell into a crisis with high unemployment, hyperinflation over  500%, declining exports caused by a fall in mineral prices and increasing imports. A wave of strikes by truck-owners, small businessmen, and some mainly professional unions inflicted even more damage.

 Nevertheless, Allende’s Popular Unity coalition marginally  increased its vote to 43.2 percent in the congressional elections in  March 1973.  But the tacit understanding between Allende’s coalition and the Christian Democrats had collapsed, resulting in stalemate between the Congress and the President. There was an unsuccessful coup by a tank regiment on June 29, 1973, followed by a general strike at the end of July, joined this time by copper miners. Then the   Supreme Court unanimously denounced the government’s refusal to permit the police to enforce the decisions of the courts against it. A forced resignation of the Army  Commander-in Chief ( who was also Minister of Defence) ominously led to the appointment of General Pincochet to head the Army. The President perceived Pinochet to be non- political.

Then  the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution entitled "Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy", calling on the army  to put an immediate end to what they alleged were  breaches of the Constitution.  The alleged breaches included ruling by decree, and evading the need for legislation, ignoring court decisions, illegally blocking attempts by Chileans to emigrate, taking over parts of the media and intimidating other media, illegally sieizing over 1500 farms, allowing its armed  supporters to assemble while blocking demonstrations by its opponents. They summarized their allegations by saying Allende wanted to seize “absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state.” Allende’s aim, they said, was to establish “a totalitarian system." Many of the charges came down to disregarding the separation of powers and arrogating the prerogatives of both the legislature and judiciary within the executive.



Allende denied the charges, saying that   had never had “a more democratic government”. The opposition did not have the numbers to impeach Allende: the constitution offered no way out of the impasse. This is said neither to justify Pinochet’s coup, nor the brutal methods he used. The 1991 Rettig Commission found that at least 3,000 people were killed (or “disappeared”) between 1973 and 1990. By Latin American standards, some say that this is restrained. Bill James , a letter writer  to The Australian on 13 December, 2006, wrote that  that about five to six times as many have been executed by Fidel Castro, and about 30,000 have drowned in attempting to escape Cuba. He  asked whether similar condemnations would be made of Castro when he too leaves this world. The next day Marcus Hicks, while not making apologies for the “pretty awful” things Castro had done, replied saying  that putting Castro in the same league as Pinochet was “just plain wrong-headed.”  The difference between Pinochet’s coup, and those in other Latin American countries was not so much in the violence and bloodshed, but in the economy. Coups seem normally to result in making countries economically worse off- Pinochet Chile into one of most successful economies in that region.



Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish warrant. There is a tendency now for some countries to claim jurisdiction over what was once clearly the preserve of the courts of the relevant country. Lawyers including judges are divided over the wisdom and legality of this; in any event Pinochet was released on the grounds of ill health.




Even over the question of his funeral, Chile remained divided over Pinochet. Supporters point to the recovery and success of the economy under his government, and that he handed back power when he lost a plebiscite.  Opponents criticize the coup and the violence of the repression.  Most commentators in the Western media seem to come down against Pinochet; an exception was James Whelan  in The Australian on 15 December, 2006. In his piece, “Far from being an evil dictator, Pinochet rescued Chile, ” Whelan argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, Pinochet averted civil war and saved millions from the destruction of socialism. 





The point for constitutionalists is that the economic, political and constitutional crisis in 1973 was extremely serious.  Relations between the executive on the one hand, and the legislature and the courts on the other had broken completely.  There was little chance of reconciliation. The economy had almost collapsed.



The Australian situation in 1975 pales in comparison. And as Sir David Smith points out, it was a political and not a constitutional crisis, even if the media portray it as such. In fact the Australian Constitution provided a remarkably speedy and peaceful  resolution to the political crisis created by two obstinate politicians.  That resolution was by the people, not by the gun. There were no deaths, no “disappeared,” no torture, no arrests, no bloodshed and no violence.



The lesson from the Chilean experience is surely that a constitutional system which provides no solution in such circumstances is seriously flawed. One which has a proven ability to resolve such crises, and which has lasted for over a century and a half is extremely rare. It is unknown in many parts of the world. As such it should be honoured and  treasured. Those who want Australians to abandon their constitutional system, however much they may say the change is “minimal,” have a high duty to explain how it would work. To say they have no model at all  is a gross abdication of responsibility that has already drawn ridicule in a not unsympathetic media. 





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