Chile remembers 1973

I wrote a few weeks ago about the importance of historical memory, and there are few dates that make the point as much as 11 September (yesterday in Australia, but today in the Americas).

We remember it mostly as the twelfth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s terrorist strike against the United States, whose consequences we still live with. But this year it is also the fortieth anniversary of the military coup against Salvador Allende, the elected Marxist president of Chile, which brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and became one of the defining events of the late Cold War era.

Chile is now a democracy again, but the Pinochet era is still a controversial topic. According to the BBC, commemorations of the anniversary have been marked by violent clashes between police and demonstrators. And president Sebastián Piñera, while condemning the dictatorship, also described it as a “predictable outcome” of the troubles of Allende’s regime, which he said featured “repeated violations of the rule of law.”

Piñera, whose term ends next March, is the first president from the centre-right since the end of Pinochet’s rule. The front-runner to replace him is the centre-left’s Michele Bachelet, a former president who boycotted Monday’s ceremony and has called for further investigation into the crimes of the Pinochet regime.

The 1973 coup is hazardous territory for both sides. The centre-right wants to avoid being painted as supporters of dictatorship, while the centre-left wants to avoid being associated with Allende’s Marxism and the instability of his rule.

In principle, one can be critical of Allende without condoning military intervention, and vice versa. But in an election year it’s easy to lose sight of subtleties, and Bachelet obviously feels she’s on a good thing in criticising Piñera – and, by implication, her centre-right opponent in the November poll, Evelyn Matthei, whose father was head of the air force under Pinochet.

So Bachelet dismissed the view that Chile was on the verge of civil war prior to the coup, although she acknowledged that “there was a lack of dialogue and a polarisation of the politics.” It was unfair, she said, “to say that the military coup was inevitable.” (Which, at least if the BBC’s report is correct, Piñera didn’t do: “predictable” is not the same as “inevitable”.)

The smoothness with which Chilean democracy has been re-established over the last 25 years can be interpreted in different ways. On one view, it’s at least a partial vindication of Pinochet, showing that despite his brutality he laid the foundations for a more stable system. On the other hand, it can be said that the Chilean talent for democracy shows that Pinochet’s fears were unfounded and his intervention unnecessary.

Most Chileans seem to take the latter view. For what it’s worth, so do I. But it’s possible that there is an element of truth in both.

Behind Pinochet, of course, stood the CIA and the US military, suspicious at best of democracy and paranoid about the example that an elected communist in Chile might set for a Cold War world. Parts of that story have been told, but if the example of Iran is any guide it could easily be another twenty years before the Americans are really ready to come clean about their role.


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