The New York Times
December 12, 2004

15 Years After Pinochet, Chile Begins to Dismantle His Rule

SANTIAGO, Chile - Gen. Augusto Pinochet, under investigation on corruption charges and increasingly feeble, is not much of a factor in Chilean politics these days. But it is only now, nearly 15 years after he was forced to leave power, that the authoritarian governing structure he left behind to hamstring his civilian successors is being dismantled.

Thanks to an agreement between the Socialist-led coalition now in office and the right-wing opposition, Chile's Congress is set to approve a constitutional reform plan that will expand civilian authority and reduce the military's ability to interfere in governing the country. Among other items, the package restores the president's power to fire military commanders and eliminates appointive Senate seats for former military commanders.

"The political will existed, but we never had the votes in Congress to eliminate these authoritarian enclaves," Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza, the main architect of the reforms, said in an interview here. "But the moment has finally come in which a consensus has been forged to modify substantially all the decree powers that could infringe on the rights of persons and restrict public liberties."

The current Constitution, written by and for General Pinochet, dates to 1980, when it was approved in a plebiscite that human rights groups condemned as rigged. In an effort to maintain the military's primacy even in the event of a return to civilian rule, it guaranteed a permanent armed forces presence in Congress and placed roadblocks in the way of future reforms by requiring majorities of up to two-thirds to amend the Constitution.

The charter also established a National Security Council that in theory could be convened and act without the president's consent and granted the armed forces a sweeping arbiter's role as "guarantors of institutionality." That potentially intrusive authority would now be removed from the Constitution, and the powers of the National Security Council would be curtailed.

For example, the council, four of whose seven members are military officers, would no longer have a voice in naming Supreme Court justices. In addition, the reform package, which has already been approved by the Senate and is expected to pass in the lower house, demilitarizes the national police, known as the carabineros, by transferring their control from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry.

In his moves to weaken the ability of his civilian successors to undo his authoritarian system, General Pinochet also installed an unusual "binominal" electoral system that virtually guarantees minority overrepresentation in Congress. That system still remains in place, but under the reform package, it is to be removed from the Constitution and been recast as an ordinary statute, which in theory should make it easier to be suspended or modified in the future.

But some analysts do not believe that the proposed reforms go far enough. Through the Pinochet electoral system, "the right still retains veto power," complained Felipe Portales, author of the book "Chile: A Democracy Under Tutelage" and a critic of the military. "The era of formal military tutelage may be ending, but much of the basic legislation the dictatorship left behind also remains in place, which makes it difficult to reform the labor, health, tax, social security and education codes."

Former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, who had to govern for six years with his hands tied by the limits General Pinochet had imposed, is another fierce detractor. He has called for the Constitution to be junked altogether and wants a constitutional assembly to be convened to write a new charter, but that proposal, thought to be divisive, has won little support.

"This Constitution is Pinochet's, and it still has a lot of features that haven't been touched and don't belong in a democratic constitution," said Carlos Huneeus, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality. "We need a constitutional architecture that has nothing to do with Pinochet, but calling a constitutional assembly would open a Pandora's box."

Because of the restrictions in place, winning the consent of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union, for the reform package was essential. That party has always been strongly pro-Pinochet, but with a presidential vote just a year away and General Pinochet now in disgrace following revelations he had up to $8 million stashed in bank accounts abroad, the right is eager to distance itself as much as possible from its former hero.

While arguing that "some people will never forgive the fact that the Constitution originated in the military regime," Hernan Larrain, a member of the Democratic Union who is president of the Senate, acknowledged that its authoritarian features had been "a stone in the shoe of a consensus." He added: "Now we have taken those out, and the issue is closed. The rules of the game are now clear."

Some vestiges of military privilege still remain, however, in legislation rather than in the Constitution, and it is not clear how or when they will be removed. One Pinochet-era law, for instance, guarantees the armed forces a fixed percentage of revenues that a state-owned company earns from sales of copper, the country's main export product.

Senator Larrain said he thought there were advantages to the law, like making it easier to plan budget allocations. Mr. Insulza disagreed. "I think it is necessary to change this," he said. "But I'm also certain there isn't time to do it in the period remaining to this government."