The other 9/11

It will probably be several decades before Chileans agree on a common account of what took place on 11 September 1973. When referring to the coup d’etat led by General Pinochet on that day against Salvador Allende’s socialist government, the detention and killing of thousands and the implantation of a 17-year military dictatorship, it is all to easy to be purely factual. The emotional side of the story is, understandably, much harder to reconcile. Many see in General Pinochet a liberator, a man who save the country from communism, a national hero. For others, he represented nothing but the darkest hour in the history of the country.

Younger generations are slowly beginning to take a more dispassionate, objective view on the subject. The tragedy of 1973 is increasingly being perceived as a backlash of the Cold War, of which Chile became nothing but a residual victim. What may be more difficult to determine is exactly what kind of legacy can be attributed to the Pinochet régime. In a place like Santiago, where the implementation of his political and economic policies is all the more evident, the debate hinges on the extent and impact that the dictatorship years has had in the country’s present.

Pinochet managed his heritage carefully. Unlike Franco or Stalin, he did not build statues of himself in the county’s main squares. Neither did he attempt to create a sui generis ideology centred on his persona. But by the time he was forced to step down as a ruler in 1990, he had left in place a weave of laws to secure an excruciatingly difficult transition to democracy. He had also given himself a monitoring role in the way the new elected government was handling the thorny issue of human rights abuses under his rule. His importance as a political figure began to wane only after his lengthy arrest – as a result of an extradition request by the Spanish government – whilst on a visit to London in 1998. Upon his return to Chile, his supporters had become fewer and more distant, and his public interventions suddenly became a thing of the past.

The death of General Pinochet on 10 December 2006, was an event that the majority of his compatriots had anticipated for a long time. The question over what kind of participation the government would have during his funerals had been a hot political debate for months, if not years prior to the heart condition that led to his death. The isolated and minor scenes of celebration and grief in the capital after his death were largely overblown by the media, as in reality it only took a fortnight for most Chileans to put the events behind them. The families of the victims under his regime have nonetheless vowed to continue their struggle for justice, even if the absence of Pinochet himself has turned these somewhat more difficult to fulfill. For better or for worse, the death of the General had closed a painful and complex chapter in the recent history of the nation.