Despite transferring presidential power to democratically elected Patricio Aylwin in 1990, General Augusto Pinochet’s reign as military ruler and dictator (1973-1990) remains a controversial topic among the Chilean people. It then came as no surprise that the lead-up last week to Sunday’s screening of “Pinochet,” a sympathetic documentary paying homage to the army general, led to significant public backlash.
“Pinochet” aims to outline political context leading up the 1973 military coup and focus on the positive outcomes of the consequent 17-year rule. Over 1,000 people attended the screening at Santiago’s Teatro Caupolicán on Sunday, including politically conservative invitees from the United States, Spain, France, and Argentina. As the opening credits appeared on screen that bore the title of the dictator’s surname, the audience erupted into empathic applause.
Protest groups lobbied to have the screening banned, calling for the federal government to clamp down on what they see as implicit approval of the human rights violations that were committed across 17 years. More than 3,200 people were murdered or disappeared during Pinochet’s rule, while 37,000 cases of torture and illegal imprisonment have been documented.
“In Chile, state-sponsored terrorism existed, torture existed, forced disappearances and executions existed, along with the systematic violation of hundreds of Chileans for over 17 years. We can’t allow a tribute to this,” human rights activist Alejandra Arriaza decried last week.
However, the government of Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s first conservative president since Pinochet exited office, ignored these calls. While not publicly endorsing the documentary, Piñera conceded that it has a right to be screened under the pretense of democratic free speech. Once they learned of their failed attempt, human rights groups pushed forward anyway with their disapproval and loudly protested outside Teatro Caupolicán, calling the tribute attendees “assassins” and “fascists.”
Their protest ended in violence as police eventually resorted to water cannons and tear gas to subdue the crowd. “The police are limiting our activity in order to allow activities in honor of a dictator. This is paying tribute to a criminal,” Mireya Garcia, vice president of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Association of Relatives of Detained and Disappeared), told CNN Chile.
Supporters of the Pinochet movement see him as a savior who relieved Chile of the clutches of communism and gave birth to a stable and prosperous economy. Juan Gonzalez, a former military officer and leader of screening organizer Corporación 11 de Septiembre, said, “In a democracy, we have every right to present this documentary.”
There is no figure more polarizing in Chile’s history, with Pinochet’s legacy and elements of his rule remaining the source of heavy political debate, such as Chile’s binomial electoral system. Thus the screening of the documentary raises the question of freedom of speech in democratic society and where, if at all, a line should be drawn. Does it become a government’s responsibility to intervene when wounds that a nation has tried so hard to heal are torn open again? There are valid arguments from both sides. However, by choosing to not be drawn into the issue, the Piñera administration has inadvertently answered in the negative.
Nick Lavars is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a journalist and writer currently living in Santiago, Chile.