Chile, 50 years ago Pinochet’s coup: country divided over memory

Authorities urge citizens to stay at home during the ceremony

Fifty years ago the military coup in Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet made history in another fateful September 11th. Today Chilean president Gabriel Boric, the first born after the coup and the most left-wing since the return of democracy, will remember the anniversary in a solemn ceremony, together with colleagues from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay. But if democracy in Chile is now a consolidated reality, the country is still divided over memory. And the bodies of 1,400 “desaparecidos” from the years of the dictatorship have never been found.

Boric promised a “national search plan” to get to the truth about the missing. On September 7, he brought together his predecessors, Sebastian Pinera, Michelle Bachelet and Eduardo Frei, to sign a document in which they all committed, on the occasion of the anniversary, to putting aside “legitimate differences”, to “take care of and defend the democracy and respect the constitution”.

But, confirming a polarized political climate, the conservative Pinera has already made it known that he will not be attending the official events on Monday. And authorities have urged citizens to avoid going to central Santiago. It would be “a great contribution to the objective that we all have, which is that the activities take place peacefully”, said the Undersecretary of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve. “If it is possible to stay at home, this allows police resources to be concentrated on the activities of highest priority and greatest risk,” he added.

Today 70% of Chile’s inhabitants were born after the coup. According to a Pulso Ciudadano-Activa Research survey, 70% of Chileans believe that the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the coup d’état is “divisive” and 56.5% declare themselves “not very interested” in the event. 52% have a negative opinion of General Augusto Pinochet who took power at the time. But there are 32.6% who justify the coup, while 43.5% condemn it and 24% do not express their opinion. For 39.9%, the cause of the coup was democratic president Salvador Allende, while 30.8% point the finger at the Armed Forces and 30.6% blame the CIA.

The division on memory is part of a climate of political polarization, with Boric’s left-wing government losing the referendum to reform the constitution last year and José Antonio Kast’s far right, close to those nostalgic for the coup, which asserted itself in the May elections for the Constitutional Council which will have to propose a new text. In Chile the atmosphere is “electric”, Boric commented in recent days, while once again the anniversary highlights the difficulty of facing the past in a shared historical perspective.

The coup of September 11, 1973 began at 6 in the morning, when the Chilean navy occupied the port of Valparaiso. As soon as he was informed, the then socialist president Salvador Allende rushed to the presidential palace of La Moneda, where he was met with an ultimatum from the military requiring him to surrender and abandon the country.

Allende refused and attempted to defend the palace together with his collaborators. But the tanks of the commander in chief of the army, General Pinochet, were advancing on the square and the air force bombed the Moneda. Allende asked all his collaborators to leave the palace, and recorded a final speech to the nation: “Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words and I am sure that my sacrifice will not be in vain , I am sure that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will chastise crime, cowardice and betrayal.” According to the most accredited version, Allende killed himself before the arrival of the coup plotters. Thus ended the political adventure of the Unidad Popular, which had begun three years earlier.


hundreds of people saved thanks to the Italian embassy

At the head of a composite cartel of left-wing parties, Allende proposed to build socialism in Chile through the peaceful and democratic path. The nationalization of copper, coal and iron mines controlled by foreign companies began, large estates were expropriated and distributed to farmers. But the government did not have a solid majority and the country was deeply divided, thanks to the economic crisis. The military, who enjoyed the support of Washington, launched the coup after months of growing tension, including strikes by truck drivers and traders.

The coup d’état began a violent dictatorship. In the hundred days that followed the coup, 1,823 people were shot in barracks and military posts near Santiago. The military rounded up the opponents, many of whom were locked up in the stadium, where there were hundreds of cases of torture. Hundreds of people were saved thanks to the Italian embassy, ​​which offered them asylum and then provided them with safe conducts abroad.

On September 14, Parliament was dissolved and political parties were suspended. In June of the following year Pinochet was appointed ”supreme leader of the nation”. On September 11, 1980, the regime approved a new constitution which extended Pinochet’s mandate for another eight years. But when the deadline expired, on October 5, 1988, Chileans rejected the referendum to further extend his mandate with 55.4%.


40 thousand recognized victims of the dictatorship

On 14 December 1989, the Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won the elections. Chile returned to democracy, but Pinochet remained commander in chief of the army until 1998 and was then appointed senator for life. On October 16, at the request of the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who was investigating the desaparecidos of Spanish nationality in Chile, Pinochet was placed under house arrest in Great Britain where he was undergoing medical treatment. A long legal battle began, at the end of which the general was sent back to his homeland in January 2000 for health reasons. But Chile also decided to judge his past and in August 2000 Pinochet was deprived of immunity. However, the Supreme Court later ruled that the general suffered from senile dementia and was not capable of standing trial.

Pinochet died a natural death at the age of 91, on December 10, 2006, a few months after Bachelet took office as president. Upon hearing the news of his death, thousands of people took to the streets across the country, both to celebrate and show their mourning. There were also clashes with the police with around fifty injuries and around a hundred arrests. There was no state funeral, but a funeral ceremony befitting the rank of former commander of the armed forces that Pinochet enjoyed. Thousands of people attended or paid homage to the body. His body was cremated.

According to Amnesty International, which on the occasion of the anniversary asked Chile to “keep the memory alive”, there are at least 40 thousand recognized victims of the dictatorship. Between 1973 and 1990 there were 3,216 people killed or disappeared, but in 70% of these cases there was no justice, truth or reparation.