Over the last several weeks, Chile’s image as the political and economic darling of Latin America has been shattered. Sparked by a meager hike in subway fares, protests and marches have now metastasized into the worst unrest the country has seen since its transition to democracy in 1990. The president, Sebastián Piñera, has declared war on protesters, invoked a state of emergency, and unleashed a repressive crackdown that invokes memories of the last phase of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
Shocked observers have struggled to understand these events, especially in light of the fact that Chile is Latin America’s most prosperous country and one of its most politically stable. But those facts have always masked a much deeper and darker problem: The last vestiges of Chile’s dictatorship were never entirely rooted out, and the persistent influence of former authoritarian elites and those who directly inherited their legacy over democratic politics is part of what is bringing protesters out on the streets today.
In this, Chile is hardly exceptional. In the 1980s and 1990s, most Latin American countries transitioned to democracy. But outgoing dictators and their inner circles rarely withdrew from politics. Instead, many authoritarian-era elites—including former dictators, junta members, cabinet ministers, and party officials—retained high-level posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and in the military and local governments. In fact, post-transition, authoritarian-era elites in Latin America held on to high-level positions in one or more branches of government in roughly half of all years between 1900 and 2015.
Consider Chile. After its democratic transition in 1990, elites from the outgoing Pinochet dictatorship retained prominent positions in the military, National Congress, and local government well into the early 2010s. Pinochet himself remained head of the Chilean military until 1998 and a designated senator until 2002. Former junta member Gen. Rodolfo Stange Oelckers was a national senator until 2006, and former Government Minister Col. Cristián Labbé was mayor of Santiago’s wealthy Providencia neighborhood until 2012.
Meanwhile, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), a conservative party founded in the run-up to the democratic transition, brought together a host of military officers, cabinet ministers, business elites, and local politicians with close ties to the dictatorship. Many of the UDI’s initial founders were in their late 20s and early 30s at the time of the transition and therefore still comprise an important component of the Chilean right. The country’s recently sacked interior minister, who initially tried to quell the protests with government repression, was one of the UDI’s founding leaders and earliest national deputies. Another early UDI leader, Hernán Larraín, still heads the Justice Ministry.
When former authoritarian elites capture important posts across a new democratic government, they can use their leverage to push policy decisions toward protecting their own interests over citizens’. In Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship enshrined its political and economic project in an authoritarian constitution in 1980 that was then bequeathed to the democracy, this has meant bolstering institutional stability to avoid changing the practices and structures that benefit allies of the old regime.
In the early 1990s, for example, authoritarian-era elites successfully diluted labor and tax reforms that they believed would harm the wealthy and threaten their authoritarian project. Today, Chile remains one of Latin America’s most unequal countries and one of the most unequal in the elite group of nations that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Not surprisingly, sky-high inequality is one of today’s protesters’ key targets. Indeed, over time, authoritarian influence becomes a recipe for broad unrest. Protests against a small increase in subway fares blow up to become demands for fundamental political change; the whole elite class is seen as out of touch with the everyday life of common citizens.
This same process continues to unfold throughout the region. Take Peru, for example, where a standoff between the president and congressional opposition over nominations to the country’s Constitutional Court devolved into an ongoing constitutional crisis and mass protests in October. The issue ties back to the collapse of the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship in Peru in late 2000 amid allegations of widespread corruption.
In the immediate aftermath of the democratic transition, authoritarian elites were all but barred from government. But Peru’s authoritarian-era elites would eventually make a stunning comeback: By 2007, former members of Peru’s Congress and cabinet ministers from the dictatorship held key positions in the Congress and regional government. Additionally, under the leadership of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former dictator, the diverse factions that comprised the Fujimori political movement were consolidated into a new political party that would emerge in 2016 as the largest party in Peru, capturing a majority of seats in the Congress.
In recent years, this new political party, Popular Force, has forced the ouster of the president, blocked attempts to investigate corruption, and pushed forward its preferred judicial candidates without consideration of proposed reforms. It is no surprise that Peruvians eventually got fed up and have pushed to diminish the party’s—and other elites’—influence.
As in Chile and Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Brazil all transitioned to democracy without punishing former authoritarian elites for their past misdeeds or even excluding them from positions of power under democracy. For instance, in Brazil, elites from the most recent military dictatorship still hold an array of posts and advisory positions across government. And far-right President Jair Bolsonaro now draws heavily on his alliance with the military in the day-to-day operation of the country.
Of course, the persistence of elites from an authoritarian past is rarely sufficient to trigger widespread unrest. But stalling economic growth can cast that influence in a new light, especially in countries where judiciaries, political parties, and independent regulators have allowed corruption to thrive and waste to proliferate.
But as Chile shows, even financially responsible and successful economies cannot entirely placate citizens when there is a yawning gap between the haves and have-nots, especially when many of the haves got there because of their ties to a brutal past. In these scenarios, incumbent political elites can quickly cause backlash by implementing unpopular economic policies and then reacting to popular opposition with disbelief. These galling responses drive citizens to recognize these politicians for what they are: out of touch.