SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The world remembers General Augusto Pinochet as the dictator whose regime tortured, killed and disappeared 3,065 people in the name of fighting communism.
But as Chile celebrates this Monday the 50th anniversary of the coup that brought Pinochet to power for nearly 17 years, many in the country don’t view it as a dark day. Amid a weak economy and a rise in violent crime, recent polls show that many Chileans do not see human rights as a high priority.
They are grappling with what they see as Pinochet’s complicated legacy at a time when many pollsters have been telling pollsters that they are losing faith in democracy.
“There used to be not as much malice as there is now,” says Ana María Román Vera, 62, who sells lottery tickets. “You haven’t seen so many robberies.”
A July poll by the Center for Public Studies, a Chile-based foundation, found that 66% of respondents agreed that the country needs a strong government, rather than worrying about rights of individuals. That’s more than double the 32% who agreed with the statement less than four years ago.
In Chile, September 11 was a milestone before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, as it was the date of the 1973 coup in the South American country. However, that meaning is changing. Polls show that more than a third of Chileans today justify the military takeover of a democratically elected government that has subsequently violated human rights, killed opponents, canceled elections, restricted the media, suppressed labor unions and political parties dissolved.
“There should be an overwhelming majority of Chileans denouncing the dictatorship and the military coup and acknowledging that the military has destroyed democracy,” said Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarómetro regional polling station and founder of polling station Mori Chile. “That would be the normal situation in a normal country. But that is not the case.”
Late last month, leftist President Gabriel Boric unveiled what will actually be the first state-sponsored plan to try to locate the dictatorship’s approximately 1,162 missing victims.
But even as Boric’s government and human rights groups are planning events to mark the anniversary of the coup, many in Chile do not seem to view the impeachment of a democratically elected leader as wrong.
A poll conducted earlier this year by the Lagos firm found that 36% of Chileans believe the military “liberated” Chile from Marxism when it ousted leftist, democratically elected President Salvador Allende, who came to power in 1970 and committed suicide. committed on the day of the coup. . The poll found 42% said the coup destroyed democracy, the lowest number since 1995.
Pinochet led the coup at a time when the country was embroiled in an economic crisis that included food shortages and galloping inflation reaching an annual rate of 600%. When the military took power, it implemented a free-market economy that suddenly meant that those with resources could foster a consumption drive even as the poverty rate skyrocketed.
Retired accountant Sergio Gómez Martínez, 72, said “Fortunately Augusto Pinochet led the coup” against Allende’s socialist government. He argued that his economic well-being improved under the right-wing military government “because there was order and employment, and the countryside and industry began to produce.”
Repression was unleashed on opponents on the day of the coup. In the days that followed, Congress was closed and political parties disbanded as the military junta seized control of all aspects of society. Those opposed to the regime were regularly imprisoned and tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.
Gómez said the human rights abuses during the Pinochet years “could have been avoided,” but they don’t seem to be central to his memory of the years of Pinochet’s rule, when some estimates put some 200,000 citizens into exile for political reasons. about 28,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned and tortured.
He is hardly alone. Nearly four in ten Chileans think Pinochet’s 1973-1990 reign modernized the country, and 20% consider the dictator one of the best rulers of 20th-century Chile, according to the Mori survey.
A Latinobarómetro regional survey this year found that only 48% of Latin Americans think democracy is preferable to any other form of government, a drop of 15 points from 2010.
Throughout Latin America, strongmen like El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele are gaining popularity. Bukele has gained a fervent following thanks to his crackdown on gangs, despite a string of human rights violations.
Boric, meanwhile, has seen a sharp drop in his approval ratings since taking power in March 2022 as Chile’s youngest-ever president at age 36, following widespread student-led street protests that showed how the economic inequality resulting from the dictatorship lived. on. Citizens broadly rejected an attempt last year to replace the dictatorship-era constitution with what would have been one of the most progressive magna cartas in the world, later choosing conservatives to write the next version of the document.
Efrén Cortés Tapia, a 60-year-old painter, said his most vivid memories of the years of dictatorship were not only “repression” but also “not being able to listen to the music of banned folk groups.” For him, the dictatorship led to “restrictions in cultural development” as well as “anxiety and fear.”
Even as Chilean society grapples with its mixed feelings about the dictatorship, the courts are learning more and more about the repression of recent years.
There are about 1,300 active criminal cases for human rights violations during the dictatorship, and some 150 are serving their sentences in Punta Peuco Prison, a prison reserved exclusively for those guilty of dictatorship-era crimes.
Boric’s government is also looking abroad for answers, forcing the United States to release documents that could shed light on Washington’s role in the coup it supported.
In late August, the CIA declassified portions of the President’s Daily Briefs regarding Chile dated September 8, 1973, and September 11, 1973, which revealed that then-President Richard Nixon had been advised of the possibility of a coup.
On a recent visit to Chile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, said it was “very important … to recognize and reflect on the role of the United States” in the coup.
Pinochet remained in power until 1990 and resigned after a majority of Chileans voted against military rule in 1988. But he did not disappear and immediately became commander in chief of the army until 1998 and later became a lifelong senator, a position he created. for himself. He resigned in 2002 and died in 2006 without ever being convicted by the Chilean courts, although he was detained in London for 17 months by order of a Spanish judge.
“The Chileans got used to living with Pinochet,” Lagos said. “Pinochet is, I believe, the only dictator in Western contemporary history, during this century and the last century, who, fifty years after his coup d’état, is still valued by 30 to 40% of a country’s population.”
Politi reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.