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Last Updated: 09/07/2009
The Impact of Women's Movements of the Democratic Transition in Chile and Argentina
Alyssa McGary

Alyssa McGary follows the fall of dictatorship and rise of democracy in Chile and Argentina, emphasizing the role of social movements -- especially the struggle for women's suffrage and equal rights.

The authoritarian regimes that emerged in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s marked an era of restricted individual liberties as military groups systematically used force in order to gain and maintain power over their citizens. The conceptual basis of an authoritarian regime requires the marginalization, repression, exile, or elimination of a political society; opting instead for a central omnipotent power removed from popular oversight (Chernick). By 1985, between 100,000 and 250,000 people were killed in Latin America, with thousands of others tortured under suspicion of antigovernment activities or sympathies (Blake). Fortunately, because of the inherent limitations of authoritarian governments, they fail to maintain control for extended periods of time. The transition from military rule to democratic rule was widespread throughout Latin America by the 1980s marking a desire to move towards a more politically transparent and open society with increased public participation in the social, economic and political sectors. Samuel P. Huntington, the author of The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, describes three paths to democratization: replacement, transplacement, and transformation. He describes replacement as a method used when resistance efforts debilitate the government and are able to overpower it until democracy is instated. Transplacement is a mutual agreement between the opposition and the government to commence the formation of democracy. He categorizes a country as achieving democracy via the route of transformation when political changes are mainly concentrated within the government, and factions, instigated by the elite, begin to emerge (124).

Looking at the political climate in Argentina and Chile gives a vivid description of how the path of replacement and transplacement can be accomplished. Argentina and Chile’s democratic transition typify the divergent paths towards the democratization and liberalization of an evolving government. The primary catalyst for the democratic transition that took place in both countries was a self-empowered core of civil society, which steered a movement to reinstate political parties, thereby allowing for broader representation. Similarly, each country developed internal and external pressures related to human rights abuses that served as the keystone forces in the transition to democracy. In Argentina, military defeat by the British had rippling effects on this transition; in Chile transition was affected by the military’s economic model as well as their constitutional plebiscite. In both countries, while typically being underestimated forces of change in civil society, the consistent pressure from women turned out to be a useful asset when combating authoritarian regimes. The military powers attempt to quash any viable threats to the regime. However, the status of women as politically disregarded, allowed them to make a forceful impact without being noticed. Women taking the organizing role of social movements in the absence of men (as they were missing, marginalized, disappeared) had a larger impact than anyone could have ever imagined on bringing down the military regime (Chernick).

An active political society is the link connecting civil society to the governing administration, which, in the case of a representative democracy, is most often manifested in the form of political parties. However, civil society is not technically a part of government and thereby has no authority to rule. Civil society can be defined as strictly situational: active on the level of citizen participation and as the associations they form (Chernick). Dictatorships in Argentina and Chile during the 1970s eliminated political parties in order to consolidate and maintain power, resulting in the total eradication of a political society. In the political vacuum created by an authoritarian dictatorship, the emergence of civil society movements and organizations serve to provide the only manner of systematic opposition. As the sole source of dissenting expression, this situation provides the civil society a uniquely significant and influential voice in helping to shape a transitioning government’s decisions and institutions. The concentration and abuse of power ultimately generate an environment conducive to social movements seeking economic, political, and social reparation.

Civil society movements responsive to the plight of women’s suffrage and rights were present in both Argentina and Chile but emerged for different reasons and had divergent motives. In Argentina, women emerged in response to human rights abuses while in Chile; women were confronting social and economic situations affecting their lives. Texts such as Patricia M. Chuchryk’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Women's Movement in Chile and Maryssa Navarro’s The Personal is Political: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo give illustrative examples of how the incorporation of women’s issues into the greater civil society helped spur and accelerate the expansion of democratic transitions in Chile and Argentina. Chuchruk and Navarro’s analyses of these movements explain the reasoning behind women’s actions and the effects they had on society. They both make a point to note that although these movements in Chile and Argentina both included women’s participation, they were simply part of distinct paths towards democracy.

Navarro’s excerpt focuses on Argentina, and how a group of seemingly ordinary mothers are transformed into “political subjects” (Eckstein 241). The mothers, whose children went missing during the repressive military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, refuse to remain silent and accept the regime’s “official” explanations for their children’s disappearances (Eckstein 241). The mothers, who had previously been typically apolitical housewives, break the silence about the disappearances and become a symbol of opposition to the military regime. The courts and policing institutions, under authoritarian military control, will not disclose details as to the whereabouts of their children and families. Without oversight, they are able to use disappearances as a means of intimidation and warfare to achieve social control. These disappearances transform into a policy of the dictatorship (Eckstein 247). Navarro explains that people refused to testify or bring attention to their case because the authorities told them that it would bring harm to the disappeared person’s life (Eckstein 247). The mothers, who had crossed each others’ paths while seeking information about their loved ones’ whereabouts, had been sent in circles trying to find answers or given obvious lies. Frustrated with this treatment, the mothers banded together to share information, frustration and grief.

