Maxwell Hoversten

I spent three weeks in Chile over the summer, using funds from the Political Science Department’s Lindstrom Fellowship to explore the development of democracy there in the past 30 years or so. 

I feel like I got to know more about the political landscape of Chile than most tourists. In one instance, I walked through a cloud of tear gas that Carabineros had fired upon a group of middle schoolers demanding education reform. Government-hired police force, remained on both sides of the street parallel to the protest, silently observing. 

During my four months sudying abroad in Buenos Aires, I saw my fair share of protests around town, but never that kind of response. In fact, I often didn’t see police at all in Argentina. On the other hand, this sort of stuff is apparently pretty typical during a protest in Chile. 

The Carabineros are an almost constant presence in public life, particularly in Santiago, where their uniforms stand out for the dull green coloring as well as the militaristic design. Indeed, their stoic attitudes also contribute to an air of “soldier” more than “public servant,” and the armored vehicles they so often command make this perception ever stronger. To top it off, there is a certain obedience the general public displays toward them, and I know I’m not the only foreigner to notice it.

Individually, these traits all seem fairly inconsequential, but it pays to keep in mind that Chile was under a dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, the legacy of which colors many aspects of the country’s social, cultural, and political phenomena. Long story short, Salvador Allende rose to the presidency in 1970 as Latin America’s first democratically-elected socialist head of state, which set off alarm bells amongst the conservative factions of society. The military, interpreting Allende’s presidency as a gateway drug for the communist menace to poison Chile from the inside out carried out a coup d’etat on September 11th, 1973 to take over the country and undo the perceived damage of the previous three years. Allende was dead, and General Augusto Pinochet would be the big man in charge for many years to come.

The Carabineros were actively involved in the coup, and even more involved in the years that followed. Any public expression of leftist thought was met with severe repression: torture, disappearances and murder became the name of the game. Protecting the public welfare meant crushing anyone who dared disrupt the status quo. After all, those evil Marxists were just waiting for the perfect moment to strike again! 

When the dictatorship was finally ended via diect vote in 1990, much attention was placed on “reconciliation.” Broadly speaking, this meant bringing a fractured civil fabric back together. One of the ways in which this repair was accomplished involved forgoing a meaningful reflection on those 17 years. Many crimes went unpunished, institutions unreformed, and difficult questionsunasked. Democracy was a fragile thing, the thinking went, and antagonizing the wrong people could cause the whole house of cards to come tumbling down again. Even today, the effects of that era can still be felt, despite the dominant public discourse around liberty and individual freedoms. The country has not fully moved on. 

How does this all come back to the Carabineros? Well, when discussing facets of modern Chile that still smack of Pinochet’s authoritarian approach, that institution stands out in my mind. 

They are not vanishing people off the streets anymore, but their presence still commands a certain obedience that calls back to darker times. As I was walking to the presidential palace, for example, I happened upon a protest in front of the building of the Municipality of Santiago. What really called my attention, though, wasn’t the protest itself, it was the huge Carabinero presence. 

Political unrest on the issue of education reform meaning free education for all individuals is reflective of Chile’s dictatorial past. Pinochet’s administration dramatically shook up Chile’s education system, permitting various elements of the private sector to throw their hat into the ring in an unprecedented way. The result of that today, at least according to some, is a playing field where private primary schools targeted at well-off families offer many more resources than public ones, and universities charge exorbitant prices for sometimes dubious quality. As such, these children protesting a system largely implemented under authoritarian rule were met with an authoritarian reaction from law enforcement. The symbolism of that is not pleasant.   

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but I really don’t think this is what democracy looks like. Rather, it calls my attention to the model of “limited democracy” that Pinochet espoused near the end of his time in power. You can exercise your freedoms, but only to a certain point before “the man” reminds you how things really are. 

The state’s respect for you ends once you begin seriously questioning, and therefore threatening, the dominant socioeconomic paradigm. Needless to say, democracy has developed more in some parts of Chile than others, just as it has here at home. Notice that education reform and police violence are also hot topics in the U.S. Heck, look at photos of Carabineros taken during the dictatorship, and you’ll see that what’s past and what’s present aren’t so distinguishable.I was told one time that their M.O. isn’t “repression”, it’s “control”. Maybe so, but that’s a line that gets pretty thin.