A decade into the terror-ridden dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Chileans have had enough. A union leader organizes a national protest day in 1983, in which citizens bang on pots and pans, demonstrate in the streets and bring the capital Santiago to a halt. Monthly days of protest follow, and an open, nonviolent opposition to Pinochet emerges. But as extremists turn to violence, the government is able to justify violent repression.

After surviving an assassination attempt, Pinochet believes himself invincible - and goes ahead with a plebiscite designed to legitimize his continuance in power. Defying threats of violence, the nonviolent opposition organizes massively behind a "No" vote against the dictator, skillfully using the mass media to promote positive images of change. Chileans repudiate the regime at the polls and the country is back on the road to full democracy, without violence.

Chile Overview

On May 11, 1983, the capital city of the South American nation of Chile explodes in protest. Santiago citizens march in the streets, blare their car horns, and clang pots and pans from apartment windows. The day marks an end to the decade-long acquiescence to the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power in 1973 from the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. The junta had declared the entire nation an emergency zone and imposed a state of siege that limited the rights of citizens and augmented the military's powers. It shut down three of the country's newspapers, placed universities under military administration, and prohibited singing in public.

In the ten years prior to the national protest, Pinochet's anti-communism and free-market economic policies won him the support of moderate politicians and middle-class Chileans, while his use of terror (3,000 supporters of the Allende regime were killed or missing) managed to all but silence his opponents. In the early 1980s, however, a recession – spurred by declining copper prices – sapped the country's prosperity. Working-class and middle-class citizens, in concert with leftist and moderate leaders, rallied behind a strike by the powerful copper miners' union and projected dissent into the promenades and avenues of Santiago. For the next three years, an eclectic mix of opposition groups joined to organize monthly "days of protest" and demand a return to democracy. Human rights organizations, unions, student groups, women's groups, and traditional political parties all take part, using a range of tactics that include strikes, work slowdowns, and school boycotts. By 1986, however, the radical left adds violence to the anti-Pinochet protest, discouraging middle class participation and justifying the dictator's continued repression.

When Pinochet decides to go ahead with a plebiscite (ordained by his own constitution) on whether he should remain in office, the opposition decides to challenge him at the polls. It deftly organizes a determined and sophisticated campaign to defeat Pinochet. Led by Genaro Arriagada the "Command for No" movement coordinates an army of volunteers to register voters and persuade fearful citizens to participate. Also crucial is an influx of foreign funds that pays for opinion polls, media consultants, poll watchers, and computers, which allow the opposition to conduct its own vote count and circumvent electoral fraud by the regime.

Despite relentless harassment against "No" campaign operatives, on October 5, 1988, 55 percent of voters cast ballots to end Pinochet's reign of terror. Victorious, the "Command for No" movement evolves into a multiparty coalition that wins parliamentary elections the next year, completing the restoration of democracy in Chile after 15 authoritarian years.

Chile Timeline

September 11, 1973Military junta comes to power in coup against elected government

May 11, 1983First widespread public protests against Augusto Pinochet's regime.

August 1983The government talks with members of the opposition and offers concessions.

September 1983Monthly "days of protest" turn violent; middle-class support weakens.

September 7, 1986Assassination attempt on President Pinochet fails.

October 5, 1988Plebiscite ends in victory for those opposing a continuation of Pinochet's dictatorship.

Chile People

RICARDO LAGOS was born to a middle-class family in Chile on March 2, 1938. He earned a law degree at the University of Chile before going to the U.S. to earn a PhD in economics from Duke University.

Returning to Chile during the years of Salvador Allende’s socialist presidency, Lagos served as secretary general of the University of Chile and was appointed by Allende to be ambassador to Moscow -- an appointment never approved by Congress because of the 1973 coup d'état. Following the coup, Lagos went into exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, later spending a year as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina. He also worked as an economist for United Nations agencies, but in 1978 he returned to Chile and devoted himself to opposition politics.

Lagos was jailed and released during a crackdown after an attempted assassination on Augusto Pinochet. Afterward he played a key role in the 1988 campaign that eventually led to the defeat of Pinochet. For the next eight years, Lagos served as education minister and then public works minister under President Patricio Aylwin. In these positions, he worked to help the disadvantaged and improve relations with the military and business community.

In 1999, Lagos ran a successful bid for president in a tightly contested race. He was inaugurated in March of 2000 and served until the end of his constitutionally mandated single term in 2006.

RODOLFO SEGUEL was a labor activist and a leader in the movement against the military rule of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. In 1981, Seguel led a 59-day strike at El Teniente, the state-owned mining company where he was employed as a payroll clerk. The following year, Seguel was elected president of the National Copper Workers Confederation, and later chairman of National Workers Command, a coalition of pro-labor organizations.

One of the most outspoken critics of the government, Seguel was briefly arrested in September of 1983 after he called President Pinochet an “absurd and fanatical dictator.” The following month, Seguel and other activists led fired copper workers in a protest march up the Pan American Highway.

