This article was originally published on The Santiago Times in September 2013 - By Charlotte Sexauer.
Chile is a country divided, one whose citizens often disagree on the best way to deal with their past. There are those who want to move on and look forward, and others who think society cannot reconstruct itself until it acknowledges what happened on Sept. 11, 1973.
Forty years on from the military coup, supporters of Gen. Augusto Pinochet are still very present in the Chilean landscape, defending his regime and its policies. The 17- year military dictatorship did not end with a democratic shift, but rather a transition that kept Pinochet a very real part of Chilean politics. The country’s constitution, written by the military government 10 years before the end of the dictatorship, kept Pinochet as head of the military until 1998, and then as senator for life. In fact, Pinochet did not leave Chilean politics until 2002 when he resigned, citing his ailing health.
His supporters, and those who were violently oppressed by his regime, live alongside one another daily — creating deep divides in the country’s society.
A divided public opinion
A recent poll by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality (CERC) highlights how split public opinion remains in Chile. Although the majority of respondents said Pinochet was a dictator, 9 percent said he will go down as one of the greatest leaders in history. Sixteen percent of respondents over the age of 60 believe former President Salvador Allende was responsible for the coup, and 69 percent of polled voters from the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) — which is the country’s most popular party, winning the ballots of up about one-fifth of Chile voters — believe there was a reason for the coup and that it freed Chile from the “threat of Marxism.”
Gonzalo Rojas, historian, professor at the Universidad Católica, and board member of the Fundación Presidente Pinochet, said the problems with the way one approaches the coup and the dictatorship are manifold.
“There was an official policy of human rights violations, but all the terrorist aggressions which cost the life of many civilians and military have been forgotten,” Rojas told The Santiago Times.
Shaken by a resurgence in student protests, Chile can appear to the outsider as a bastion of social movements fighting for civil liberties and human rights. The reality is these aspects are coupled with institutionalized conservatism.
On Sept. 11, 1973, 40 years ago, Chile’s future changed forever. Allende was toppled by a military coup which began at 6:30 a.m. in the port city of Valparaíso and reached Santiago two hours later. Pinochet, who had been made commander-in- chief of the army by Allende less than a month before, led the uprising and ruled the country until 1990, when democratic elections planned for in the 1980 Constitution led to a transition of power.
The coup’s brutality set the pace for the following years during which the military rule perpetrated human rights violations and thousands of people were “disappeared.” It is estimated more than 200,000 Chileans were forced into exile, and more than 1,000 cases of disappearances are still unresolved — with their families fighting to know the truth.
‘Descent into chaos’
Forty years later, public discourse in Chile is divided, especially among politicians who argue over the best way to reflect over the events and integrate them into Chilean history. But many argue the coup began well before 1973 and, for many Pinochet supporters, this aspect is too often overlooked. Mario Sepúlveda Ramírez, 61, said he thinks military intervention was the only solution by 1973, as Chile had reached a point of no return.
“For various reasons, from 1970 the country began polarizing politically and the Allende government propelled actions which threatened the traditional life of our society,” Sepúlveda told The Santiago Times.
Sepúlveda identified these changes as populist movements, the nationalization of copper and changes to the education system. These reforms combined nationalization of key economic enterprises with drastic redistributions of wealth.
Due to U.S. restriction of Chile’s credit, the country struggled to import goods. Black markets sprang up to meet the demand, and some became wary of the economic measures Allende took to confront these problems.
For Sepúlveda, “these things caused distrust and nervousness,” among Chileans. He said putting workers, who had no experience of running companies, in charge led the country toward more problems.
“It was decided that people’s representatives should manage companies, on the grounds that the owners were unfair, thieves, and so on.” Sepúlveda said. “Countries and companies ... should be managed by people trained for that, and so soon after, Chile descended into chaos.”
He used the example of his family’s drugstore, one of the many local businesses which suffered from shortages during an Oct. 1972 truck drivers’ strike, which soon turned into a general strike countrywide.
“We never had milk, or ham, or toothpaste, shampoo etc., and one day a truck would arrive and within one minute, a line formed reaching the next block waiting for us to sell it,” he said. “Obviously the delivery was only for 20 people, and when everything was sold, people from the Board of Supplies and Prices (JAP) appeared. They were sent by the government and organized by neighborhood and demanded and verified that everything had been sold. And all had sold, so imagine the mess it caused. This is what I’m talking about — a country in chaos, a broken country.”
The lead-up: Allende’s 'failures'
For Pinochet supporters, this strike was proof that Allende’s socialist measures were hurting the population and that the middle class was once again taking the fate of their country in their hands.
The country was growing increasingly divided over the president’s policies. Allende was elected in 1970 with 36.6 percent of the vote and his election was then ratified by Congress, making him the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America.
