Claire Bens is a junior at Ohio University, majoring in political and global studies, focusing on peace and war. Claire is currently studying in Vina del Mar, Chile at the Universidad Vina del Mar.
One of the hardest and most controversial issues to discuss in Chile is Augusto Pinochet. When I arrived in Chile I had no impression of this man except that he reminded me of “the fearless leader” from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. But here the population is divided. To this day, a substantial portion of the population supports the 1973 coup. To understand this, it is important to recognize the historical context.
In 1970, Salvador Allende was the first and only democratically elected socialist in the world. Allende nationalized the copper industry, increased agrarian reform, and implemented broad social changes. Many of his policies, including housing projects, unionization, and literacy programs had phenomenal effects on the population. However, opposition arose when inflation, food shortages, a trucker’s strike, and an economic crisis converged in 1973. With the help of American advisors, a military junta, led by Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the Unidad Popular government. Obviously this is a very brief and superficial summary of the events. However, with Pinochet in power several things happened.
The DINA, national intelligence agency, was formed to torture and kill members of the opposition parties, this lead to a search for thousands of disappeared persons. Additionally, the military carried out a countrywide reign of terror through the ‘Caravan of Death,’ a team specially designed to perform political assassinations. Finally, Operation Condor coordinated the exchange of “political enemies” throughout the South American continent, threatening individuals who fled the country in search of safety after the coup. Pinochet also implemented a new economic policy of neoliberalism and began privatizing businesses that were nationalized under Allende.
So why is Pinochet so beloved by some Chileans? Part of this I will simply never understand. Firstly, neoliberalism reversed some of the economic downturn that occurred during Allende’s presidency, however this also increased income inequalities. Secondly, Pinochet left power voluntarily and was not charged with any crimes until the late 1990s, in fact he was commander of the military until 1996. Pinochet was only arrested when visiting London because of charges brought against him for abuses to Spanish citizens, after this an investigation by the Chilean government was initiated. Thirdly, a cult of personality arose around Pinochet that is associated with the right wing. I find this particularly interesting because Pinochet was somewhat lacking in charisma. Finally, Chileans are somewhat indifferent and skeptical about politics.
My personal philosophy here has been to ask questions with caution and avoid giving any notion of my own political opinions. As Judge Guzman, the first Chilean judge to indict Pinochet for his crimes told my Human Rights class, “Chileans are difficult.” By this he meant Chileans usually do not answer a question with a “Yes” or a “No,” there is always a context and the answer is usually in a gray area. So, if you are ever in Chile remember to be cautious in this area, not everyone has the same opinions about Pinochet. Or you can simply stick to the Chilean rule for barbeques, “don’t talk about religion, politics, or football.”