SANTIAGO – Chile marked 50 years on Monday since a violent coup by Augusto Pinochet against Socialist President Salvador Allende ushered in 20 years of military rule, left thousands dead and set in motion the country’s market-led economic model.
The 1973 coup, in which tanks roamed the streets and Hawker Hunter planes bombed a burning presidential compound in La Moneda, reverberated around the world and marked the beginning of one of the most brutal of a series of US-friendly, right-wing dictatorships that ruled the coup. much of South America well into the 1980s, leading to mass arrests, torture and disappearances.
But now that half a century has passed, Chile is deeply polarized. Victims of military rule and their families have increased the violence insist on justice and accountability, but politically the far right has gained ground amid growing fears of it rising crime. Progressive young President Gabriel Boric is under fire.
“Some people don’t know anything about what happened and are not interested, others are tired of it… even after fifty years, many people still don’t know what happened to their disappeared relatives,” says Elvira Cádiz, who was six years old . old from 1973.
“And until that changes, it will continue to hurt and sow division.”
She remembers neighbors lining up on the street and troops checking house by house in the working-class Estación Central neighborhood of the capital Santiago, where she still lives.
As Boric campaigned for a major event commemorating the anniversary of the coup, he faced opposition from rival politicians and voters. A recent survey by Pulso Ciudadano found that 60% of Chileans were not interested. Nearly four in ten people say they mainly blame Allende’s government itself for the coup.
These public divisions reflect a difficult few years in the rearview mirror of Chile, which has emerged as one of South America’s more stable, economically successful and secure countries.
Violent protests against inequality rocked Santiago in 2019, sparking a movement to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution. But that was rejected by voters last year, a major blow to the country’s progressives. A far-right leader, José Antonio Kast, an outspoken supporter of Pinochet, is now playing a central role in a second reformation attempt.
“Polarization is as widespread as at any time since the return to democracy,” said Cristián Valdivieso, director of local consultancy Criteria.
The 37-year-old Boric, born only more than a decade after the coup, will lead a ceremony on Monday at the presidential palace, where Allende gave a famous speech fifty years ago as his government collapsed and later committed suicide.
“There are those who invite us to turn the page, to forget the past,” Boric, an admirer of Allende, said recently. “But no bright future is possible without memory and truth.”
According to several Chilean human rights commissions, 40,175 victims have been classified as politically executed, disappeared, imprisoned and tortured during military rule. The regime also sent thousands of people into exile.
Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990 after most Chileans voted for democracy in a referendum. He fought human rights charges for years but was never convicted of a crime, and died in 2006. But many military officers and ex-members of his secret police were convicted of torture, kidnapping and murder.
Gaby Rivera, president of the Group of Relatives of Disappeared Prisoners, saw her father Luis Rivera kidnapped in November 1975. Over the years, her family has been told different versions of his fate, including that his body was thrown into the sea.
“We live this date with pain, but also with hope, because today we see that there is a little light,” she told Reuters. “We don’t know if we will achieve full justice, but what we do need to do is get to the truth and find out where they are.”
Hundreds of commemorative acts are planned for Monday and regional leaders including Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador are expected in Santiago.
Carlos Gonzalez, who was detained and tortured in 1976 and later exiled, said it pained him to see how some people downplayed the significance of the day.
“We really feel that this date affects us, it makes you want to throw stones at the TV when you see people appear denying what happened,” he said.
“It’s good to talk about what happened. And as a survivor, I feel it is a responsibility to talk about this, because there are many people who did not survive.”
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