The Emergence and Consolidation of Opposition to Authoritarian Rule

Under what conditions does the opposition survive despite extreme repression? How does government violence mobilize the opposition? When are we likely to observe the consolidation of mass mobilization? My book project examines these three questions about the relationship between repression and mobilization in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

The first main argument is that as long as state violence is directed indiscriminately or collectively to large segments of the population we are extremely unlikely to observe mass mobilization. We are also unlikely to observe public mobilization by the top targets of a capable state. If they continue organizing at all, the top targets will do so underground. In clandestinity, opposition groups with a compartmentalized organizational structure and underground organizing capability are likely to have a higher survival rate than those without those qualities. The larger the ideological distance between the regime and the opposition group the more likely the opposition group is to have a compartmentalized structure and underground organizing capability. Therefore, ideologically more extreme opposition groups will tend to have higher rates of survival than more moderate ones. This theoretical framework explains the puzzle about the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR), an ultraleftist political movement that had a comparatively high rate of survival even though it was the top target of the secret police.

But even collective and largely indiscriminate violent repression does not preclude all actors from engaging in public opposition. The relatives of the disappeared organized the first documented public protests after the coup in Chile, demanding information about the whereabouts of their loved ones and denouncing the regime’s human rights record. Labor unions, despite being targeted heavily due to their links to the Communist Party, were sometimes able to organize public demonstrations of opposition. These groups were able to publicly oppose the regime, albeit at a small scale and by making modest demands, thanks in large part to protector institutions. Catholic priests at the local level and the Cardinal’s Vicariate of Solidarity at the national level played the role of a protector institution in this case—an organization that the government needs for legitimacy and that is willing to lend some safeguards to the opposition. Protector institutions lower the cost of high-risk activism and increase the cost of state repression. In communities that suffered high levels of repression but where the local priest was pro-opposition, the relatives were able to organize public protests. Localities with pro-Pinochet priests remained demobilized. This explanation helps solve the puzzle of public demonstrations in some localities at a time when the state was using indiscriminate and generalized collective violent repression against its citizens.

Finally, under what conditions are we likely to observe the consolidation of a mass movement? I argue that mass mobilization emerges through a process of alliance formation. Without alliances mass mobilization is not possible because there is usually no single group in society with the convening power to rally hundreds of thousands or millions of people. There are two main competing considerations for any civil society group confronted with the choice to form or join an alliance. The first is reducing the probability of suffering violent repression and the second is achieving political success. Therefore, a reduction in violent repression allows civil society organizations to forge alliances, making mass mobilization more likely.

I develop and test these arguments at the subnational level in the case of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile from 1973 to 1990. The manuscript presents data from four original datasets based on tens of thousands of pages of archives from Chile and the United States, and more than 100 interviews with the protagonists of the conflict conducted during eight months of fieldwork in Chile. The datasets contribute to our understanding of the 18-year period of Pinochet’s rule at different levels of analysis. It triangulates data from various sources and overcomes important biases in the literature such as the focus on large and successful movements, the aggregated measurement of repression, and the assumption that the Catholic Church is a unitary actor. I partly address these challenges by dramatically expanding the range of opposition groups under study, and by including not only major movements, but also small and failed attempts. I also use micro-level and time-series data, some of which allow me to employ a regression discontinuity design. These methods and data help address the endogenous relationship between repression and mobilization.