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News > Analysis

Justice for Chile's 9/11 Coup Undermined by Piñera's Right-wing Gov't

  • An activist holds an image of a missing person during a protest against the Supreme Court decision to grant parole to human right abusers during Chile's dictatorship.

    An activist holds an image of a missing person during a protest against the Supreme Court decision to grant parole to human right abusers during Chile's dictatorship. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 September 2018

At least 903 people were disappeared and 1,759 were executed in Chile during the military regime led by dictator General Augusto Pinochet's 15-year rule.

Chile marks the 45th anniversary of the brutal coup against democratically-elected leftist President Salvador Allende amid a new right-wing government in power that has been accused of reversing some of the steps taken to help the country heal from one of the region’s bloodiest and most recent military dictatorships.

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In June, just a few months into his second presidential term, conservative President Sebastian Piñera issued a pardon for former Colonel Rene Cardemil who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for executing six people in October 1973, weeks after the takeover by U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet.

This marked the first time a prisoner held in Punta Peuco prison received a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds.

Piñera and members of his cabinet have been accused of being supporters of Pinochet and his takeover, seeing the events as necessary to stop Allende and his “communist” agenda.

In fact, just a few days before the 45th anniversary of the coup, the president argued that Chilean democracy had been "deeply sick" before the coup, on Sept. 11, 1973, in what seems to be a reference to Allende's short-lived government of two years.

Also Mauricio Rojas, Chile's former Minister of Culture, Art, and Heritage, came under heavy criticism and was forced to resign within three days of taking the post after a series of negative comments he made about the country's "Museo de la Memoria" (Museum of Memory) were published in a local newspaper.

The museum was founded a few years ago after a mandate from the country's truth commission gave recommendations in the Rettig Report "to account for human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

In a book published in 2015, Rojas called the museum "an installation whose purpose, accomplished without a doubt, is to shock the spectator, leave him speechless, and to prevent him from reasoning," adding that the museum represents a "shameless and fallacious use of a national tragedy that touched so many of us so hard and directly."

This sentiment continues to be evident through the policies of the new government and its push for easing the conditions of some the most notorious figures of the dictatorship.

In August, the Chilean Supreme Court granted conditional releases to a group of former military agents, including soldiers Jose Quintanilla Fernandez, Hernan Portillo Aranda and Felipe Gonzalez Astorga, and police officer Manuel Perez Santillan, all convicted of crimes against humanity for being involved in the torture and disappearance of 31-year-old Eduardo Alberto Gonzalez Galeno in 1973.

Witnesses said Gonzalez Galeno was accused of being a member of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) during his captivity by the military dictatorship and, subsequently, beaten and disappeared. Those released were slated to serve until 2020 or 2023.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged Chile to reconsider the decision and to protect the victims' families, as well as to consider the long-lasting effects such a decision would induce.

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Alicia Lira, president of the Association of Relatives of Executed Politicians accused Piñera of conspiring with various Supreme Court judges and leading a nationwide “impunity campaign.”

"Seeing the president of the Supreme Court meet with Piñera, who is committed to the military, and condemned for human rights violations, really shows that here there is no will of state powers to do justice," she said, adding that president’s actions of late are an insult to the memory of thousands of Chilean victims killed during the dictatorship 45 years ago.

Only 75 out of 1,073 former Pinochet-era agents are serving prison sentences for human rights violations committed during the general’s military dictatorship in Chile, according to a 2014 report by the Human Rights Program of the Ministry of Interior, while 1,045 cases remained open in the country for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.

On Sept. 11, 1973, Salvador Allende's socialist government was toppled by a U.S.-backed military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, barely three years after Allende was elected.

Thousands of Chileans were subsequently tortured, jailed and killed by the military dictatorship. Democracy in Chile was irreparably altered, and even now the country continues to be scarred by one of the darkest eras of fear and repression on the continent, changing the history of the country and region.

After winning the 1970 presidential elections in Chile, the left-wing Salvador Allende worked toward social reforms and justice, nationalizing natural resources, building homes for the poor and focusing on better access to health and education.

Allende fought until the last hours of his life to defend the social gains and maintain constitutional order. In his last speech, just minutes before the military bombed the presidential palace, he gave Chileans one last message of hope.

“I will not resign. Placed in a historic transition, I will pay the loyalty of the people with my life. And I tell them I have the certainty that the seed that we have planted in the dignified conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled. You have the power — they can destroy us, but social progress can be stopped neither by crime nor by force. History is ours, and people make it happen.”


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Pinochet, Allende’s own army chief, led the coup and ordered his forces to march through the streets of Santiago, intimidating the local populace and entering La Moneda Presidential Palace by force.

He later consolidated power with the support of the United States and ruled the country with an iron fist for 17 years, until 1990. He jailed an estimated 80,000 people, tortured 30,000 and murdered around 3,200. Only 75 of the more than a thousand of his former agents are serving prison sentences for human rights violations.

Such actions by Chile's new government further complicates the ability of the Chilean people and society to heal, and disrupts attempts at reparation for the victims of the 15-year dictatorship. Chile continues to struggle with its past as some still justify the events of 1973, while some of the perpetrators of the killings and disappearances remain alive and free to this day.

Also, the Chilean state continues to be governed by the right-wing constitution imposed by Pinochet. Successive governments have over the years attempted, yet failed, to change it.

Even the end of the Pinochet regime did not seem to satisfy the grievances against him and his rule, as he was removed from power through a popular referendum to decide whether his regime should end or not.

Amid international pressure from regional countries, as well as his own western allies, Pinochet agreed to hold the referendum. In the weeks before the vote, Pinochet was so confident of electoral success that he allowed the opposition 15 minutes of airtime each day to make its case.

It was held on Oct. 5, 1988, in which the majority of Chileans voted for a change in “government.”

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