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Never Again

20 June 2018

In the Brenthurst Discussion Paper ‘Chile’s Reform Decision Points’ published this month, Dr Greg Mills and Dr Lyal White discuss the comparative trajectory of the Latin American country and African copper producers. The lessons include the importance of keeping the military out of politics, ultimately to their own as well as the nation’s benefit.

‘We have, I think, probably seen the last of coups in Latin America because of the cost. It is not the duty, or the role of the armed forces to engage in politics. It has a lot of cost for the armed forces. It is not a good experience overall for the institution. It places distance between society and the armed forces.’

He should know. Juan Emilio Cheyre was Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army from 2002 to 2006. The armed forces led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a successful coup on 11 September 1973, running the country until a civilian government took over once more in March 1990.

Like other Latin American coups – or golpes – there was an ugly human rights aspect, the same as occurred in the cases of Argentina (1966 and 1976), Bolivia (1969), Brazil (1964),  Peru (1968) and Uruguay (1973).

But unlike other military regimes in Latin America, and Africa for that matter, the Chilean armed forces did a pretty good job with the economy after an initial shaky start. In 1972, the year before the coup, Chile was recorded to have the second worst economy in Latin America, inflation had topped 1000%, and there were frequent strikes and widespread nationalisation of private business. Price controls and high tariffs pervaded, the state controlling two-thirds of economic output.

From poverty levels of 50% and a per capita GDP of just $730 in 1975, real income per person has increased to over $13,000 in four decades, while life expectancy has risen from 63 to 79 over this time. Successive civilian governments have, since 1990, built on a foundation of openness and fiscal prudency established by the military during their nearly 17 years of rule.  

However, this progress has come at a cost, not least the 3,000 lives lost during the coup and its aftermath.

From the moment that army units surrounded the La Moneda palace in the centre of Santiago and Hawker Hunter jets bombed President Salvador Allende and his guard inside into submission, the fate of Chile’s military -- and not just Allende’s -- was sealed.

For the Chilean military’s involvement in politics was exceptional in at least three respects.

First, unlike their regional counterparts, the Chilean military operated in relatively poor conditions. Officers were comparatively badly paid. The first signs of the unhappiness generated by these conditions were in their 1969 so-called Tacnazo protest against under-funding.

Second, there was extreme provocation and initial reluctance to get involved, unlike serial regional offenders such as in Argentina, where the military had ruled for nearly 20 years of the second half of the 20th century. ‘In fact,’ says the general, ‘the military in Chile only acted when the representatives of the Senate, Chamber of Deputies, Judges and vast sectors of citizens publicly stated that the government of President Allende had broken the institutional framework.’

Allende’s regime had posed a severe threat to governance and social stability; in effect posing a civilian coup to the constitutional order. Although the army had put down an attempted coup in June 1973, known as the Tanquetazo tank putsch, the crisis had quickly escalated just a month later over a short time.  

In August 1973, the Supreme Court complained about the government's inability to enforce the law. The same month, parliament had called upon the military to enforce constitutional order, shortly thereafter passing a resolution to this effect. With shortages of basic foodstuffs, public protests escalated against the rising costs and increasing hardship. Politics pervaded. In a shade of Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela three decades later, Allende had linked the supply of basic goods to party membership cards.

Finally, third, unlike their regional military counterparts, again, the Chileans did not embark on a populist economic path. To the contrary, after some initial economic turmoil, the military took civilian advice in pioneering a fiscally conservative, free market set of policies advised by a set of economists trained at the University of Chicago – giving rise to their moniker of the ‘Chicago boys’. The economic shock treatment provided stopped the inflationary, statist chaos of the Allende period.

Cheyre explains this alternative route to the populist economic practices which had become the norm for military juntas in Latin America. ‘The officers in Chile are not from the elite, but from the middle classes. So we feel the pressures that normal Chileans feel,’ he explains. It quickly became personal. ‘As a second lieutenant in 1971, with a small baby, my wife who was a university student, had to spend a lot of time just trying to find food for us.’

‘The military was culturally mono-religious, as a Catholic institution. It was also very strong in educating the officer corps, not just in terms of military science, but in economic matters, political science and engineering. We were able to explain with figures, rather than ideology, what the country’s problems were and how they might be solved. We did not have an anti-ideology position against Communism or Socialism; equally we were against the idea that ideology should upset Chile’s population.

‘Crucially, our experience of the Allende period and the economic collapse, was do dramatic, so deep and so bad in terms of security, development and the ability to lead a normal life, that we all felt we needed to make a change. The situation had jeopardized the security and sovereignty of Chile which had reached a situation of weakness and loss of power that made it vulnerable both internally and externally.’

Regardless, the cost was high.

‘It was not normal for us to be involved in political affairs. It was then very bad that Pinochet stayed in power so long. We also paid a very high price in terms of human rights violations. And as a military it left us unprepared.’

