293. Letter From the Ambassador to Chile (Dungan) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Gordon)1

Dear Linc:

Before getting into the main business of this letter, I want to offer my most sincere congratulations to you as the person most responsible for the success of the Punta del Este meeting. I know that in many ways it was the product of team effort, but I also know that without your persistent and wise leadership it could have been a fiasco. We are all in your debt.

It occurred to me that while you had the benefit of our various cabled analyses of the recent municipal elections,2 you might like to have [Page 644]an informal rundown of the situation as I see it. There is no doubt that the Frei government and the PDC took a drubbing in the eyes of the public and the world, despite the fact that they made substantial gains in the number of local officials whom they elected, and despite the fact that they held onto significant elements of the electorate. In my opinion the psychological defeat which they suffered was due in large measure to their political error of projecting the municipal election as a plebiscite. The situation is not dissimilar to that which we have in the United States. You know the reluctance of an incumbent President to commit his prestige in a Congressional election, but it would be virtually impossible to get a President to put his prestige on the line in a whole series of local contests. I’m really at a loss to know why this happened here, and the only reason that I can deduce is that, stung by the Senatorial rebuke in January, Frei felt that he had to strike back in a decisive way. Moreover, I think he was bemused by the prospect that the magic of Freismo could even pull him through an election in which local issues and candidates traditionally have dominated the picture.

If he had not made it a plebiscite he could have very well argued that this was simply a normal return of voters to their traditional political homes. If, on the other hand, the PDC had come out as everyone was predicting they would, he could have claimed it as a magnificent surge in support of his program despite the normal trend in municipal elections. There is no doubt that the plebiscite decision was a major political blunder which is now well recognized here in Chile.

But regardless of the psycho-political effect, do the election returns have any real significance in terms of indicating an ideological or political preference of the electorate? I am inclined to think not. I believe that the Chilean electorate is essentially a conservative electorate, but a large part of it is also unsophisticated and really not clued in to the real issues on a day-to-day basis. They tend to participate in elections every three or four years without any continuing involvement, through the press or otherwise, in what could be called “issue politics.” Moreover, in each election there is a rather substantial group of new voters whose political allegiances are increasingly difficult to predict. My own belief is that local candidates and a certain discontent over PDC style (prepotencia), and the adverse effect of stabilization on upper and middle class voters combined to drive voters into their traditional political patterns.

If the election does not represent a significant shift in the sociopolitical opinions of the electorate, it does represent a reshaping of party political strength—the net effect of which is to shift the effective political spectrum left. This may sound somewhat involved, but let me describe what I mean. The Radical Party is in the control, and is likely to remain in the control, of a Marxist-oriented faction. As a minority and power-hungry party, the temptation to amalgamate with other elements [Page 645]will be overpowering, as we are now seeing in the Colchagua Senatorial election where the Radicals have joined in support of a Socialist candidate. I believe that the Communists will give tacit support to this kind of a coalition, and among the three of them, on the basis of the municipal percentages, they control more than 45% of the vote. If you add to this grouping some disaffected left-wing PDCers and some spiteful Nacionales, you have a majority of the Chilean electorate. The only coalition of forces (not necessarily of parties) is left leaning. There does not appear to me to be any attraction on the right. I would like to think that there is some possibility of the center left elements in the Radicals regaining control of their party and mobilizing their share of the electorate in support of some sort of a loose arrangement with the PDC, but I honestly do not see it. Surprising though it may seem, the anti-clerical basis of radicalism is present here, but even more important, is the rejection by the moderate elements of the Radicals, including Julio Duran, of the reformist policies and programs which the PDC and we have backed in Chile in recent years.

Looking ahead, the picture as I see it is as follows. First, there will be a two to two and a half year period of jockeying and flirtations between Radicals and Socialists, perhaps some elements of the PDC with the Communists, and probably continued friction between the Communists and the Socialists. In short, the political picture in the immediate future is likely to be very murky.

