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Chile observes 40th anniversary of coup divided along political lines

The bloody overthrow of Allende in 1973 drives a wedge through the center-right

Santiago / Madrid -
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet participates in a ceremony in Villa Grimaldi, which was used as a detention and torture center during the dictatorship.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet participates in a ceremony in Villa Grimaldi, which was used as a detention and torture center during the dictatorship.MARTIN BERNETTI (AFP)

Chileans marked the 40th anniversary of the bloody 1973 coup that plunged their country into nearly three decades of a dark dictatorship with the different historic perspectives that continue to exist but divided along party lines. Different political factions, each with their opposing points of view, held separate remembrances this week to observe the violent military overthrow of Marxist President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

Under the guidance of Augusto Pinochet, who weeks before had been promoted by Allende, air force Hawks bombed La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago where the president and his bodyguards and staff were holed up. Allende shot himself with his machine gun after he ordered all of his officials to leave La Moneda and give themselves up.

In his speech on Monday, President Sebastián Piñera, the country’s first conservative leader since democracy was restored in 1990, didn’t use the word “dictatorship” when he referred to the Pinochet period. However, he recognized that serious human rights violations had been committed from 1973 to 1990, the years the late dictator was in office: 3,214 executions took place, from which the remains of about 1,000 people are still unaccounted for.

Piñera also refrained from referring to the “passive accomplices” as he had in an address the week before which angered some sectors in his conservative bloc. According to La Tercera daily, the National Renovation Party, in which he is a member, and the conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) lodged formal protests with the government saying that the “passive accomplices” reference was unfair.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday — the anniversary of the coup — Piñera called on all Chileans to move forward and help overcome the country’s “past trauma.”

“I’m sure [that] the vast majority of Chileans feel that peace and reconciliation are necessary and that it was time to overcome the traumas of the past but without forgetting,” he said, as reported by Efe news agency.

“A dirty wound cannot heal,”said Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet, the former center-left president who is running for a second term this year, spent Tuesday visiting Villa Grimaldi, a former detention center in Santiago where both she and her mother were held and tortured. Her father, a general loyal to Allende, died while in custody.

Bachelet and her mother stood in front of the stone memorials dedicated to the victims. The former president said that it was important to “build a country which is capable of moving forward in a more just, egalitarian and peaceful way.”

“A dirty wound cannot heal,” she said, calling for a truthful investigation into the crimes committed under military rule.

Carlos Peña, a columnist and president of Diego Portales University, said this “fundamental tension” is what divides Chile today. “Until a short time ago, the right used to present a sort of balance, where it would recognize the modernization that took place — if you call it that — while refraining from speaking about the excesses of human rights violations,” said Peña who is one of the leading public opinion leaders in his country.

A survey conducted by the Center for Contemporary Studies and published last week shows that 76 percent of Chileans consider Pinochet a dictator while 75 percent still believe that remnants of that military regime can be seen in today’s society. Pinochet died in 2006 as he waited to face human rights charges.

The dictatorship and its aftermath have also driven wedges through the conservative bloc. UDI Senator Hernán Larraín, one of that party’s leading figures, publicly asked for forgiveness on his own behalf “for anything that I have done or overlooked.” Larraín was a member of the so-called Corporation of Friends of the Colonia Dignidad — a closed-off German community in southern Chile that was used as a detention and torture center.

In an interview with EL PAÍS he acknowledged that the dictatorship has divided the conservative sector but also the center-left bloc. “There are differences in the approach of the subject matter between Camilo Escalona [a Socialist senator, who last week apologized for the excesses that were committed before the coup] and former President Ricardo Lagos. This is not just a problem for the center-right,” he said.

Days before the observance ceremonies, Lagos, who governed from 2000 to 2006, said that a consensus was needed among all parties to draw a line under what had happened and a constitutional clause “to close the wounds permanently.”

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