History Used for the Wrong Reasons: violence flares on Pinochet anniversary

Clashes have broken out in several Chilean cities on the 40th anniversary of the coup conducted by General Augusto Pinochet which ushered in 17 years of brutal dictatorship. Dozens of people have been injured and arrested in a not uncommon remembrance of this dark event in Chile’s history.

Human rights activists campaigning for justice for Pinochet's victims have resorted to violence
Human rights activists campaigning for justice for Pinochet’s victims have resorted to violence

Pinochet’s military dictatorship was synonymous with government-sponsored kidnappings, extrajudicial murder and torturous interrogations of political prisoners. The man Pinochet overthrew as Chilean leader was Salvador Allende, the first Marxist leader of a Latin American country. Allende allegedly committed suicide at his headquarters after the military coup and subsequent bombing of his political base by Pinochet’s subordinates.

Allende's headquarters bombed - 1973
Allende’s headquarters bombed – 1973

Within a year of his ascent to power, Pinochet had smashed the Chilean left, with some 30,000 supporters of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition having fled the country. Privatization and free-market economics were forcibly enacted as the socialist dream died.

The overthrow of Allende and the destruction of Chilean socialism in the 1970s still rankles with the left today and with good reason. Michelle Bachelet, the former president and current opposition leader, has used the anniversary not only to denounce the Pinochet dictatorship but also his economic and political reforms that bare resemblance to those of Sebastian Pinera’s centre-right government.

Pinera, meanwhile, whilst also denouncing Pinochet and calling for national reconciliation, has not missed a chance to comment on Allende’s legacy. It was his “repeated violations of the law”, Pinera claims, that led to Pinochet’s takeover. This “inevitable” event was the product of socialism.

This is a bold statement; Pinera is not far from suggesting that the failings of socialism were the direct cause of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Whilst both he and Bachelet pledge the need for national unity, both are equally unscrupulous in using the anniversary to score political points against one another in an election year.

Pinera and Bachelet have intensified disorder with unwise statements
Pinera and Bachelet have intensified disorder with unwise statements

Instead of promoting national unity, this provokes political divisiveness as both sets of political supporters attempt to foist the blame of Chile’s darkest hour on their opponents. The violence this has helped create is a shameful indictment on the political classes.

At the same time, others are seeking to take advantage of the anniversary for more personal gain. Looting and the settling of personal grievances are hidden behind a political facade by youths ignorant or uncaring of their country’s past.

Whilst dwelling on the Pinochet era is unlikely to heal any of Chile’s wounds, a recognition of shared culpability by all political representatives for allowing it to happen would bring about a greater chance of reconciliation.

The battle between ‘right’ and ‘left’ on the political spectrum is stronger nowhere than in Latin America, which has seen both extremes throughout the 20th century. Pinochet, it must be believed, would not be displeased to see the violence flare; it would give the military the excuse it needs.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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