Chile: Unanswered Questions, Missing Reconciliation

picture: fpealvarez, Flickr

September 11th is a day full of history. Not only in the United States, but also in a country in South America: Chile. On the 11th of September 1973, a violent military coup, supported by the US government, brought down the democratically elected Marxist regime led by president Salvador Allende. Augusto Pinochet assumed power and became president of a military dictatorship. A period of horror and fear started for the Chilean people. During the dictatorship from 1973 until 1990, approximately 40,000 people became victims of the dictatorship, more than 3000 people died, another 3000 disappeared and thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured or had to leave the country. In 1990 there was a referendum in which the Chilean people voted against another eight-year term with Pinochet as president. Chile held free elections and returned to democracy.

Today, about 40 years after the military coup, Chilean society is still divided. Politicians from Pinochet’s ultra-right conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI, independent democratic union) justify the military dictatorship by referring to the chaos of the years in which Salvador Allende was president. His Marxist regime was characterized by inflation, strikes, protests and rationing of food. Moreover, Pinochet-supporters claim that his government made Chile’s economy the strongest in the region. In the recent elections in November 2013, right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei was actively involved in the 1990 referendum, by campaigning for a ‘yes’-vote, which would have led to another term with Pinochet as president. Opponents in the presidential election campaign demand apologies from her, she refuses: “I was 20 years old when the coup happened. I don’t have to ask forgiveness.”

Pinochet-opponents, on the other hand demand justice and the disclosure of information. Nobody wants to take responsibility, but until those actively involved in the terror and the human rights violations which occurred during the dictatorship are brought to justice, reconciliation for those affected by the regime will be difficult. For example, today only 67 members of the military and police during the Pinochet regime remain in prison. The leader of the violent government Pinochet himself, was never convicted and died in 2006 due to sickness.

It is interesting to note that the constitution and the economic model in place today were both introduced during the Pinochet regime. Until 2011, Nobody had resisted the economic and social model which has been followed since the dictatorship. In 2011, Chilean university students started fighting against high tuition fees and the profit motive of the educational sector. The new government under Michelle Bachelet, elected in 2013 promised to improve the education sector. This makes the students the first integrated group, since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, to speak their mind and go on the streets to fight for their rights. This new generation is not afraid anymore. An explanation for this could be that most students were born right before or after the end of the dictatorship. They did not experience the oppression and fear of the Pinochet regime, as their parents and grandparents did and probably cannot relate to it, in the same way.

It is also interesting to see that during the 2013 presidential election campaign, a number of organizations and people took responsibility for their role in maintaining the regime. For example, the Chilean Association of Judges acknowledged complicity for about 5000 cases during the dictatorship, when judges rejected applications to release information about disappeared or killed people. Senator Hernàn Larraìn, member of the UDI, apologized publicly for ignoring cries for help during the dictatorship. According to a study conducted by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (CERC, Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality), in 2013 55% of the Chilean population described Pinochet’s government as ‘all bad’, as compared to 2010, when this number was 35%. Over the last number of years more people have started to demand justice.

Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet won the presidential elections and took over the post from Sebastián Piñera this month. She was directly affected by the Pinochet regime. Her father died of a heart-attack in prison after months of torture, and she herself also got arrested and left the country until the end of the dictatorship. “There are facts that are not known, justice that hasn’t come, pain and wounds that haven’t healed. And there are people who do not recognize nor repent over what they did and didn’t do,” she says.

Even though the military coup was 40 years ago and more than 20 years have passed since the country returned to democracy, wounds remain raw. Too many questions are still unanswered. What might be history from a European perspective, still affects peoples’ lives today. But hope is not lost: students have kept fighting for their rights and, finally, Pinochet-supporters are starting to see reason and take responsibility. However, as long as some questions remain unanswered, reconciliation for victims of the dictatorship continues to be difficult.


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