Seguel held office as a Christian Democratic Senator in the Chilean parliament until 2006, where he co-sponsored bill defending workers’ rights, including the 2005 legislation giving new father’s a week’s paid leave.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1940, SERGIO BITAR has long been a strong believer in the power of democratic ideas, institutions, and processes. He was educated as a civil engineer at the University of Chile and was a professor at the School of Engineering and director of the Department of Industries at the University of Chile from 1966 through 1968. Following his teaching career, he became the director of industrial planning of the Corporacion de Fomento de la Produccion. In the early seventies, he served as economics advisor to the President of the Republic, Salvador Allende. Bitar became Minister of Mining in 1973, but was arrested that September when General Augusto Pinochet came to power in a military coup.

Bitar spent a year in a Chilean concentration camp for political prisoners and then went into a ten-year political exile, living in Venezuela and the United States. In 1975-76 he was a visiting fellow at the Harvard Institute for International Development and in 1982-83 was a fellow at the Wilson International Center for Scholars of the Smithsonian Institution. He also served as CEO of an industrial company in Caracas, Venezuela.

In 1984, Sergio Bitar returned to Chile, founded the newspaper Fortin Mapocho, and became active in the democratic opposition movement which eventually organized to defeat the Pinochet dictatorship in the NO campaign leading to the 1988 plebiscite. Following the restoration of Chilean democracy, he served one term as Secretary General of the Partido por la Democracia (PPD) and two terms from 1992 to 1994 and 1997 to 2000 as its President. The PPD is a member of the current government coalition (the Concertacion), for which Bitar was the spokesman in 1998 and 1999.

Bitar was elected to the Senate in 1994, where he has served on the Foreign Affairs and Finance Committees until 2002. He is currently a member of the Economics and Mining Committees. In April, 2000 Sergio Bitar was awarded the Democratic Merit Medal by the Concertacion. He is currently serving as Minister of Education, and is President of the Chilean National Commission of UNESCO.

GENARO ARRIAGADA served as executive director of the 16-party coalition that led the "No" campaign against Augusto Pinochet in October 1988. He masterminded Eduardo Frei Jr.'s campaign in 1993 and served as Secretary-General of the Frei administration until September 1997. Arriagada organized the second Summit of the Americas, which took place in Santiago in April 1998. Although he describes himself as a conservative with respect to macroeconomic growth and structural reform, Arriagada nevertheless is an advocate of government policies that reduce poverty and income inequality. Arriagada served as Chile's ambassador to the United States. He currently serves as President of the Executive Secretariat of the Non-Governmental Process of the Community of Democracies.

PATRICIA VERDUGO is a reporter and freelance writer for the Chilean government's National Television station and La Segunda newspaper. She also teaches at the University of Chile's School of Journalism. In 1997, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chile's 1973 coup, Verdugo won the National Journalism Award for her reconstruction of the most outstanding episodes of human rights violations of Pinochet's dictatorship. Verdugo has personal experience of some of those violations. Her father, Sergio Verdugo Herrera, a member of the Christian Democrat Party and a union leader of a pharmaceutical laboratory, was abducted from his home in July 1976 and was later found drowned. In 1993 Verdugo won the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University, the highest award given in the United States to a foreign journalist. She has written seven books, most of them investigations in defense of human rights. Her book, The Clashes of the Puma, was a record best-seller in Chile.

The Illusions of Violence

In August 1986, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency detected from spy satellite images what appeared to be arms caches by revolutionaries in Chile and passed the information to their counterparts in Santiago. It was an anti-communist's dream. Ten sites, three near Santiago and seven in the northern desert, yielded more than 3,000 M-16 rifles, hundreds of rocket launchers, and tons of explosives, grenades, and ammunition. As the government played to Chileans' latent fear of a communist insurrection, the opposition shuddered: The far left had again renewed Pinochet's lease on political life.

One Sunday the president's motorcade wound through the early evening haze of the Andes, a vanguard of two carabinero motorcyclists and a train of five sedans returning from El Melocoton, the presidential country house, to Santiago. As it threaded between a rising cliff and a precipice near the bridge across the Colorado River, it slowed for a trailer-towing station wagon parked athwart the road, as though stopped in the middle of a U-turn. Suddenly the group was swept by a fusillade from both sides of the road. A rocket turned the Opel leading the motorcade into a ball of flame, then another destroyed the beige Ford Granada in second place. The third car, an armor-plated Mercedes sedan, was raked by a hail of gun and rocket fire and destroyed; then the barrage moved down the line to the fourth and fifth vehicles, whose way was blocked by a second station wagon pulled up behind the motorcade.

As the firing ranged up and down the stalled column, the fifth car's driver whipped his armored car backward, then turned and sped off to the safety of El Melocoton, about ten miles away. The sedan was riddled with bullets, its windows shattered, its flat-proof Michelins almost shot away; a rocket had caromed off its roof without exploding. The attackers faded into the countryside; some reports had them dressed as CNI agents, which got them past quickly erected barricades. For several hours no one knew the fate of the vanished car's occupants: the driver, an aide, a ten-year-old named Rodrigo, and the boy's grandfather, Augusto Pinochet.

