Forty years since right-wing military generals swept socialist President Salvador Allende from office, Chile remains as divided as the day the bombs fell on La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace.
In 2013, amid renewed social movements, the first presidential election since the coming in of the first right-leaning administration following the country’s return to democracy, the events of September 11, 1973 are as relevant as ever before.
Few Chileans were left untouched by the coup. Hundreds of thousands were killed, tortured, exiled or simply “disappeared” during the coup and the 17-year military rule that followed it. But even those born after the 1990 transition to democracy live under the shadow of General Augusto Pinochet.
The legacy of dictatorship is present in almost every facet of the country’s political and economic institutions, down to the very constitution that underpins it: its economy is rooted in the regime’s drastic free-market reforms; politics confined by the electoral system it pioneered; and schools, hospitals and pensions administered according to the model the constitution imposed.
To this day in Chile, that legacy remains disputed—even as thousands of protesters link stark economic inequalities to the years of military rule, others affiliate them with the country’s overall financial success.
But though the horrors of the military regime continue to haunt Chile, despite the fact that its political, economic and cultural reverberations continue to this day, change may be in the air.
For the first time, those involved in the military regime—many of whom, far from being punished, have gone on to positions of further authority—have begun to publicly address the issues of their past. The Chilean mainstream media is candidly addressing the dictatorship’s human rights abuses in a way it rarely had previously done. The issue of constitutional reform is forefront in the presidential race.
Much more needs to be addressed—and acted upon—before the wounds of the dictatorship can be healed and the stark divisions in Chile reconciled. But with dialogue finally beginning to open on the subject of human rights and a presidential campaign gearing toward full swing this year, 40 years after the coup that so drastically altered the course of a nation, Chile finally has the chance to put the horrors of September 11, 1973 behind it.
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.