Sep 12, 2023 - World

Deeply polarized Chile marks 50 years since Pinochet's coup

a young woman with red hair screams against a barrier, surrounding by other demonstrators in Chile on the 50-year mark of the coup that led to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet

Thousands of people gather at the National Stadium, the largest concentration camp set up by the dictatorship after the coup d'état in 1973, in Santiago, Chile, on Monday to mark the 50 years since the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet came into power. Photo: Lucas Aguayo Araos/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Fifty years after the coup that ushered in the long and repressive dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chileans are divided over their country's past.

Driving the news: Many remain haunted — and continue to search for answers and call for accountability. But others, including a growing right-wing faction, see Pinochet as a model and his legacy of fighting communism as one to embrace.

The big picture: The polarization reflects the crossroads Chile faces less than two years after electing a young, leftist leader with goals of reforming his country by replacing the Pinochet-era Constitution.

  • Instead, voters in September 2022 widely rejected the new, progressive constitution that would have enshrined reproductive, education, housing and Indigenous rights.

Flashback: On Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet led the military in a violent takeover of the government, ousting President Salvador Allende, who came to power three years earlier and died during the siege.

  • In the 17 years that followed, the Pinochet-led military junta brutally cracked down on dissenters.
  • About 40,000 people were detained, tortured, killed or forcibly disappeared, up to 20,000 children were kidnapped and numerous other human rights abuses have been documented by a truth commission and rights groups.

State of play: This week's commemorations included a peaceful march led by families of victims of the Pinochet regime.

  • But the situation turned violent after a small number of counter-protesters tried to break up the march, underscoring what experts say is a worrying shift in how Chileans view their history.

Polls show that the percentage of Chileans who say they believe the military was right in carrying out the coup has increased from 16% in 2013 to 36% in 2023, while the percentage who say that coups are "never justified" dipped from 68% to 41% in that same timeframe, according to Robert L. Funk in Americas Quarterly.

  • Powerful far-right opposition figures like 2021 presidential candidate José Antonio Kast have said "Chile chose freedom" on the day of the coup, and Congress member Jorge Alessandri recently said that the coup was "justifiable."
  • Luis Silva, a high-ranking member of the constitutional convention, set to draft a constitution that would replace the 1989 one written under Pinochet's rule, has said the dictator "was a statesman" and "worthy of admiration."

Zoom in: Led by Kast, Chile's Republican Party has gained political power over the last year and seems poised to keep growing, Claudio Fuentes, professor at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, tells Axios Latino.

  • The opposition — along with a growing political conservatism and distrust in government — has succeeded in stifling some of Boric's campaign promises, including a national tax reform and a new Constitution, Fuentes adds.

Yes, but: Most people still oppose the Pinochet regime, and this anniversary marks an emotional time for many Chileans, Claudio Fuentes, professor at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, tells Axios Latino.

  • During a national address on Monday, Boric said the coup "cannot be separated from what came afterward. Human rights violations of Chilean men and women began right from the moment of the coup."
  • "A coup d'état or the violation of the human rights of those who think differently is never justifiable," Boric said.
  • Rodrigo Bustos, executive director of Amnesty International Chile, warned in a statement on Monday that Chileans "cannot allow hate speech and a loss of memory to propagate in our society."
  • "Keeping memory alive is crucial if we are to prevent future generations from experiencing the atrocities we had to live through in the past," he added. "A firm rejection of human rights violations and an unwavering commitment to the advancement of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition would be a powerful signal that we, as a country, deserve to live."

What to watch: A new body of people elected to take another stab at drafting a new constitution is working on new articles. The right-wing opposition has the most representation on the council.

  • Chileans are scheduled to vote on the draft in December, though polls show little support so far.

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Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the 40,000 victims of the Pinochet regime included those detained or tortured, not just those killed or forcibly disappeared.

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