CHILE: Coup anniversary sparks national debate (9/24/03)

SANTIAGO — Days before the anniversary of the 1973 military coup that overthrew the left-wing government of President Salvador Allende, half of the people on Santiago’s busiest street were shopping. The other half were protesting against the government’s reluctance to take sides in the 30-year-old argument around the events surrounding General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody US-backed coup. 

Weeks of reflection and discussion to mark the anniversary are well under way. A forum on the future of the people’s movement in Chile was cancelled recently because of a confrontation in the same area between students and police. Chile’s television stations and newspapers are swamped with a mixture of nostalgic, historical and new information. City-wide conferences, rallies, concerts and lectures on the controversial events continue every hour of the day.

Meanwhile, Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos is trying to walk a fine line between honouring Allende and remaining neutral enough to satisfy the right-wingers who are still heading much of Chile’s government and businesses.

On the morning of September 11, 1973, Allende was violently ousted by Chile’s armed forces, led by Pinochet. At the beginning of what would be a 15-year military dictatorship, thousands of innocent people were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Many of the executioners and torturers, including Pinochet himself, remain free to this day and still occupy high posts in the Chilean government and military.

Allende had only led the country for three years when the coup succeeded. In that time, he had nationalised, among other things, the copper industry, the telephone companies and the banks. He created universal education and health care and fought for equal rights for women and workers. A man of deep convictions and integrity, Allende attempted to create a socialist society by gaining power through a democratic election, not a violent revolution.

September 11 in Chile has become a day marked by discussion, reflection and street protests, as the Chilean people either confront or ignore the aging conflict between those who supported Allende and those who sided with Pinochet.

Aldo Casali, a history and economics professor at the Universidad de Diego Portales in Santiago, commented in an interview: "When someone asks what we have learned socially in these 30 years, I don’t know because we have only recently begun to talk [about it] seriously."

So seriously that television programs are packed with documentaries on the events of September 11, 1973. Conferences are taking place featuring prominent intellectuals and leftist leaders, such as former Sandinista president of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega, leaders from the landless workers’ movement in Brazil and Ignacio Ramonet, the director of Le Monde Diplomatique magazine.

A group of people whose parents "disappeared" under Pinochet’s dictatorship remain on a hunger strike until the government commits itself to addressing these issues in a significant way. In parks and streets across Santiago protesters chant, "The people united will never be divided!" and "Allende — present, now and forever!" Allende T-shirts, buttons and flags, along with communist literature, are on sale on every street corner in Santiago’s city centre.

At an Allende commemoration concert, which took place in the same stadium in which the dictatorship rounded up suspected leftists, one could not help but see that for many, Allende represented freedom, rebellion, communism and rock and roll all wrapped up in one.

Chile’s media have realised that the revolution sells. Radio talk shows discuss the coup. Allende’s speeches are sold on compact discs at kiosks, and nearly every Chilean newspaper has published a special 30th anniversary supplement.

There is no lack of information. However, the polemic that has engulfed the country is in reality about Chileans’ different views regarding not only the past but the future of their country.

As Christopher Valdez, an anthropology student at the Universidad de Chile, explained: "The figure of Allende and Pinochet are important to everyone in Chile, they are like black and white. They represent two different ways of thinking. It’s as if they are planted in the collective memory of our country."

Recently, President Lagos put forward a set of proposals, titled "There is No Tomorrow Without a Yesterday", to help reconcile the victims of the coup and bring the executioners and torturers from Pinochet’s dictatorship to justice. It includes monetary compensation for relatives of the murdered and tortured. A more controversial aspect of the process involves granting amnesty to military officials who agree to provide information about the atrocities committed and the locations of the victims’ bodies. As of now, 40 people involved in crimes of the dictatorship have been convicted and sentenced.

But many Chileans believe that the sentences are too short and believe that, under Lagos’ "reconciliation" proposals, the guilty will evade justice. Families of the disappeared consider the offer of compensation as a form of selling their deceased relatives.

Yet there are still many on the Chilean right who support Pinochet and are unrepentant about what he did. "Pinochetistas" maintain that the economy was much more stable under Pinochet than Allende. The "stability" that Pinochet was eventually able to impose was partly due to the fact that he was working with big business not against it, and that the US trade embargo against Chile was lifted with the success of Pinochet’s coup.

Emilio Humarez, a self-proclaimed "Pinochetista", was a member of the extreme right-wing political party, Patria y Libertad, when Allende won the election in 1970. During that time, his mother was national secretary of the Christian Democrat Party, which came to oppose Allende during his presidency.

Humarez claims that he and many others with similar political beliefs, suffered harassment and violent threats from leftist radicals during Allende’s presidency.

When asked if the violence of the military coup was justified, Humarez answered, "Yes, I saw so clearly that we needed a change. In the years of Allende we were terrified. When Pinochet arrived we were very relieved."

However, the current government seems more intent on attracting big business investment and promoting neoliberalism than resolving the 30-year-old conflict.

Chile’s free-trade agreement with Washington, signed by US President George Bush on September 3, is one of many moves made by the Lagos’ administration to open up Chilean markets to more US investment. But as Victor Hugo de la Fuente, director of the Chilean edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, noted: "The economy of the US is 100 times bigger than the Chilean economy, so there is no opportunity to compete equally within trade agreements of this kind."

"Lagos is a president who looks for political stability instead of justice", said Miguel Faure, a student activist at the Universidad de Chile. "For us, political stability without justice is a time bomb. People are looking for justice, not only for the dead, but to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, because we are not convinced that [it] cannot happen again at any moment, in any country in Latin America. It is not for the families of the disappeared, it is for the future."

Will the struggle to survive in Chile’s neoliberal economy take priority over the need to resolve past injustices? Not if this past week’s events are any guide. The intensity of the debate has proven that a society without a memory cannot cohesively move ahead.

[Benjamin Dangl is a journalist working in Latin America.