President Ricardo Lagos will lead Chileans through the painful 30th anniversary this year of the most brutal coup in 20th century Latin America, the “military uprising” of General Augusto Pinochet backed by the US military and the CIA.
Pinochet deposed the democratically elected Marxist Salvador Allende, who died in the attack, on 11 September, 1973 and ruled as a despot for the following 17 years. According to official records, 3197 people were left dead or missing. Over a thousand are still unaccounted for.
This reign of terror was initiated with Washington’s approval and support. Terrified of a communist state emerging on its doorstep, the US took steps to cripple the Chilean economy and backed the right-wing Pinochet in his assault on Allende's government.
In a declassified Pentagon situation report in October, 1973, US Naval attaché Patrick Ryan marked 11 September as "our D-Day," and stated that "Chile's coup de etat [sic] was close to perfect."
Lagos, who served in Allende’s government, will introduce a new human rights bill on the day of remembrance. His action has managed to annoy and placate sections of both the military and the organisations representing the victim's families.
Unlike in Argentina, whose so-called “Full stop and due obedience laws” granting an amnesty to their dictatorship’s military personnel were dramatically repealed on 30 August by the new President, Néstor Kirchner, Chile will not see the overturning of its own amnesty laws implemented by Pinochet in 1978.
Lagos maintains that he does not have the “political force” necessary and instead has proposed in the new bill that $30 million be paid to around 4000 victims’ families while at the same time offering to reduce the penalties of soldiers who took part in the deaths and disappearances.
Chile is still reeling from the horrors of Pinochet's rule
Generals tell all
Anticipating the new mood, and due to judges circumnavigating the amnesty laws by conducting trials on a charge of ‘on-going kidnap’, a spate of self-revelations and statements of anguish have spilled from retired generals this year.
In one, shown on the state-owned Television Nacional in July, a former army helicopter mechanic, Juan Carlos Molina, admitted to taking part in the throwing of the bodies of nine of the dictatorship’s political prisoners – eight men and a woman – into the Pacific ocean in the late 1970s, the Inter Press Service reported.
The bodies of the nine who had been “disappeared” were “wrapped and tied to lengths of train rails so they would sink," said Molina.
The horrors are ones that some in Chile would rather forget.
In the run up to the 11 September anniversary, former President and Life Senator Eduardo Frei said that the coalition was trapped in the past and not discussing the issues of the future. The secretary general of the Christian Democracy party highlighted that over 60% of the Chilean population had no recollection of the times, and that the coalition had to look to the future.
In this political space, a group of retired generals have even attempted to form a new military political party, the New National Force, in time for the December 2005 general elections.
At least a third of Chileans supported Pinochet during the dictatorship, according to Allende’s niece, the US-based writer Isabel Allende.
Pincochet stays home
Meanwhile, Pinochet himself quietly celebrated his own 30th anniversary celebrations – that of his appointment by Allende as chief of Chile’s armed forces on 23 August 1973.
Living in seclusion since he was judged officially “mentally unfit” to stand trial for the atrocities, Pinochet, 87, held a private celebration in his coastal country residence of Bucalemu, according to French news agency AFP. “His friends and former collaborators came to visit him," said retired general Guillermo Garin, one of Pinochet’s closest aides.
"One cannot build a future without knowing what happened in the past”
Human rights groups have demanded two national memorial days, one to commemorate those who were killed or made to disappear, and the second date in honour of torture victims. They also want former detention centres to be declared national monuments. Unesco declared on 30 August that Chile’s human rights documents would become part of ‘world heritage’.
President Lagos made it mandatory for all cabinet members to attend the 11 September ceremony, but made it clear then that it would be an ‘ecumenical act’ commemorating democracy and human rights. The specific homage to Salvador Allende has been moved to 10 September and will be led by the interior minister Jose Miguel Insulza.
Asked how he viewed the 30th anniversary of the coup, Lagos told Argentina’s leading daily, La Clarin, “At times, one gets overwhelmed with memories of what happened 30 years ago, but the fact is that I am president of many millions of Chileans. It does not mean that one is oblivious of what happened back then, of the friends one lost.”
“The TV has been showing some hitherto unseen, very shocking footage," he said. "What impact will all this have on the 50% of all Chileans who had not been born or were much too young at the time? There is no future without the past. One cannot build a future without knowing what happened in the past.”