On Wednesday, when Americans commemorated the 12th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, Chileans contemplated the four decades since the coup d’état which toppled Salvador Allende — a benchmark that falls in the middle of a presidential election campaign in that country.
Despite the 40 years that have passed, the events of 1973 still resonate throughout the Chile — but this should not be all that surprising. Here in the United States, domestic and foreign policy remain mindful of — and in many ways conditioned by — the lessons of the Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate. In Chile, this anniversary provides an opportunity to discuss the causes of the coup, the dictatorship that followed, and the kind of democracy that has been built since then.
There are at least three elements which define the conversation.
• First, this is the first major anniversary since Augusto Pinochet’s death. Ten years ago, the former dictator was alive and living quietly in a Santiago suburb. Although his arrest in London 1998 and the 2004 discovery of his efforts to hide millions of dollars at Riggs Bank in Washington, DC, had already done much damage to his public profile and influence, the general’s death in December of 2006 facilitated a freer discussion of his legacy. Today, no major political party is willing to associate itself with Pinochetismo, although some on the right do defend the so-called “positive aspects” of his regime — economic modernization chief among them.
• Second, the memorialization of the 1973 coup falls in the midst of a presidential campaign. And not just any campaign — the two main candidates are both women, both former ministers, and both daughters of air force generals. Gen. Alberto Bachelet, the father of candidate and former president Michelle Bachelet, died in custody in the days immediately following the coup. Candidate Evelyn Matthei’s father, Gen. Fernando Matthei, went on to become part of the governing junta with Pinochet.
Some have suggested that Gen. Matthei had some knowledge of what happened to Gen. Bachelet, as the two men were friends. Both families deny the charge. Gen. Bachelet’s daughter was exiled, while Gen. Matthei’s studied abroad, eventually returning to study economics at Santiago’s Catholic University. Needless to say, both of these women were shaped, albeit in different ways, by the coup and its aftermath.
• Third, the recent social mobilization has shifted the goalposts of political debate. Massive student demonstrations that began in 2011 and persist to date have brought the country’s students and education to the forefront, laying the blame for the system’s ongoing struggles on the economic and political legacy of the Pinochet regime, and to a lesser degree on the continuation of those policies during the 20 years of center-left Concertacion coalition governments.
Students and others have managed to transform what was a demand for education reform into a broader call for a new constitution — the current constitution, though much amended, is the one initially implemented by Gen. Pinochet in 1980. Almost all of the nine presidential candidates, with the exception only of Matthei, offer to reform or scrap the current constitution, with some suggesting the formation of a Constituent Assembly to design a new one.