Chile re-evaluates Pinochet, Allende

Jack Chang
The Seattle Times
October 3, 2005

Santiago, Chile: More than 15 years after relinquishing power, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has few public friends left in the country he once ruled, while the reputation of Salvador Allende, the man whose government Pinochet destroyed, is making a comeback.

The reversal of fortunes is transforming a country that’s still agonizing over its recent, violent past and debating how to move forward.

Government prosecutors are turning up damaging details about the role that Pinochet, now 89, played in the execution of thousands of dissidents and the hiding of millions of dollars during his more than 16 years in power.

The ex-dictator has been on the legal defensive since he spent 16 months under house arrest in London in the late 1990s.

Recently, investigations into hidden accounts with U.S.-owned Riggs Bank, where Pinochet allegedly stashed as much as $8 million, have implicated his wife, Lucia Hiriart, and son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, who spent 22 days in a Santiago jail in August in connection with helping to funnel the illegal money.

Image returns

Meanwhile, Allende’s image, with his intense stare and dark, square glasses, is popping up around the Chilean capital.

On Sept. 11, angry marchers commemorating the day 32 years ago when Pinochet seized power from Allende invoked the slain president’s name while demanding that more of the country’s former military rulers be prosecuted for human-rights violations.

A new documentary that takes an admiring view of the socialist leader is showing in Santiago theaters, and it sold 20,000 tickets in the first two weeks after its Sept. 1 release. The director, Patricio Guzman, said the film is set for a nationwide release.

Public-opinion surveys have noted the change. In September 1999, the Chilean research firm Centro de Estudios Publicos asked people to rate Allende’s and Pinochet’s governments from 1, for “awful,” to 7, for “excellent.” Pinochet’s rating was 4 to Allende’s 3.7.

By December 2004, however, opinion had flipped, with Allende earning a 4.2 rating, while Pinochet dropped to 3.8.

It’s a major turnaround for a man whose name was rarely mentioned during the 1970s and ’80s, while Pinochet’s regime killed or caused more than 3,000 people to disappear and tortured thousands more.

Schoolteacher Maria Elena Arroyo said young Chileans are re-evaluating their country’s past and how that history been taught over the years.

“There’s a change in this generation,” said Arroyo, after viewing Guzman’s documentary only eight blocks from the presidential palace where Allende committed suicide after a farewell speech broadcast by radio. “We are looking for the truth beyond everything we’ve learned. And we are doing this despite official reluctance to look back.”

Socialist revolution

Elected in 1970 after three runs for the presidency, Allende put into motion what he said would be a democratic socialist revolution that included nationalizing copper and banking industries, redistributing land among poor farmers and expanding social programs.

With U.S. support, rightist parties, landowners and even the Catholic Church tried to stop Allende by stoking Cold War-era fears of Soviet incursion and calling strikes that crippled the country.

Yet support for Allende’s Popular Unity coalition grew; its share of total votes in parliamentary elections held in early 1973 surpassed the percentage it achieved three years before.

Then came the devastating end, with the aerial bombing of the presidential palace, mass arrests, the suspension of Congress and Allende’s suicide.

“For years, Allende has represented disorder and civil unrest, and no one wanted to remember him,” said Guzman, the film director. “I made this film to restore the memory of Chileans.

“We need to remember the fact that Allende was a phenomenal force. He dignified politics because he always did what he said would do. He was building a new society.”

Among Pinochet’s dwindling supporters, Allende remains the man who pushed Chile to a precarious edge, requiring a military response.

Retired general and Pinochet family friend Guillermo Garin said Chileans owe their economic success to that intervention. Investigators have questioned Garin about possible ties to Pinochet’s hidden money.

“Chileans called the armed forces to step in and help avoid a civil war,” Garin said. “This country had been totally destroyed. And we rebuilt and advanced every sector of this country. The majority of Chileans are still grateful to Pinochet for that.”

The volume with which such comments are publicly spoken has diminished in recent years.

Instead of celebrating the Sept. 11 anniversary as a national holiday, as it had been observed until 1999, Pinochet’s supporters held a closed ceremony this year.

“I don’t think there are many people around anymore who will come out and defend Pinochet,” said Alejandro Augusto Arroyo, a Santiago physician. “Especially after what’s happened recently.”

Since Sept. 11, the blows to Pinochet’s legacy have come quickly.

The country’s Supreme Court voted Sept. 13 to continue prosecutions against Pinochet for allegedly planning the executions of 119 dissidents in what’s known as the Operation Colombo case. Attorneys representing Pinochet have argued that he’s too physically and mentally frail to stand trial for alleged human-rights abuses.

On Sept. 15, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian revealed that Pinochet received about $2 million in secret commissions from 1997 through last year from British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems. It’s still unknown why BAE Systems paid Pinochet.

The ex-dictator already had been battling tax-evasion charges related to millions of dollars he allegedly hid in foreign bank accounts during his regime.

Such financial corruption charges, even more than allegations of human-rights abuses, have extinguished many former Pinochet supporters’ sympathy, said Alberto Espinoza, an attorney who has represented relatives of dissidents killed by the regime.

“One of the banners of the right was always the austerity and responsibility of the Pinochet government,” Espinoza said. “These cases have destroyed that.”

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