40 Years After Pinochet, Chilean Right Remains A Dangerous Influence

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet's military coup in Chile, the current right-leaning Piñera government remains in thrall to the human rights abuses of its past.
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As we approach the 40th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet's military coup in Chile, the current right-leaning Piñera government remains in thrall to the human rights abuses of its past.

The current Chile government of Sebastián Piñera has found itself trying to perform a balancing act recently as it seeks to tactfully address the upcoming fortieth anniversary of the military coup d’état  in Chile while also remaining firmly focused on November’s general election. The Piñera administration, Chile’s first right-wing government since the Pinochet dictatorship, will stage commemorations to mark the coup while trying not to alienate its political base, the conservative upper-classes, many of whom supported and continue to revere General Pinochet.

On the 11th September 1973, the socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces in a bloody coup which resulted in the death of Allende, the world’s first elected socialist president, and established a dictatorship that became globally notorious for repression and systematic human rights abuses. Over 3,000 people were killed by the authorities while thousands more were imprisoned and tortured, and for the surviving victims and the families, the anniversary is a poignant time for remembrance.

There remains, however, a distinct group that views the events of 1973 and the subsequent establishment of military rule in an altogether different light. Following its election in 1970, the Allende administration implemented socialist policies that sought to redistribute wealth amongst the population, through such schemes as the nationalisation of foreign firms and the breakup of large, privately-owned estates to be handed over to poorer families.

The right argue that the coup was necessary in order to depose of the communist system that was destroying the country. Furthermore, they claim that Chile’s modern prosperity and economic success are further evidence of the necessity of removing Allende, as neo-liberal policies implemented by the military regime opened up national markets to foreign investment.

But what about the horrific human rights abuses that terrorised the country and sent thousands of people into exile? Many right-wingers seek to largely disassociate themselves from the brutality of military rule, despite documented links to the regime providing evidence of tacit support. Chief among these is Chile’s largest political party: the Independent Democratic Union (or UDI).

The 2010 election of laAlianza, which chose Sebastián Piñera, one of Chile’s richest men, as its head, saw a right-wing government enter La Moneda for the first time since the dictatorship. The coalition is made up of two principal political parties, the UDI and the National Renewal Party.

The UDI was formed in 1983 by Jaime Guzmán who, as a student leader, firmly supported the military coup. His adherence to neo-liberal economic theory made him one of Pinochet’s closest advisors, and he played a key role in drafting the 1980 constitution which consolidated military rule in Chile.

Today the party follows a reactionary doctrine which holds sway over much government policy. Its influence can be seen in Chile’s anti-abortion laws, under which abortion is illegal under all circumstances in the country (one of only five countries in the world to outlaw the practice totally). A recent headline case in which an eleven-year old girl became pregnant following sustained sexual abuse from her stepfather saw Piñera praising her ‘maturity’ after she allegedly said she wanted to keep the unborn child.

The UDI also favours Chile’s private education system, which has been widely criticised as unequal and in 2011 led to the mobilisation of a student uprising which continues to stage large-scale protests in Chilean cities. Many of these demonstrations have witnessed violent clashes between armoured police and protestors, with high levels of public criticism for the excessive use of force by police.

This often means an indiscriminate deployment of heavy weaponry in public areas. Stepping out of a metro station into a lingering stench of teargas is a happenstance of life in central Santiago. It therefore takes something particularly controversial to really kick up a stink and keep police brutality on the media agenda.

This occurred in June when riot police entered the main campus of the University of Chile, one of Latin America’s oldest and most venerated educational institutions, the Chilean equivalent to Oxford or Harvard. Once inside they let off teargas and attacked student protestors, in a brazen abuse of power.

While many in the country, including the university dean, were indignant at this apparent violation, los carabineros remained unrepentant. How could they justify raiding a place of learning? The authorities claimed that a Molotov cocktail launched from the university premises obliged police to enter.

Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick spoke out in support of the police. “It is not necessary to ask permission to a homeowner, a university rector, or a parish priest (to enter property) if there is a flagrant crime. If they are throwing Molotov bombs from inside a building, police are going to act to detain those who are committing this.”

News footage, however, showed armoured police seemingly attacking students at random. Chadwick’s statement was strongly refuted by the student union. “We reject completely this police repression, Mr Chadwick must give explanations (because) carabineros don’t just send themselves and they can’t have entered (without official sanction).”

No evidence was provided that an incendiary had been launched from the university. The fact that Chile still maintains a military police force, with few discrepancies from the dictatorship days, does nothing to alter mistrust or hostility towards los carabineros. Student demonstrations and the occupation of schools and universities continue to take place in Santiago, with the temperature rising as the country nears the general election.

