How we won democracy in Chile

Fernando Aliaga Rojas

Following his defeat in a national referendum, Chilean president General Augosto Pinochet was forced to call free presidential elections for 14 December 1989. The candidate of the democratic opposition, Patrício Aylwin, scored an easy victory over Pinochet's designated successor.
Fernando Aliaga Rojas works with Servicio Paz y Justicia both in Chile and at the international level.

The happiness that evening of 14 December 1989 spread spontaneously along the downtown streets. After a 16-year-long military dictatorship, democracy had been regained in Chile. It was gained by walking the road of nonviolence, through political strategy and elections.

There is still a long road to walk, but this experience gives us the confidence to continue. We have turned pain into the strength of the oppressed. The methods and politics of our nonviolent struggle against dictatorship are interrelated and characterised below. Many actions were developed by groups that dared to challenge repression.

Crying out the truth

After the 11 September 1973 military coup and the subsequent human rights violations, a huge silence, the result of threats and terror, hung over Chile. No one dared to denounce torture in front of the courts. There was a traumatic muteness. It was at this point that the Church became the voice of the voiceless. The expression that gave birth to the whole organisational process was very simple: "Cry out the truth!" It was a cry for justice, a way to release the pain and despair.

Because it was impossible to keep silent, women and relatives of the disappeared expressed their silence in public. Worried about the fate of their loved ones, women began to come together and organise, and later to develop initiatives around social and justice issues.

These first nonviolent actions tried to inspire others by proclaiming the value of "crying out the truth." These actions included printing clandestine pamphlets and leaflets, painting slogans on walls at night and -- at great risk to their safety -- denouncing human rights violations at the Organisation of American States (OAS) commission meeting in Santiago in July 1974.

Underlying these actions was the principle of active nonviolence: if there is injustice, the first requirement is to report it, otherwise you are an accomplice. This principle was spread in numerous ways and helped overcome the double suffering of the people: the suffering of the original violence, and the suffering caused by having to keep silence about it. This principle also created support for telling the truth and acting on it.

Finding spaces for freedom

The dictatorship's goal was to divide and isolate citizens in their own homes. This increased tensions and violence within families, and made finding meeting places very important. There had to be a conscientious response against the regime's intentions, and effort to break the circle of isolation.

We needed to find places to hold meetings, to make the meeting places known and to create activities that would help the growth of sharing and solidarity. In some parishes there was total support, while in others only "reliable" people were allowed to participate. It was necessary to exchange information about the location of fasts and meetings and where solidarity-building cultural shows could be held. This catalogue of information was very useful and had to be updated continually.

One of the biggest challenges during the first few years, and another example of active nonviolence, was to find places to hide people. Many church people and embassies helped people leave the country or hid them for the necessary length of time.

The main object was to have refuges which could save people's lives and end their isolation, where activities could be held that would help people express solidarity and keep a sense of values alive. Little by little handicraft workshops offered a way of earning some money and a place to raise people's awareness, while providing a safe screen.

Finally, together with Church boarding houses, there were some places where people could meet with a degree of freedom. These included cafes and restaurants like the popular "Don Peyo", where politically marked people could meet to exchange news and plan activities.

Initiatives and strategic training

Denouncing repression and human rights violations demanded great creativity. There is a long list of such protests: those organised by relatives of the disappeared; the imaginative ones carried out by students -- like when they tried to plant 19 trees, representing Eduardo Jara's age when he was murdered; and the times people got on buses to give passengers news about the regime's injustices. Pamphlets were continually distributed.

There was a wonderful creativity expressed in jokes, popular plays, songs and in other ways. Almost all the cultural workshops and artistic events expressed this. How can we forget the "Human Rights Cantata" and the lighting of candles in the shanty towns? Active nonviolence offered training and strategy during all these activities.

Training was considered a necessity for people who faced arrest. We had the assistance of psychologists who taught us techniques about controlling our body, overcoming fear and resisting psychological torture. Everyone had to be prepared, especially human rights activists. Some of the training took place when visiting prisoners in jail. Training was incorporated into fasts and hunger strikes, taking advantage of the time participants had during these actions.

We offered advice and evaluation to everyone who planned public actions. The "Sebastian Acevedo" movement against torture improved so much that it became one of the biggest of such movements. Many tactics were used to neutralise any possible spying by the secret police (DINA). These tactics varied from the simplest, like a chain of people who communicated with key words, to the more sophisticated, like writing messages on the back of bus tickets.

In general all the permanent groups incorporated strategic thinking and planning in their denunciations of human rights abuses. During the protests of 1982-1983 we could even offer courses in nonviolence training. A network of shanty town leaders who could organise teams and tactics was available for this.

The political purpose

Such active nonviolence developed methods of regaining democracy through ways that didn't bolster a government which gained support, or felt it did, each time an armed group arose to fight against.

Most Chileans backed the strategy of following a political path to regain democracy, so it was necessary to struggle on several fronts. It was fundamental to struggle for the right to belong to a political party. Many people were arrested, tortured and killed in defence of this right. As a result of this, we gained a great deal of support from abroad and many condemnations of the Chilean military government.

Another key objective was the reorganisation of society so as to create and support base organisations. Thousands of activists visited shanty towns, at a risk of great personal danger, to do this. They organised a network of groups and committees, especially in the poorer districts.

The third factor that led to a restoration of democracy was the consensus developed among the political parties. The unity of the democratic opposition was the key in the October 1988 plebiscite victory.

Finally, education for democracy -- linked to educating people about human rights and using all the community education techniques -- was very important. We tried to involve the pobladores (poor people) by organising participatory seminars on liberation struggles. We taught people's history, with an analysis based on real experiences, and encouraged thinking about solutions to social conflicts. We included chapters on the history of the workers movement, political parties and civil education. Our summer schools made a valuable contribution to the struggle.

Political strategies and mass participation strengthened the struggle for change. The stress put on action as an educational process was linked with work in the political parties, so our defence of human rights had a real political impact.

That is why we in Chile say that active nonviolence has proven itself as a methodology for struggle, a methodology that takes its inspiration from moral values and that gave our people the strength to regain democracy.

Translated by Roberta Bacic

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