Political unrest and divisions grew up until 1973. What most “Pinochetistas” will tell you is that the coup was not a surprise. It did not happen overnight, for no reason,
with no backing. And they’re not completely wrong — there had already been one failed coup against Allende, known as the “Tanquetazo” or tank putsch, a few months before. However there are disputes as to who engineered the strikes and other social dissents that led to the military’s September intervention.
“What’s important for me is that a part of the population began looking to the military as a solution,” Sepúlveda said.
The military had the support of the political right as well as a section of the Christian Democratic (DC) party. Initially planned by the Armed Forces, the coup was also backed by the U.S.
Chilean Congress had recently approved a resolution denouncing an institutional breakdown in the government — claiming the Allende administration refused to enact approved reforms. However, a constitutional accusation was not pursued.
For Sepúlveda, this is further proof society was getting fed up with Allende, and justified the intervention of the military, which was seen as the only way out.
“When chaos and disorder reign in a country, and it goes beyond understanding, the Armed Forces intervene to bring back order,” he said.
What came next, Sepúlveda argues, was no surprise either.
“It was clear that if the military arrived, they would do so in the way they were trained: without asking questions, only giving orders,” he said. “But people on the left didn’t think, or refused to think, and pushed the country into an abyss out of which the only way out, at that time for the vast majority of Chileans, was the arrival of the military.”
2013: The legacy
Today, the Fundación Presidente Pinochet works to preserve the legacy of its namesake. Rojas told The Santiago Times that the organization works in two ways, promoting private funding for college scholarships and disseminate Pinochet’s work through publications and conferences. According to Rodrigo Iturriaga Delgado, former head of the Fundación, some Pinochetistas are disappointed that more money isn’t spent promoting Pinochet’s ideals.
The Fundación also opened a museum in 2008, exhibiting medals, sculptures, books and other objects with the mission to, “contribute to increase knowledge of the life, thoughts and work of the former president.”
It was recently revealed that more than 113 individual entrepreneurs donate money to the Fundación, raising its funding from about US$350,000 when it was created in 1996, to more than US$1.7 million in 2004. Among the donors and the directors are
some bank presidents and heads of large corporations — a legacy of the close relationship between big business and the Pinochet government.
The upscale Santiago-area municipality of Vitacura is the only public entity funding the Fundación, having given more than US$63,000 since 2004 in annual donations.
More than a few isolated cases show that Chile has not completely broken away from Pinochet and his dictatorship. The Riggs Case investigating Pinochet’s secret bank accounts and possible implication of his family was closed after nine years with none of his heirs facing charges. For many, this shows impunity in the country, and is not an isolated event. The Corporación del 11 de Septiembre is an organization which works to establish the “truth” of what really happened in 1973 and stop “disinformation.”
Recently, they campaigned against the change of a street name in the Providencia borough of Santiago. In July, the Providencia municipal council voted to change the name of one of its main arteries from “Avenida 11 de Septiembre” for the coup’s date to “Nueva Providencia,” as it was called before 1980. When elected, Mayor Josefa Errázuriz had promised she would get rid of this loaded symbol, but the Corporación was opposed to the change. A Pinochetista present at the meeting told The Santiago Times she thought it was an undemocratic move that did not reflect the reality of what happened in 1973.
“The armed forces liberated us from a civil war,” she said. “We were waiting in lines to eat, there were incredible shortages with no provisions available, and we were all fighting each other at this time. So tell me, how is this a democracy? It’s not the democracy the general left us — he had a referendum and handed over the country into a democracy, and what have they done with the democracy?”
Many of today’s politicians were one-time supporters of Pinochet, such as former presidential candidates Andrés Allamand and Pablo Longueira, who both voted “Yes” in the 1988 plebiscite for Pinochet to remain in power.
For Rojas, Chileans must, “study without a blinding passion, to ask questions without mental restrictions, and to access sources with no prior ideology.”
He thinks the best way to move forward is to go back to the sources.
“The sources. No more passionate speculations,” he said. “The texts, the testimonies — this is where we have to start. It is a slow process, but in the end truth will prevail.”
Gabriela Paz Pérez García, an education student, is among younger people who have learned to love Pinochet. At only 21, she did not live through the coup or military rule. Yet her opinions on Chile’s former head of state are unequivocal.
“I believe that being a Pinochetista means to trust that what he did years ago was the right thing to do and that whatever happened after, with the secret bank accounts and him being in jail in London, was unfair and that he didn't deserve it at all,” Pérez García told The Santiago Times.
For Sepúlveda, the dispute about Chile’s dictatorship years hides the fact that many supported the coup, and would so again.
“Of course there are disagreements (over the military rule), and with good reason,” Sepúlveda said. “People don’t understand the military. They are not destined to govern, and when they are forced to do so they are criticized. I assure you that if there hadn’t been human rights violations, they still would have been condemned.”
“If it was 1973 again, I assure you Chile would back the military again,” Sepúlveda said.