1988 plebiscite and reform of the Constitution
Passed under tight military control in 1980, the Chilean constitution's legal dispositions were designed to lead to the convocation of all citizens to a plebiscite during which the Chilean people would ratify a candidate, proposed by the Chief of Staff of the Chilean Armed Forces and by the General Director of the Carabineros, the national police force, and who would become the President of Chile for an eight-year term. In 1980, this meant that the Chilean people were supposed to approve Augusto Pinochet's candidacy, assuring him popular legitimacy and the sanction of a vote. Should the people refuse the junta's chosen candidate, the military would relinquish political control to the civilians, convoking the following year presidential and parliamentary democratic elections, and thus putting an end to the military government. In 1987, Pinochet's government passed a law allowing the creation of political parties and another law allowing the opening of national registers of voters. If the majority of the people voted "yes" to Pinochet's plebiscite, he would have remained in power for the next eight years, but Congress would have been elected and installed on March 11, 1990, as in fact happened.
Touch only one of my men, and forget about the rule of law.
— Augusto Pinochet, 1989
Context and causes of Pinochet's decision to follow the Constitution
Among various causes of Pinochet's decision to resume this procedure, the situation in the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated the glasnost and the perestroika democratic reforms, which would finally lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and to the official end of the Cold War, is clearly an important factor. The Cold War had important consequences in South America, considered by the United States to be a full part of the Western Bloc, in contrast with the Eastern Bloc, a division born with the end of World War II and the Yalta Conference. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the local implementation in several countries of Che Guevara's foco theory, the US waged a war in South America against the "Communists subversives," leading to support in Chile of the right-wing, which would culminate with the coup of 1973 in Chile. In a few years, all of South America was covered by similar military dictatorships, called juntas. In Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner was in power since 1954; in Brazil, left-wing President João Goulart was overthrown by a military coup in 1964; in Bolivia, General Hugo Banzer overthrew leftist General Juan José Torres in 1971; in Uruguay, considered the "Switzerland" of South America, Juan María Bordaberry seized power in the June 27, 1973 coup. A "Dirty War" was waged all over the continent, culminating with Operation Condor, an agreement between security services of the Southern Cone and other South American countries to repress and assassinate political opponents. Militaries also took power in Argentina in 1976, and then supported the 1980 "Cocaine Coup" of Luis García Meza Tejada in Bolivia, before training the Contras in Nicaragua where the Sandinista National Liberation Front, headed by Daniel Ortega, had taken power in 1979, as well as militaries in Guatemala and in El Salvador. In the 1980s, however, the situation progressively evolved in the world as in South America, despite a renewal of the Cold War from 1979 to 1985, the year during which Gorbatchev replaced Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the USSR.
It is believed that the visit of Pope John Paul II in April 1987 may have influenced Pinochet's decision to call for elections. The Pope is shown here at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile
on April 4, 1987.
Another alleged reason of Pinochet's decision to call for elections was the April 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Chile, during which he visited Santiago, Viña del Mar, Valparaíso, Temuco, Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt and Antofagasta. Before the pontiff's pilgrimage to Latin America, during a meeting with reporters, he criticized Pinochet's regime as "dictatorial." In the words of The New York Times, he was "using unusually strong language" to criticize Pinochet and told the journalists that the Church in Chile must not only pray, but actively fight for the restoration of democracy in Chile. During his 1987 Chilean visit, the Polish pope asked Chile's 31 Catholic bishops to campaign for free elections in the country. According to George Weigel, he held a meeting with Pinochet during which they discussed the topic of the return to democracy. John Paul II would have allegedly pushed Pinochet to accept a democratic opening of the regime, and would even have called for his resignation. In 2007, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II's secretary, confirmed that, during his visit with Pinochet, the Pope asked him to step down and transfer power over to civilian authorities. During his visit to Chile, John Paul II supported the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Church-led pro-democracy, anti-Pinochet organization. John Paul II visited the Vicariate of Solidarity's offices, spoke with its workers, and "called upon them to continue their work, emphasizing that the Gospel consistently urges respect for human rights." Some have erroneously accused John Paul II of affirming Pinochet's regime by appearing with the Chilean ruler in his balcony. However, Cardinal Roberto Tucci, the organizer of John Paul II's pilgrimages revealed that Pinochet tricked the pontiff by telling him he would take him to his living room, while in reality he took him to his balcony. Tucci claims that the pontiff was "furious."
Whatever the case, political advertisement was legalized on September 5, 1987, and became a key element of the campaign for the "NO" to the referendum, which countered the official campaign which presaged a return to a Popular Unity government in case of a defeat of Pinochet. Finally, the "NO" to Pinochet won with 55.99% of the votes, against 44.01% of the votes. Thus presidential and legislative elections were called for the next year.
Furthermore, in July 1989, a constitutional referendum took place after long negotiations between the government and the opposition. If approved, 54 constitutional reforms were to be implemented, among which the reform of the way that the Constitution itself could be reformed, the restriction of state of emergency dispositions, the affirmation of political pluralism, the strengthening of constitutional rights as well as of the democratic principle and participation to the political life. All parties in the political spectrum supported the reforms, with the exception of the small right-wing Avanzada Nacional and other minor parties, and the reforms were passed with 91.25% of the vote