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Andrés Chadwick is just one of many current cabinet members with links to the dictatorship. He was appointed president of the Students Federation of the Catholic University (Chile’s other grand old educational institution) by the military regime. He is also first cousin to Piñera, who himself made his massive fortune through credit cards under military rule in Chile. The president’s brother José Piñera was a minister under Pinochet, and another who played a key role in the implementation of neo-liberal economics in Chile.

In April this year, the president took the unusual step of opining on military rule in Chile, something that he had hitherto largely stayed away from: “The loss of democracy in Chile was very costly and expensive, it meant seventeen years in which our country couldn’t have democracy or liberty, and additionally grave and repeated human rights abuses were committed during this period.” He then offset this by saying, “The positive part of the military government must also be recognised, which has to do with profound modernisations that permitted our country to confront the challenges that would come in the future.”

Piñera’s comments highlighted the positive image in which the Chilean right still regards military rule. The president has a moral obligation to recognise Chile’s traumatic past, but in a case of appeasement to core supporters, he counteracted this with praise for Pinochet’s achievements, referring to the dictatorship as a ‘military government’. It is a term that often finds favour with Pinochet supporters for the legitimisation it brings the regime.

In August, however, the UDI senator Hernán Larraín broke ranks when he said that military rule was “technically a dictatorship.” He expressed remorse for having supported the dictatorship when he later said, “I apologise, this is my voice for reconciliation.” This admission was criticised by, among others, the MP Juan Carlos Latorre of the centre Christian Democrats Party who said that it “would have been good for the country if people like Hernán Larraín realised that they were collaborating with the military dictatorship a long time ago and not forty years later, after so much pain for people.”

The dispute then spilled over into the current election campaign when the candidate for la Alianza, Evelyn Matthei, whose rival to the presidency is the ex-president Michelle Bachelet, attempted to disassociate herself from the issue. “I was twenty years old when the coup occurred,” she said. “I have nothing to apologise for.” Nevertheless, Matthei voted for Chile to continue under military rule in the 1988 plebiscite that eventually led to the restoration of democracy, and as a member of the UDI has opposed trials for those suspected of human rights abuses. Her father, Fernando Matthei, was commander-in-chief of the Chilean Air Force during the dictatorship. In a grimly ironic case, he has been repeatedly cited by the campaign group Families of Executed Political Prisoners for involvement in the death of General Alberto Bachelet, who was tortured to death in 1974 after being arrested by the authorities, and father to the very woman who is now up against Evelyn Matthei in the presidential race.

The example of Cristián Labbé gives further insight into the strength of the Chilean right. As a paratrooper he took part in the military coup, subsequently entering a regiment, the notorious ‘Caravan of Death’, which then scoured the country hunting left-wing dissidents and sympathisers in late 1973. Shortly after he was appointed to a position within the Direction of National Intelligence (DINA), Pinochet’s brutal secret police force, which was responsible for the deaths and torture of countless citizens. In spite of the life sentence handed down to DINA director Manuel Contreras for human rights abuses including murder, kidnapping and torture, Labbé has never been indicted.

Actually, his fate has been somewhat different. Between 1996 and 2012, he was mayor of one of Santiago’s wealthiest municipalities, Providencia, his continuous re-election emphasising the area’s reputation as a conservative stronghold. Labbé went so far as to suspend rubbish collection from the British and Spanish embassies following Pinochet’s detention in London in 1998. In 2012 it was claimed that Labbé had fathered a child with one of Pinochet’s daughters, while one of Providencia’s main thoroughfares was until recently named ‘Avenida 11de Septiembre’, in tribute to the date of the coup (the name was reverted to ‘Nueva Providencia’ following Labbé’s election defeat).

It is an anomaly of the post-dictatorship in Chile that several figures suspected of involvement in human rights abuses not only remain at liberty while thousands of families still search for the remains of their loved ones, but occupy positions of public influence. The legacy of this is a seething resentment between right and left, most commonly expressed in the violence that regularly explodes between students, fighting for a more equal society, and the security forces whose purpose has for too long been aligned to the interests of the ruling elite. But the social struggle also exists in other forms: the ongoing truth and justice campaigns; the workers’ strikes; a cultural scene that pays homage to the idealism of Salvador Allende’s socialist vision; and in southern Chile’s indigenous Mapuche movement against land expropriation.

On the fortieth anniversary of the coup, tributes will be paid across Chile to its victims. It will be a time of reflection, not only for what happened, but for what is still happening in the country, as the balance of power remains firmly tilted towards a wealthy minority. Many will view the official government commemorations for 11th September 1973 with cynicism, as hollow words and empty pledges, as the Piñera administration has done little to narrow Chile’s gaping social inequality or to find justice for human rights abuses, while many political figures were supportive of the dictatorship. Away from the TV cameras, the Chilean right will remember the coup differently as they overlook a political landscape still very much shaped by that fateful day. The November general election, the first since 2011’s massive protests, will provide a clearer picture of what the future holds.