The state of emergency was finally lifted in 1988, and that October Chileans were permitted to hold a plebiscite on whether Pinochet’s term should be extended to 1997. After nearly 55 percent of the electorate voted no, Pinochet’s term ended in March 1990, following free presidential and legislative elections. To avert a prolongation of military rule backed by right-wing parties, the center and leftist parties united to elect a moderate, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, in December 1989. It was Chile’s first presidential election in 19 years.
Pinochet resigned the presidency as planned in 1990, but he remained the commander in chief of the armed forces. Aylwin initiated modest economic reforms and appointed a commission to investigate human rights violations by the Pinochet regime. The Aylwin government had to operate under a constitution and body of legislation that had been designed to legitimate an authoritarian regime. Changing this system was not easy, as electoral and legislative rules had been drawn up so as to limit, rather than broaden, the base of political participation and representation. Moreover, while the private sector of the economy was thriving during military rule, in part on resources and markets previously in the public domain, the public sector had been gutted.
Social needs had grown as economic growth had served to widen an already wide gap between rich and poor. The proportion of the population defined as living in poverty had risen from 20 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 1989. Growing poverty and inequality had been reinforced over the period of military rule by a 20 percent reduction in social spending.
Given the challenges the new elected governments faced, the progress they achieved in restoring social services and raising living standards was remarkable. Inflation was gradually tamed, dropping to single digits by 1995. Growth was maintained until the recession of the early 2000s. Spending on education, health care, and housing increased. Politicians, journalists, and community organizers applied continual pressure to extend the boundaries of civil and political rights.
The civilian government progressed in its attempts to hold the military accountable for human rights abuses, despite fierce resistance. The truth and reconciliation committee appointed by the Aylwin government unearthed mass graves and documented more than 3,000 cases of persons “disappeared” by the Pinochet government. Such documentation enabled parents, children, widows, and widowers of victims to claim government benefits. In the 1993 elections Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, son of Eduardo Frei Montalva, was elected president. He continued the country’s movement toward civilian-controlled politics.
Also in 1993 the former head of Chile’s secret police during the Pinochet government and his deputy were sentenced to seven- and six-year sentences for masterminding the 1976 Letelier assassination. The case, which was widely seen as a test of Chile’s fragile democracy, was appealed and upheld by the Chilean Supreme Court in May 1995.
While Chilean military leaders agreed to abide by the court’s decision, the former police commander vowed to resist arrest and called on Pinochet to intervene. Pinochet denounced the decision and challenged the authority of the Supreme Court to sentence the men. After a tense standoff between the military and the civilian government, the two convicted men were arrested in June 1995.
In 1998 Pinochet retired from the army. A judge from the Santiago Court of Appeals began to review murder charges brought against Pinochet by the Chilean Communist Party for crimes carried out during his dictatorship.
The legal proceedings against Pinochet and others who committed crimes during his regime divided Chilean society and exposed the unresolved issues remaining from that period of the nation’s history. The country debated whether to bring legal proceedings against those who committed human rights abuses and how to pursue justice without risking the overthrow of the country’s fragile democracy. Although some Chileans believed that the past should not be reopened, others argued that those responsible for the kidnappings, disappearances, and murders needed to be held accountable. "Chile" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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