Navarro investigates what led this otherwise unspectacular cross-section of society to lead such a momentous and influential movement. Specifically, she comments on how their meetings lead to the concept of the “personal becoming political” and the emergence of “Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo” (Eckstein). This matriarchic was unique and proactive for a number of reasons. Women, by nature of their traditional status in society, had more time to spare than men, typically spending their lives taking care of the household, which included their children and husbands. As the matriarchs, when their loved ones went missing, it was their driving principle to reclaim what had previously been their central focus. Ultimately, their success was in part due to the fact that they were politically invisible (Eckstein 257). As is often the case, women had previously held little or no stature in political society in Argentina and were seen as a no threat to the incumbent establishment. Because they were underestimated, they were able to achieve far more than men who were repressed when seen as a legitimate threat to the authoritarian regime. These were the grounds on which the “powerless” women were able to refuse to give up their search (Eckstein 249).

The process by which Argentina transitioned to democracy has been best characterized by Samuel Huntington as the process of replacement. Replacement occurs when the resistance efforts debilitate the government, overpowering it, and causes a cessation of their oppressive governance. The opposition gaining strength while the government simultaneously loses strength is key in replacing authoritarianism with democracy, lending to a gradual bloodless and popular “coup d’état.” The Argentine military regime did not want the British to have control of the Falkland Islands off the Argentina coast in the South Atlantic Ocean. This had been an ongoing dispute and the military regime, feeling invincible, launched an operation to gain full control of the islands. They did not anticipate the counterattack by the British and were defeated rather quickly. The devastating loss in the Falklands by Argentine military to the British further deteriorated and destabilized the regime, allowing the opposition to exploit their lapse in authoritarian dominance. The “once-proud military was confronting a situation of unprecedented institutional and political vulnerability” (Smith 93). In the government’s feeble state the process of replacement could have easily routed their ranks and allowed for them to be overthrown. However, the model of replacement occurred gradually in Argentina. In other countries with a history of “replacement” government transitions such as the Philippines and Greece, the military leadership collapsed far quicker. The authoritarian Argentine government managed to maintain control for six months beyond their defeat until the opposition organized mass protests to once and for all dethrone the military regime (Huntington 146). The ousted leaders in Argentina asked for “exit guarantees” as they stepped down from power, asking for an elimination of the possibility of prosecution and punishment for military officers, as well as to keep the military establishment in place (Huntington 116). Argentina’s leaders were not granted their terms and had no choice but “to agree to a virtual unconditional surrender of power” (Huntington 116). In Argentina,

international pressures did not work independently, but rather in coordination with national actors. Rapid change occurred because strong domestic human rights organizations documented abuses and protested against repression, and international pressures helped protect domestic monitor and open spaces for their protest (Keck and Sikkink 107).

This was an example of what Keck and Sikkink would call the boomerang process in full affect as the combined efforts of domestic human rights organizations and international groups puts Argentina’s situation on the international agenda. The light shown on the crimes of the Argentine regime by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo was seen by international bodies, unintentionally transforming them into political actors. The mothers’ quest for answers in accordance with other human rights groups had a significant impact on the regime in Argentina. The human rights groups made strong allegations against the regime, which in turn raised international questions in regards to the legitimacy of the Argentine government. The transition to democracy was a result of the shame and pressure the protestors placed on the military rule, escalating both domestically and internationally. The inadvertent and seemingly innocuous organization of a marginalized cross-section of Argentine society, ultimately led to a mass civil society movement at the most inopportune time for their weakened military regime.

The circumstances of the Chilean regime’s fall to democratization were similar to that of the Argentine’s, however the texts of Chuchryk and Navarro illuminate far more feminist movements in the transition to democracy as a result of the political atmosphere in Chile having a larger impact on women’s lives. Because the regime’s military-based economic model caused economic failure and an increase in poverty and unemployment, the lives of a larger population of women were adversely affected. In desperate times women would try and find work in order to put food on the table. Many found themselves in service occupations as domestic servants, and some were forced to join the workforce as “street vendors, beggars and prostitutes” (Jaquetee 68). Regardless of education level, and professional stature, wages earned by women were less than men’s. The military’s, “market-oriented approach led to the withdrawal of all the protective labor legislation for women” (Jaquetee 68). This meant that employers had the power to fire pregnant workers, give gynecological exams to make sure they were not hiring a pregnant woman and to not subsidize childcare (Jaquetee 68). Likewise, the effect the economy had on the cost of daycare and schools had a large impression on women. The government also privatized the education and healthcare sectors, resulting in fewer jobs for women who were more likely than men to be teachers and nurses.

