Last week, whilst the United States and most countries within its sphere of influence were sombrely marking the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, the effects of which continue to reverberate in today’s world, relatively remote Chile was commemorating the 40th anniversary of its own 9/11 – the bloody coup that overthrew the democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, and ushered in the brutal 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the legacy of which is still a divided country.
With tens of thousands marching in Santiago, the country’s capital, demanding the truth about and justice for the disappearance and murder of loved ones, it was almost inevitable that violence would break out, so high do emotions still run. That the commemoration was taking place in the middle of the campaign for presidential elections on November 17 perhaps served to add to the highly charged atmosphere.
In spite of the fact that, since the return to democracy in 1990, Chile has managed, to a certain extent, to focus on the future rather than the past, reconstructing a democratic and prosperous society, the obscenities of the Pinochet dictatorship are too recent, memories too raw and wounds too deep and wide open, for many Chileans to be completely reconciled to the tremendous trauma they suffered.
Indeed, some right wing elements still try to justify the violations of the dictatorship as necessary for political stability and economic growth, or they simply declare ignorance of the dark deeds of the past. But whilst many attribute Chile’s impressive growth over the past few decades to the economic modernisation implemented by the Pinochet regime, it was actually the centre-left Concertación administrations of 1990-2010, which, by mixing free-market economics with social programmes, allowed the consolidation of democracy and guaranteed economic stability, as well as working towards a somewhat more inclusive society.
Between Concertación and current President Sebastián Piñera’s centre-right alliance, successive Chilean governments have succeeded in reducing the poverty rate from 40 per cent to 14 per cent. There, however, remains significant inequity and pressure for social change is mounting, with the mass student demonstrations that began in 2011 evolving into a broader movement for constitutional reform.
The current constitution is actually another legacy of the Pinochet era; it has gone through several amendments but it is still essentially the one imposed by the dictator in 1980. It is noted for its institutional rigidity and for preserving the power of the elites, so much so that, in spite of the advances of the past two decades, wealth and privilege are concentrated in the hands of a few whilst the majority of the population must endure sub-standard education, lack of opportunity and social fragmentation.
The almost entrenched nature of inequality in Chilean society undermines democracy and the forging of a national consensus on the future. It is not a sustainable situation and this has generally been recognised by most of the candidates in the forthcoming elections.
Former President Michelle Bachelet is tipped to return to office and she has already committed herself to working towards a new constitution and free higher education. She, whose father, an air force general, died in custody in the early days of the coup and herself a victim of torture at the hands of Pinochet’s goons, perhaps understands more than many the importance of healing open wounds.
As part of the healing process, Chile, like any other country that has suffered a polarising trauma, needs truth, justice and reconciliation as much as it needs real equality and opportunities. Three weeks ago, the judicial profession in Chile formally apologised for abandoning its role as protectors of human rights during the Pinochet years and, since the arrest of Pinochet for genocide in London in 1998 and his death under house arrest in 2006, the prosecution of crimes committed during the dictatorship has played an increasingly important part in the process of accountability. Now, a new constitution based on a shared vision, which can establish the institutions necessary to facilitate equitable development and equitable access to public goods, could be the next logical step in laying the ghosts of the past to rest.
Different readings of the past will always exist but they should not be an obstacle to building the future. The lessons of the past, painful as they may be, can and should be an impulse to strengthen the will to find mutual understanding and respect in the midst of diversity. Chile, of course, is not unique in this regard.