The 11th of September is synonymous throughout the world with the tragic attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, 2001.
But in Chile, this date has a different significance. On the 11th September 1973 the CIA backed military campaign led by Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the democratically elected government in Santiago and imposed a military dictatorship which lasted 17 years.
Prior to the coup, America had become increasingly worried about the Socialist President, Salvador Allende. Whether he was a Communist or not divides opinion, but his political alignment was clearly too close to his Communist counterparts in Cuba for Richard Nixon to enjoy. He therefore gave much money to the opposition, financing their media campaign and drumming up support for the upcoming right-wing military revolt.
The subsequent dictatorship saw the deaths of over 3000 Chileans, and the imprisonment, torture and forced exile of tens of thousands more. Disappearances were rife, with anyone voicing dissent placed on ‘lists’. Over 1000 of these disappearances have never been solved, with families still being non- the- wiser about the final circumstances surrounding loved ones.
The legacy of Pinochet is still very strongly felt today, which is hardly surprising given how recently the dictatorship ended. The 11th of September, this year as every year saw a series of protests, memorials and gatherings throughout the city to commemorate the coup. The 11th is clearly still a highly emotional and evocative day for Chileans.
However, the type of legacy that Pinochet has left behind divides opinions, and for many is not so black and white. While most deplore his human rights violations and forced seizure of power, others are of the opinion that despite his brutality, he changed Chile for the better.
‘Tourists have no idea what it was like under Allende,’ I was once told brusquely by a student. ‘I remember having to queue for hours for bread when I was seven years old, often just to be turned away empty handed.’
Bread. It always seems to come down to a simple loaf of bread. In the Russian Revolution the lack of bread was the tipping point, driving thousands of women to protest about food shortages which led directly to the February Revolution in 1917. Similarly, before the French Revolution, bread riots were a common feature throughout Paris in 1789, creating huge amount of hatred for the aristocracy and allowing the third estate to seize power.
Clearly, the transition of power in these three cases were not just about a loaf of bread. High politics and competing ideologies certainly played their part. But the bread represented the simple ability of the common person to feed themselves and their families. When this bare necessity was removed, people often turned to extreme alternatives… which often came in the form of revolutions.
From what I have managed to gather, a common consensus (especially amongst middle class Chileans) is that Chile would not be the economic powerhouse of Latin America today were it not for Pinochet. The transformation of Chile’s economy under Pinochet has been dubbed by some as ‘The Miracle of Chile.’ This period saw the introduction of modern economic features, such as export growth, the removal of trade barriers and the establishment of an independent central bank. But, it is also acknowledged by most that his brutal methods could never justify his results. ‘He was a murderer’, another of my students said flatly. ‘At the end of the day, that is a fact. No matter what he did for the economy, he was a murderer.’
Many others dismiss the idea that Pinochet was responsible for the improved economy, arguing that the foundations for modernization were in place well before he took power. They also claim that Pinochet is to blame for increased privatization of the country, which helps to explain the huge gap between rich and poor. Indeed, healthcare, education and other previously state- owned companies became increasingly privatized during Pinochet’s years, and this situation is still in place today.
The memory of Pinochet still casts a large shadow over politics. The former President, Michelle Bachelet’s father was detained and tortured by Pinochet, (eventually suffering a fatal heart attack as a result of his ordeal) for his continued loyalty to Allende. Bachelet herself was also detained but managed to escape and fled to Australia.
Unsurprisingly, she holds a very anti Pinochet stance, and introduced a series of economic and social reforms during her tenure in an attempt to reverse his legacy. Additionally, in 2010 she opened the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, dedicated to the victims of the Human Rights violations during Pinochet’s regime. The museum holds audio accounts of prisoner’s experiences of the brutal conditions in the prisons, detailing the torture they endured at the hands of the military. A huge wall transcending all three floors of the museum contains photographs of all those who disappeared, with many black spaces left for those still unidentified. A glass room on the third floor which directly faces this wall is filled with candles, where family members, friends and tourists can have a quiet moment of reflection. Highly emotional and controversial, the museum has been condemned by many as being a piece of leftist propaganda and does not tell the whole story of the 17- year period. Former Chilean culture Minister Mauricio Rojas in 2015 called it a ‘manipulation of history’, showing how it continues to divide opinion.
Pinochet’s death in 2006 clearly demonstrates this divide. He died from a heart attack in Santiago, without ever standing trial for any of the crimes against humanity he committed. Much like his life and legacy, his funeral was also highly controversial and divisive. Unlike other former Presidents, he was not granted a state funeral, but the funeral befitting a military commander with only one government representative attendee (unsurprising for a socialist government). His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners who queued for hours to see his open coffin, while simultaneous street riots celebrating his death broke out.
A range of opinions about Pinochet clearly still exist today, depending on political alignment, class, and family experience during his rule. The result is a polarized society, with those on the right whose families prospered during his reign inclined to be lenient towards his legacy, and those on the left with many family members still alive who suffered horrific human rights abuses unable to forgive and forget. One student did offer some hope towards this gulf of political opinion, which was the generation that was born after Pinochet’s government. Those with no direct memory of his rule naturally do not have the same abrasive memories, and therefore offers a future bridge of reconciliation between the two sides.