In the face of this, the Christian Democrats are faced with basically two choices. First, nailing their shirt to the mast and plowing ahead with their program, changing their rhythm to accord with economic reality, and I believe most importantly, abandoning their ideological penchant and attempting to build bridges to any respectable element in the community which will support a progressive program. I describe this political policy as pursuit of the politics of consensus, and abandoning the politics of ideology.3 I believe that Frei can do this because he is by far the strongest political force within the PDC. If he puts himself forward as President of all the Chileans and makes clear in ways that he has not done heretofore that he is working for the welfare of the bulk of the Chileans, he may be able to pull it off. In other words, he must seek to build around a core of 30–35% of the electorate [Page 646]a sufficient number of people who believe in the soundness of his program to carry his party and his candidate to victory in 1970. This will take some doing because it involves very courageous acts on the economic side and a really completely new style of Chilean politics.

The alternative to Frei being able to pull this off, I think, is a return to the old system of three political forces, with the Presidency probably going to a so-called Popular Front candidate elected with the basic support of the Radicals and Socialists, and I believe, the tacit support of the Communists. In such a situation the PDC would come in with about 30% of the vote and the Nationals with about 15–20%. It is impossible to predict what kind of a program such a government would advance, but I cannot but think that it would be either a do-nothing government or one which would be oriented radically to the left.4

For the moment I really don’t think there is very much for us to do except to keep our lines open to all elements, especially the Radicals and the Nationals, and wait for the situation to clarify somewhat. I think we should continue to support the bulk of the Frei program because it is the most sensible—indeed the only coherent program in Chile today. However, I think our support must be extended with a firmer hand than probably has characterized our effort here in the past. I do not mean by this to be self-accusatory, although undoubtedly we have made mistakes. I am simply reflecting my conviction that the situation is a good deal crunchier at the present time than it was before the April elections. It’s an up-hill fight, politically and economically, and is going to require a higher degree of discipline on their part than they were willing to accept heretofore. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are part of the disciplinary side of the equation.

I hope these thoughts may serve to clarify rather than to confuse those of you who are trying to make something out of this complex situation. I assure you that we are not pessimistic but that we, as I think the present government does, recognize the need for change of style and a change of pace. I don’t think there’s much danger of a strong shift to the left within the PDC, but only the next few months will be able to give us a clear indication of that.

With every best wish.


  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA Files, 1967: Lot 70 D 150, Chile 1967. Confidential; Official–Informal. A notation on the letter indicates it was sent on April 24.
  2. The “cabled analyses” are telegrams 3420, 3468, and 3658 from Santiago, April 3, 5, and 14, respectively. (All ibid., Central Files 1967–69, POL 18–1 CHILE) The Christian Democratic Party received 36 percent of the vote; the Radical Party finished second with 16 percent; the Communist, National, and Socialist parties split the remainder.
  3. In a May 16 letter to Dungan, Gordon replied that he was “heartily in accord” with this conclusion: “In observing the FreiTomic dichotomy over the last year, I have been increasingly impressed with the absurdity of Tomic’s notion that the PDC could be made into a kind of Chilean PRI (in Mexican terms), and concerned at various missed opportunities to seek the support of moderate Radicals and others outside the PDC fold. Is there anything that we might do to encourage your recommended trend, other than friendly conversations when the opportunity permits?” (Ibid., ARA Files, 1967: Lot 70 D 150, Chile 1967)
  4. Sayre wrote the following comment in the margin: “This is puzzling since Socialists are farther to the left than Communists.” Gordon also picked up on this point in his letter of May 16 cited above: “Given the extremely radical position of the Socialists, and your own description on page 2 of the controlling Radical faction as Marxist oriented, why should one be confident that a Popular Front Presidency would not ‘be oriented radically to the left.’ On the face of it, that would seem precisely the orientation to be expected.” (Ibid.)