290. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

No. 55


  • Frei Moves to Break Political Impasse in Chile

President Eduardo Frei has faced up squarely to the major political crisis which began on January 17 when the Chilean Senate denied him permission to leave the country for a visit to the US.2 He has chosen to force what may be a political showdown with his opposition rather than to risk further erosion of his leadership and authority to execute foreign policy and to implement his domestic program. Although the outcome of Frei’s struggle with the opposition is by no means assured, his prospects of success now seem reasonably good.

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Frei will fight. Frei will be both aggressive and shrewd in combatting the presently united Senate opposition. He undoubtedly hopes to inflict sufficient damage within opposition ranks to ensure a viable course for his program during the remaining three years of his tenure in office. He will try to use to full advantage the sympathy for him and outrage toward the Senate opposition felt by many Chileans who Consider that their national prestige has been tarnished. His proposal for a constitutional amendment which would allow him to dissolve Congress and call new elections has apparently taken the initiative away from the opposition and frightened some sectors within it. In his battle to sustain his political leadership, Frei will probably rely heavily upon generating and channelling public opinion to support his cause and confound his enemies. At the same time, he will seek to divide the fragile and eventually untenable togetherness which at present unifies the right, the Radical center, and the extreme left. On the tactical level, Frei has already begun to oust officeholders belonging to the opposition parties—principally Radicals—from government jobs.

The escalating conflict. The spectacular success of Frei and his Christian Democratic Party (PDC) in the 1964 and 1965 elections badly shook the opposition parties. Instead of the traditional Chilean Government by coalition and compromise, the opposition was faced with a well-defined program backed by a party controlling a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and the largest single bloc (13 of 45 seats) in the Senate. Initially, the opposition sought to delay and compromise, but the President’s resistance to any watering down of his program, reinforced by his continued popular support, brought about a hardening of opposition which finally came to a head on January 17 in the Senate veto of his US visit.

A blow where it hurts most. Frei has devoted much time and effort to developing a position of leadership in hemispheric affairs. As one of the outstanding Latin American advocates of social reform within a democratic framework, he has travelled widely to express his views to other leaders in the Hemisphere and in Europe. Frei hoped to use the occasion of his planned trip to the US to strengthen his prestige and to discuss with President Johnson topics which may appear on the agenda of the Summit meeting that is under consideration for April. The opposition parties not only bore a cumulative grudge against Frei over domestic issues but also strongly resented the boost to Frei’s standing which the US visit would have represented. Their refusal to allow him to leave the country was a measure of this resentment and an attempt to undercut Frei’s prestige by casting doubt on his authority in Chile.

The Senate’s action arouses uncertainty as to whether Frei will attend the proposed Summit meeting, where he would be expected to play an influential role. For the moment, at least, Frei’s attention has focused so sharply upon his domestic concerns that he undoubtedly has relegated the Summit meeting to second place in his order of priorities.

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Constitutional reform proposal challenges opposition. The opposition-controlled Senate can maintain its bottleneck on Frei’s legislative program and—as has been seen—can seriously hamper his conduct of foreign policy; at least until the next congressional elections in 1969. To overcome this stalemate is now the principal task facing Frei; to do so without either sacrificing vital aspects of his program or abandoning his democratic principles poses a major challenge to his ingenuity. Confident of his public support, Frei denounced his obstructionist opposition on January 19 in announcing the constitutional reform proposal to allow dissolution of Congress and holding of new elections. Rejecting both compromise and unconstitutional methods, he challenged the opposition parties to let the people decide who should speak for them.

Frei has stated his case in such terms that an outright rejection of the reform proposal by the opposition parties would be tantamount to an admission that they fear elections, and that Frei is right in calling the opposition “unrepresentative.” Nevertheless, the proposed constitutional amendment is complicated, and Congress could well spend many months discussing and amending it. Moreover, the constitution requires that 60 days elapse between passage of an amendment by both houses and final approval by a joint session. Meanwhile, the municipal elections on April 2 will test the state of public opinion and thus each party’s chances in national elections. A great victory by the PDC would adversely affect the prospects for passage of the constitutional amendment, so far as opposition party acquiescence is concerned; and a poor showing by the PDC would be likely to cause the administration to reconsider its position on the amendment; if neither extreme occurs, the amendment may well go through.

Can Frei win? Frei’s personal commitment to his program and to the battle to establish presidential authority gives him an intangible but very real psychological advantage. He seems to have maintained very substantial popular support and the personal affront administered him by the opposition has almost certainly enhanced his popular appeal. His constitutional reform proposal obviously entails considerable risk to the PDC, but perhaps even more to the opposition. Certainly the risk to some Radical and National Party senators is so great that the very threat of the proposed amendment may provide useful opportunities for disarming some elements of the Senate opposition, and perhaps thus open the way for new working arrangements within the present Senate.3

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, OPR/FAIM/IS Files: Lot 81 D 121, Chile (INR), Background Intelligence Notes and Memorandums, 1963–1974. Confidential.
  2. President Johnson announced on December 20, 1966, that Frei had accepted his invitation to make an official visit to Washington February 1–2, 1967. The statement included the following remark: “I am particularly interested in learning more from President Frei about the achievements of his great experiment of revolution in freedom.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book II, pp. 1446–1447) Senators who opposed the visit cited this remark in refusing to grant permission for Frei to leave the country. (New York Times, January 18, 1967) Although both sides continued to discuss the possibility of a visit, Frei never visited the United States as President of Chile.
  3. The proposal to amend the constitution was passed on December 30, 1969, and signed into law on January 21, 1970. In addition to a provision for national referenda, the amendment allowed the President to leave the country for 2 weeks without congressional approval. The amendment took effect on November 4, 1970—the day after Frei left office.