I’m not sure how many of you know that September 11th is a major day in history Chile as well as in the US. There’s even a major street named for it. On September 11th, 1973 the military junta turned on President Salvador Allende, attacking the presidential palace of La Moneda by dropping bombs from planes while tanks took care of the ground attack. This coup was led by the leaders of the three branches of the armed forces – army, navy and air force – plus the police. Augusto Pinochet had recently been named head of the army because Allende trusted in him so completely. It turned out that trust was completely unfounded. The forces demanded Allende’s surrender, assuring him that he would be flown to safety in exile. Pinochet, however, was recorded laughing maniacally about dropping the democratically elected president into the ocean. Allende refused to surrender and managed to record several inspirational radio broadcasts on the last radio not yet under military control before encouraging his aides to flee La Moneda and subsequently shooting himself, as legend would have it with a gun gifted to him by Fidel Castro.
At the time of the coup, Pinochet was just one of the four leaders. He quickly rose to the forefront, however, and was named president. He would remain in that position for the next 17 years, during which time he changed the country’s economic system, murdered, tortured and “disappered” many people and sent others into exile. In 1980, Pinochet held a plebiscite for the people to approve the new constitution and decide whether he would remain in power for the next 8 years. He won with 67% of the votes, although the legality of this election has been questioned. He lost the 1988 plebiscite by a narrow margin, and George Bush has been credited along with other world leaders for immediately recognizing this result, giving Pinochet no chance to tweak the results and remain in power. Although the end of the dictatorship was decided in 1988, the next president (Patricio Aylwin) did not come to office until 1990, after elections were held in 1989. End of history lesson.
The fact of the matter is that Pinochet still holds huge influence over Chile. In what is basically a two-party system – the center-left Concertacion and the center-right Alianza encompass most of the parties (the Communist party is a notable exception) and hold the majority of political offices – the right-leaning party is still associated with Pinochet. In fact, Chile has only had presidents from the Concertacion since returning to democracy. Although I can’t manage to understand it, there are people who believe Pinochet was in the right and only doing what he had to do to save Chile’s economy. While I can understand that in September of 1973, the country was heading toward crisis, I don’t think that murder and torture can be justified as means to an end. Many people, including current president Michelle Bachelet, have stories of family members who were affected by the dictatorship, and the wounds haven’t healed. This also contributes to Chileans’ infamous levels of distrust, as during the dictatorship neighbors, friends and even family members would turn each other in to the police forces.
The country’s political system also still bears the evidence of Pinochet’s influence. The constitution has undergone a few updates since 1980, but the framework is still the same one that was approved under the dictatorship. Notably Chile’s senators are elected under the binomial system. This means that every district has two seats, and each of the two coalitions (Concertacion and Alianza) presents two candidates for each district. In order to gain both seats, the coalition must win over 2/3 of the votes. Because this is pretty unlikely, it has meant that the right has held on to power even as the left has won the majority of votes in many districts. Economically, the left hasn’t changed much since being in power – free market neoliberalism still reigns supreme.
Wow, I got all excited about sharing Chilean politics with all of you. Sorry, but I did study political science, and clearly I am a nerd about it. The real inspiration for all of this post was what happens today on September 11th. As mentioned, all of this is still very much an open sore. Pinochet died less than two years ago, and for various reasons he was never brought to trial for everything he put this country through. So today is a day of protests. I came home early from work because I live in a central meeting point for all political activity and national celebrations. Normally this is fun, but considering that last night saw Chile’s victory over Colombia in a pre-World Cup game, I’m kind of over it at the moment. Last night I had to deal with drunk idiots while coming home, and this morning Lola and I had to walk around vomit on the sidewalk. Tonight I left work early to avoid any problems, although up to now everything’s pretty quiet out. The police are in place though, so it could still all end in tear gas and water cannons!
On the one hand I admire the Chileans for fighting for what they believe in, protesting when they feel something isn’t right and not forgetting the past. On the other, I’m a little tired of it happening at my front door. We’re moving (more on that to come!) and I’m excited about it. We’ve loved living here, close to everything with all the hustle and bustle, but it’s been a year and we’re ready for something a little more residential. More trees, fewer protests.
Want to know even more about Chilean politics and history? Try these links:
Interesting LA Times article that talks more about the US’ involvement in the coup, and in the comments you can see for yourself that some still fervently support Pinochet – thanks, Renee!