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A Tale of Two Chiles, 40 Years After the Pinochet Coup

By Ségolène ALLEMANDOU (text), September 11, 2013  

Chile remains deeply split between those who believe the 1973 military coup was “inevitable”, and those seeking truth and justice for the thousands who disappeared during General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the military coup d’état led by Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, two very separate commemorations took place in the country’s capital Santiago.

The government of centre-right President Sebastian Piñera on Tuesday chose to remember the event at the Moneda presidential palace.

FRANCE-CHILE France's exiled Chileans remember 1973 coup

The left, led by former president Michelle Bachelet, chose the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which holds archives and witness testimonies to the 3,000 Chileans who died under the dictatorship.

The choice of two different venues reflects far more than mere party politics, according to Isabel Allende, a Socialist Senator and daughter of Salvador Allende who was deposed in the 1973 coup.

“The conditions still do not exist for Chile to hold a single and unified commemoration,” she said. “The country is still profoundly split in two.”

Chile’s politicians remain resolutely unable to heal the wounds of the dictatorship, which started with the September 11, 1973 coup led by Pinochet.

While both Piñera and Bachelet both condemned the human rights violations that took place under the 17-year dictatorship, their views on the political conditions that led to the coup couldn’t be further apart.

An inevitable coup?

Piñera said at Tuesday’s commemoration that the “painful fracturing of our democracy was nothing sudden or unexpected”.

“It was foreseeable, though not inevitable, outcome of the long and painful suffering of the values of the Chilean society,” said the head of the Chilean administration, which includes three senior members who openly collaborated and sympathised with the dictatorship.

Bachelet, Chilean president from 2006-2010, responded: “It is unfair to say that the military coup was inevitable.

“It is unfair to say that there was a civil war in the making, because ensuring the future of our democracy, what was needed was more democracy, not a military coup.”

Impunity and resentment

Chile is patently not ready for reconciliation, according to Franck Gaudichaud, lecturer at the University of Grenoble in southeastern France and author of “Chile 1970-1973: A thousand days that shook the world”.

“Reconciliation is all but impossible in Chile because of the impunity that still exists for the perpetrators of the regime's crimes,” he told FRANCE 24. “The dictatorship’s victims and their families want to see justice and truth.”

The dark days of the 17-year dictatorship still weigh heavily on the country. The Chilean justice system has a backlog of 1,300 cases to deal with, and of 800 regime members who have been tried, only 70 have been given prison terms, and all of these are in military prisons.

And while Pinochet’s police chief Manuel Contreras was sentenced to 200 years in prison, Pinochet himself died (in 2006) without ever being tried for his crimes.

On September 8, tens of thousands of Chileans took to the streets of Santiago in the name of human rights and justice.

“Forty years on, we are still demanding truth and justice. We won’t rest until we find out what happened to our loved ones who were arrested and went missing,” said Lorena Pizarro, leader of a relatives’ rights group.

Isabel Allende, who also spoke to the demonstrators, added: “You cannot close cycles so long as the things that have not been said are not said. Forty years have gone by and many things are starting to come out.”

A fresh start vs the status quo

Their demands for truth and justice are echoed by a growing fervour for change, which is perhaps best exemplified by a student movement that has been demonstrating for the end of the “Pinochet education system”.

These young people want a genuinely open, free and quality public education system, and a transformation of the ultra-liberal economic model that has on one hand turned Chile into one of Latin America’s most developed economies, but has also created a gulf between rich and poor.

There is also a growing movement demanding a change to a political system that is judged unrepresentative and gives too much power to the country’s elites.

Chile goes to the polls on November 17 in a presidential election in which Socialist former president Michelle Bachelet is the firm favourite.

Bachelet, herself imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime, is promising profound political reforms including a re-drawing of the country’s constitution to replace the constitution imposed by Pinochet in 1980.

Her main rival on the right, Evelyn Matthei, seems to be less interested in the growing desire among Chileans to turn a page in the country’s history: Matthei, whose political career is a direct product of the Pinochet legacy, is firmly behind resolute maintenance of the status quo.

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