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date: 26 February 2021

Chile: Military and Politics in the 20th Centurylocked

  • Brian LovemanBrian LovemanProfessor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, San Diego State University

Summary

Despite the common identification of Chile as “exceptional” among Latin American nations, the military played a key role in 20th-century Chilean politics and continues to do so in the first decades of the 21st century. Both 20th-century constitutions were adopted under military tutelage, after military coups: two coups—1924–1925 (the 1925 Constitution) and the military coup in 1973 (the 1980 constitution). A successful coup in 1932 established the short-lived “Chilean Socialist Republic.” Infrequent but sometimes serious failed military coups decisively influenced the course of Chilean politics: 1912, 1919, 1931–1932 (several), 1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1939, 1948, 1954, 1969, June 1973, 1986 (“coup within the coup” against Augusto Pinochet by air force officers), and others. Monographic and article-length histories of each of these events exist detailing their rationale and eventual failure.

Severe political polarization in the context of the post-Cuban Revolution Cold War wave of military coups (1961–1976) in Latin America resulted in the breakdown of the Chilean political system in 1973. U.S. support for a military coup to oust the elected socialist president exacerbated the internal political strife. When a military junta ousted socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973, the military leaders claimed that they had ousted the Allende government to rescue Chilean democracy from the threat of international communism and civil war, and to restore the 1925 Constitution and the rule of law

In 1973, the armed forces established a dictatorship that lasted almost 17 years and imposed a new constitution that is still in place in 2020 (with amendments). During this period (1973–1990), military officers occupied ministerial posts in the presidential cabinet, a military junta (Junta de Gobierno) acted as the legislature, and much of the public administration was militarized. Massive human rights violations took place involving all three branches of the armed forces and the national police (carabineros). After a plebiscite that rejected continued rule by General Augusto Pinochet and elections in 1989, the country returned to civilian government in March 1990.

From 1990 until 2020 the country experienced gradual “normalization” of civil–military relations under elected civilian governments. After 1998, the threat of another military coup and reestablishment of military government largely disappeared. Constitutional reforms in 2005 reestablished much (but not all) of civilian control over defense and security policy and oversight of the armed forces. Nevertheless, reorganization of defense and security policymaking remained salient political issues and the armed forces continued to play an important role in national politics, policymaking, and internal administration.

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