That night the general appeared on national television and showed a bandaged left arm to his people, along with his bullet-pocked Mercedes. His first impulse, the dictator said, had been to abandon the car; then, realizing how vulnerable his grandson was, he had shielded the boy with his body as the sedan filled with ricocheting metal and glass. Whatever one might think of this seventy-year-old grandfather, no one could call him a coward.

Now Chile lay under yet another state of siege, another curfew, and the agents of darkness stepped into the Santiago night. Early on September 8 a group of men in mufti took a communist and two men with revolutionary links from their homes and a fourth man the next night. Their bullet-riddled bodies were later discovered in various neighborhoods. Eight opposition leaders, including Ricardo Lagos, were detained, several foreign priests were expelled from Chile, and dissident periodicals were shut down. In the wake of the general's amazing escape from death, an already-planned parade on September 9 went forward with particular gusto, the dictator waving merrily as his troops goose-stepped in review.

Seen as the work of communist guerillas, the attack had the effect of confirming the autocrat's Cold War rhetoric. Worse, it gave him an aura of invincibility, and the opposition could see the chance for a negotiated return to democracy going up in the smoke of guns and rockets. Abruptly, they seemed to face two alternative disasters: their democratizing dream either would crumple under an invigorated military rule or would be incinerated in a riotous reprise of the Allende years.

But the events on the road from El Melocoton had spawned illusions on all sides. His escape from death had confirmed Pinochet in his sense of destiny and led him to believe he would be an unbeatable candidate in the 1989 plebiscite mandated by the constitution. As for his nonviolent opponents, the ambush had reduced their options to the single one of participating in that plebiscite, which they found repugnant, and which they believed they would inevitably lose. And the leftist guerillas, having come within a whisker of getting their man, no doubt perceived the dawn of a cleansing civil war. These were all fantasies. Everyone was wrong.

1 Shirley Christian, "Chile's Army Reacting to Attack, Arrests Foes and Shuts Magazines," The New York Times, September 9, 1986.

from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Chile Analysis

The years following the plebiscite that spelled the end of Pinochet's power were marked by bursts of terror, from both right and left, and the re-democratizing of Chile was not smooth, as the country slowly metabolized the rancor of the Pinochet years. As for the general himself, he retired from the army in the 1990s and claimed his senatorial title. At century's end, he occupied center stage once more, but not as he intended. When a Spanish judge tried to extradite him from Britain (where he had gone for medical treatment) on charges of torture and genocide, he was widely seen not as Chile's stabilizing pilot but as an aging fugitive from a new global order determined to penalize violations of human rights wherever they might appear. Although the web of law and disrepute that threatened to entangle him at the end of his days was not half as convoluted as the path of his countrymen back to political liberty, Pinochet's eventual failure to secure the respect of history was foreshadowed by his failure to keep the consent of his people.

That consent was fractured the moment the people broke their decade of silence in 1983 and proved that it was possible for opposition to be expressed and take hold. But from the first day of protest to the last day of a dictator is rarely a swift or straight progression, and unlike the Salvadoran civic strikers of 1944, the Chilean opposition did not develop a unitary strategy against their ruler. Throughout the mid-1980s, the far left remained wedded to violent insurrection, which never stood a real chance of succeeding but did amplify the violence that Pinochet knew how to exploit.

Workers determined to reclaim their old strength, families and friends of people the regime had brutalized or killed, and the broad center of Chilean political life – these were the forces that gave up their fear and then never gave up the fight to restore democracy. By sustaining and not overplaying public protest, by not using violence that would heighten repression, and by inspiring the help of outside institutions and governments, this inchoate but resilient movement became the lever that dislodged the dictator. Pinochet managed to neutralize his violent enemies, but the movement that disavowed the violence he started and that others emulated became the catalyst for his downfall.

The Chileans who opposed Pinochet, like the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, did something very simple but absolutely essential if the people are to bring down a despot: they withdrew their willingness to let the government pretend that it had any genuine popular support. With one sanction after another, they created doubts at home and abroad about the regime's control of events, and when the regime's hubris created a narrow opportunity for the movement to succeed at the polls, they used the dictator's own procedures to separate him from his position. Then even the regime split, leaving the general stranded on the same shore of history that many other dictators had reached before him. Bullets only scratched him. Ballots sacked him.

from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Chile Resources

Arriagada, Gennaro. Pinochet: The Politics of Power. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Constable, Pamela, and Arturo Valenzuela. A Nation of Enemies: Chile under Pinochet. New York: Norton, 1991.

Drake, Paul, and Ivan Jaksic, eds. The Struggle for Democracy in Chile, 1982-1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Oppenheim, Lois Hecht. Politics in Chile: Democracy, Authoritarianism and the Search for Development. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

Spooner, Mary Helen. Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


The Crimes of Augusto Pinochet

Amnesty International – Pinochet Page

Human Rights Watch/the Pinochet Prosecution: the end of impunity

El Pais: “Chile, 25 Years Later”

BBC News profile of Augusto Pinochet

Foreign Affairs: The Other 9/11: The United States and Chile, 1973

The Crimes of Augusto Pinochet

Human Rights in Chile: A Timeline

Chile: Authoritarianism Defeated by its Own Rules