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November 3, 2023

CLAS and GAI Host Discussion on the Changes in Chilean Society Since the 1973 Coup

On November 3, the Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies and Georgetown Americas Institute hosted a panel discussion on the development of Chile’s economic model and political system and the changes in Chilean society in the 50 years since the coup, as well as the ongoing disputes on the legacies of the coup for the country’s present and future.

Arturo Valenzuela, Guillermo Larrain, Karin Rosemblatt, and Diana Kapiszweski discuss changes in Chile since 1973.
Arturo Valenzuela, Guillermo Larrain, Karin Rosemblatt, and Diana Kapiszweski discuss changes in Chile since 1973.

The panel featured experts Arturo Valenzuela, emeritus professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, Guillermo Larrain, associate professor at the Universidad de Chile, Karin Rosemblatt, professor and director of the Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies at the University of Maryland and was moderated by Diana Kapiszweski, associate professor of government and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.

50 Years of Change

The discussion centered around the economic, political, and social transformations that Chile has undergone in the last 50 years since the rise of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Valenzuela gave a panorama of Chilean politics in 1968, explaining that these years were actually marked by a notable degree of cross-partisan cooperation. At the local level, leadership was passed back and forth between right-leaning and left-leaning parties, as leaders at the time believed that this represented a more realistic political approach to the political representation of their communities. In this era, party identification was at a much higher level, only eroding in subsequent decades. Today, the party systems have crumbled, challenging the effectiveness of representative democracy. 

Valenzuela posited two main issues that Chile must overcome in the present. The first is presidentialism, which inspires conflict between Congress and the president. The second issue is second-round elections. As a result of this new system, sectors that normally come together to achieve common goals are pitted against each other to instead achieve power, contributing to the destruction of political parties. Valenzuela advised that Chileans need to create institutions that work towards a consensus government. 

“The political party system has crumbled, and without a strong political party system, it’s very difficult to have a representative democracy.” –Arturo Valenzuela

A New Constitution

The current political atmosphere in Chile is marked by the attempted passage of a new constitution. Valenzuela opposes the document, criticizing it for its length, while Larrain criticized it for its rigidity. Both believe that constitutions must be more flexible documents and cannot prescribe specific areas like finance or administrative agencies. In regard to the current draft of the new constitution, all panelists believe that it will be rejected. Rosemblatt stated that while there was criticism of the first constituent assembly, it brought new topics in the political conversation that have had staying power, like gender parity, indigenous rights, plurinationality, the environment, and control of natural resources. 

Students and faculty listen to panel discussion on economic, social, and political changes in Chile.
Students and faculty listen to panel discussion on economic, social, and political changes in Chile.

The Role of Democracy in Economic Growth

Larrain discussed the political economy of Chile. He contended that the economic impact of dictatorship’s neoliberal reforms should be measured in a more historical context. Tracking the economic trajectory of Chile in the twentieth century, Larrain demonstrated that there was incremental economic decline beginning at the end of World War II until the early 1970s. He believes the reforms taken in 1977 stopped this decline, and opened the way to more economic growth seen at the beginning of the return to democracy. The lesson Larrain draws from this conclusion is that capitalist institutions need democratic institutions to create economic prosperity. Larrain believes that the Chilean economic model must be significantly changed in order to continue. While he does not believe the government should recreate state monopolies to create industrial power, he does believe that inclusive societies cannot be built solely on market forces.

“Capitalist institutions are not enough to promote sustainable and inclusive growth over the years. You need to have a sound democratic system that accompanies those capitalist institutions, and I believe the Chilean case shows that very well.” –Guillermo Larrain

An Unrecognizable Santiago

Rosemblatt discussed cultural, historical, and societal questions and challenges. She described her impressions from her visit to Santiago in 1985 and a recent visit in 2023. In 1985, Santiago was marked by heavy pollution due to lack of regulation, created both by industries and an unregulated public transportation system. There was little access to products made outside of Chile, few alternative thought leaders resisted within universities following the coup’s expulsions, and limited social protections existed for minorities such as members of LGBTQ or indigenous communities. 

Today Rosemblatt described a vastly different social panorama. The city has undergone a rapid pace of social change. Now one finds significantly less smog, a more dynamic and sustainable system of public transport, universities that are leaders in global conversations, booming nightlife, and much safer living and working conditions for LGBTQ people, indigenous groups, and women. 

“Chile today is an incredibly diverse society, a rapidly changing society, it’s a more fragmented society in its civil society, and from my perspective one of the political problems that Chile has is that the political system has not been able to capture and represent this diversity in Chilean society.” – Karin Rosemblatt 

Migration has also changed the landscape. In 1982, less and 1% of the population was foreign born, while today that has increased to 7.5%. At the same time, xenophobia has also been on the rise in Chile, and Rosemblatt described the immigration and asylum systems as inefficient. 

In conclusion, Chilean society has experienced substantial changes in the last 50 years, and the political system has kept up with these changes. Because of this disconnect, Chilean society, which according to Larrain has become increasingly liberal, often finds itself frustrated and discontented with political systems.

A full recording of the event can be found in our YouTube channel.