Due to its internal focus and international isolation, ‘we had to wait until 2000 to change as an organisation in ways that should have happened much earlier. We also had to pay a premium on military equipment during the years of isolation, a debt that we were still paying off until 2001, which made new investments in equipment impossible.’

General Cheyre is not alone in voicing his criticism of the period. Two former, civilian Presidents of Chile add their weight in warning those attracted to authoritarianism by the Pinochet growth and development record.

While the economy stabilised through the Pinochet years and set the stage for the five percent annual growth that has averaged since 1990, democracy offered a better, inclusive development alternative, aside from the human rights aspect. As former President Eduardo Frei observes, ‘If you are not achieving unity in your decisions, you cannot solve the problems of the country’. This helps to explain why growth really took off following the return of democracy not least, as the veteran Chilean economist Ricardo Ffrench-Davis reminds, because ‘you have to negotiate with the other side in a democracy. You cannot be a dictatorship of just one view’.

Or as Ricardo Lagos, who in 2000 succeeded Frei as president, puts it, ‘You need to have a renewal of leadership. Every generation will have different views, and will come with their “epic” moment. In our case it was to defeat Pinochet. I know,’ says the former president, ‘what the experience was in Singapore with Lee Kuan Yew. I understand what some are also saying in Africa. But you have to understand as a leader that all the accruements of power you enjoy are because you represent the state, and it’s not because of you. Five or ten years is enough, no more than that, otherwise it is going to be a tremendous mistake and a problem especially for the younger generations.’

Thus Lagos has been critical of the attempt by China’s President Xi Jinping to indefinitely extend his term of office. ‘It might be good for President Xi, but it’s bad for China.’  

As Commander-in-Chief, General Cheyre attempted to distance the Army from Pinochet’s record and the military’s abuses.

‘As Pinochet kept his post of Commander in Chief until 1998, we could not say that the armed forces were in a democratic state until after this time. We then had to make an internal transition process, with the aim of situating the armed forces within a normal, democratic environment and institutions after its abnormal   period during the anti-democratic military regime.’

This included a reorganisation of defence commands and equipment consistent with its focus on external security, and an ‘elimination of the disproportionate power the military had within the Security Council of Chile. We needed,’ he recalls, ‘to make a definite break with the past. This is why, unlike others such as Argentina, we co-operated fully with the justice sector in all investigations around human rights violations.’ It was crucial, he says, that the army be ‘perceived as legitimate by all Chileans and not only those who had supported the military government.’

In early 2003, General Cheyre published an article saying that the coup had not been a triumphant ‘military pronouncement’ but instead a time of ‘acute civic enmity’. In his view there could be no justification for the human rights violations which accompanied it. Six months later he made a speech as army commander which sharply criticised the civilian groups which urged the military to overthrow the Allende government. ‘Never again,’ said the General, ‘the sectors that incited us and officially backed our intervention in the crisis which they provoked. Never again, excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism. We are building an army for the 21st century.’ He had consulted President Ricardo Lagos on the speech beforehand, as an illustration of the armed forces’ deference to civilian rule.

Fifteen years after his historic speech, he emphasises the point. ’This is why we say “Never again” should the army be involved in this type of activity. And to make this more than just words, we embarked on an education process inside and outside the military.   

Aside from contemporary Venezuela where the military continues at the centre of political power and financial control, the era of the Latin American golpe appears to be over. In neighbouring Argentina, for example, a combination of inherent statism in the military, its poor policy choices of Peronist populism, the ‘dirty war’ which saw 30,000 activists ‘disappeared’, and the disastrous Malvinas operation, has seemed to have put the armed forces forever out of politics.

In 2016 General Cheyre was detained for his alleged involvement in the killing of 15 people in the killing of 15 left-wing activists in the northern city of La Serena, as part of the so-called ‘Caravan of Death’. He maintains his innocence. ‘The events were perpetrated by soldiers headed by a General who had come from Santiago. I had, as a young officer in that regional unit, no participation in these events at all.’

‘You know,’ ponders the General, ‘I have 30 or 40 of my military classmates in jail. Some of them will never some out. They are in there for 200 years or more. I also have one charge against me, which I have had for the last 21 years, where I am accused of being responsible not because I did something myself, but because I was in the same area. But when I gave my “Never again” speech,’ says the General, ‘and given my support as the Commander for the justice process, I was criticised by some in the military. I said to my classmates who now have sons in the militaries, some of them at the rank of Colonel: “What would you prefer? Would you prefer your sons to have their time now, as professional military officers, or would you prefer them to be in your position, with all these things hanging over you, with the responsibility for what happened, and the damage that was done?”

‘That is why I say never, ever again.’

This is extracted from a longer discussion paper available at



February 2019







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