The worsening economic situation and the women’s nonexistent stature in political society resulted in a women mobilizing in opposition to the Chilean military government. In response to the hardships of poverty and disenfranchisement, women formed the groups “ollas communes” and “comprando juntas” (Jaquetee 69). These groups promoted the ideas of women’s self-education and self-empowerment, from which they could discover that they were “capable of more than just raising children and cooking and cleaning, that indeed they were capable of political action” (Jaquetee 70). Many more feminist groups emerged pushing for women’s participation in the political sector demonstrating their ability to take on public roles in society. The feminist movement expressed the need to return to democracy and emphasized that women’s rights were a prerequisite to the ousting of authoritarian governmental control.

The reign Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1989 had many characteristics of a personal dictatorship, as he was the single military leader who had also developed other sources of power (Huntington 112). Throughout the 1980s masses mobilized in opposition to Pinochet, however they were unsuccessful in overthrowing the regime. Pinochet enforced his rule by repressing the opposition with brutal tactics such as shooting unarmed civilian protestors (Huntington 155). The regime’s quick and brutal response to any protests did not leave much room for opposition. His resistance to negotiate democratization did not last forever. A referendum passed in 1980 called for a democratic election in 1988 to determine the next 8 years of rule. In the case, the leaders agreed to elections not thinking they would be voted out of office. Women being under the radar on the political front were able to convene and discuss possibilities for change without being caught. Their ideas and demands aided in the vote against Pinochet and the struggle towards putting democratic institutions in place. When the votes were tallied, the majority voted against Pinochet, who then extricated himself from office. According to Huntington, Chile is a clear example of transplacement; the authoritarian rule under Pinochet came to an end based on the population’s vote, resulting in a peaceful turnover of power. Transplacement, according to Huntington, is a mutual agreement between the opposition and the government, to commence the formation of democracy. After the tension between the two groups resembles a stalemate, the combined efforts towards negotiation allows for change to occur.

Unlike Argentina, the women’s objectives in Chile were directly intended to alter the social, political and economic sphere of Chile. Authoritarianism, according to Chuchryk, was far more established and embedded in the Chilean culture, but the military’s rule forced women to open their eyes to gender issues. The organization of the women’s movements formed under the military regime was simultaneously accompanied by democratic transition. The women of Chile organized with a deliberate effort to change society and they ultimately succeeded in demonstrating the weaknesses of the authoritarian government. The military regime realized the opposition’s persistence and agreed to the electoral votes. This consensus between the two groups exactly matches Huntington’s description of transplacement.

Although the two women’s movements originated with different motives they both deliberately aided in bringing down authoritarian rule in Chile and Argentina. Their hard work eliminated barriers to equality and moved towards creating “a just, free and integrated society” (Jaquetee 88). The creation of feminist organizations out of women’s demonstrations has succeeded domestically and internationally to show that women are important “social and political actors in civil and political society” (Jaquetee 93). Argentina followed the model of replacement, as the opposition gains strength while the government simultaneously loses its power, while Chile follows the transplacement model with the case of negotiated transition away from authoritarian rule. The relationship between the women and the state aided to depose authoritarian regimes in Argentina and Chile, leading to sweeping democratization. The state’s perception of women as politically unintelligent and ineffective was a catalyst in the path to the military’s termination. Women’s movements, although extremely influential and groundbreaking, are just part of the whole path that led Argentina and Chile to democracy. The military government’s arrogance destroyed them, in Argentina they were arrogant enough to think they could outmaneuver Britain and in Chile they were arrogant enough to think that they could survive the plebiscite. A combination of political, economic, and social factors led to the demise of the dictatorships and the rise of democracy. It is clear that in order to understand Latin America’s transformation from non-democratic to democratic political institutions it is crucial to understand that a “struggle for democracy must include a struggle for women’s liberation” (Jaquetee 79).

Works Cited

Blake, Charles H. Politics in Latin America: The Quests for Development, Liberty, and Governance. N.p.: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Chernick, Marc. Lecture. States and Societies in Latin America. ICC, Georgetown University. 20 Oct. 2008.

Eckstein, Susan. Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. N.p.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Jaquette, Jane. The Women’s Movement in Latin America: Participation And Democracy. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

Keck, Margaret E, and Kathryn Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Smith, Peter H. Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2005.