Pinochet’s Long Shadow

Dictator Augusto Pinochet's influence lingers in Chile's politics through widespread inequality and the impunity of its security forces – but today, there is a growing movement to bury his legacy.

When reports of mass social unrest hit the global headlines in October 2019, the illusion of Chile’s economic miracle was shattered. Chants of ‘It’s years not 30 pesos’, referring to the 30-peso fare hike that kicked off the protests, shone a spotlight on the fundamental problem at play: that despite 30 years of democracy the so-called ‘miracle’ had only served to enrich the very elite that conspired to violently quash socialism. Most Chileans today are paying a high price for social goods like healthcare and education, while vital pensions are gambled on the open markets.

For decades, the myth of Chile’s economic success allowed Pinochet apologists to cleanse their bloody consciences, because stability made the whole dark saga ‘worth it’. The brutal truth about life in the neoliberal laboratory that was implemented in the late 70s by the Chicago Boys (an elite group of Chilean economists trained at Harvard under the guidance of the godfather of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman) emerged from the rubble of the riots; what we learned by observing the raw anger on the streets of Santiago and Chile’s major cities was that the experiment had been allowed to continue, aided by each successive government, irrespective of their political leanings.

Piñera’s PR War

On 23 October, shortly after the protests began, President Sebastian Pinera declared the country ‘at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.’

Piñera then unleashed armoured military tanks onto the streets. Videos of violent scenes not matched since the dictatorship flooded social networks. Students alleged being tortured at Baquedano Metro Station, where the protests had begun; soldiers patrolled the streets as a state of emergency was imposed.

As the protests raged, the police response became more violent. Over the course of October 2019 and March 2020, when the pandemic began, around 30 people were killed by the police; thousands were tortured, and dozens were sexually abused. Sebastian Piñera’s approval rating fell to six percent. He had no mandate, and was villainised both in the press and at protests outside Chilean embassies from Toronto to London. International human rights observers, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN wrote damning reports criticising the government’s response.

One was penned by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and twice Chile’s president. ‘There are reasonable grounds to believe that … a high number of serious human rights violations have been committed,’ the report said. ‘The majority of those who have exercised the right to assembly during this period have done so in a peaceful manner.’

Then Piñera fought back. At a bizarre press briefing he condemned the security forces despite the deployment command coming directly from him: ‘Despite our firm commitment and precautions […] to protect human rights, in some cases protocols were not adhered to, there was excessive use of force, and abuses and crimes were committed,’ he said.

Nearly two years on, police abuse continues. Just this month, three people were killed by police, including street juggler Francisco Martinez in southern Chile, which set off further protests against police brutality and impunity. The media, however, is awash with Covid vaccine success stories; the maiming of protesters, the censorship of artists, and the terrorizing of indigenous communities have all taken a backseat, while Piñera restores his rating to a much healthier 24 percent.

Chronic Impunity

Michelle Bachelet, in her capacity of Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has insisted that the police must be reformed – but during her two terms as president of Chile (2006- 2010, and 2014- 2018) did nothing to bring about this change. From the presidencies of Patricio Aylwin (1990) to Michelle Bachelet (2017), Pinochet’s militarised police force have resisted reform and been bolstered by large injections of cash and ammunition. Their dominance is manifested in the impunity they enjoy. To date, only one police officer has been tried for the killings, tortures, and rapes that occurred during the unrest.

‘Chile is a good example of what happens in a country when the crimes of the past have not been faced,’ Maria Vasquez Aguilar, from UK-based rights group Chile Solidarity Network, told Tribune. ‘The lack of justice for the thousands of violations of human rights during Pinochet’s dictatorship means that the state, and its security forces, act with impunity, knowing full well that there will be no consequences to their repressive actions. Democracy becomes a mirage, which disappears the closer you get.’

The Pinochet Effect

While the ousting of General Pinochet in the late ’80s has been romanticised through film and layers of nostalgic narrative, the truth is that the 1988 plebiscite in which the people voted ‘No’ to another ten years of the Pinochet regime had been agreed ten years earlier. And when the dictator stepped down from power his conditions were endless: He was to be the head of armed forces, and senator for life; the senate was packed with his cronies, as was the judiciary.

During the transition to democracy from 1990, when human rights groups pushed too far, Pinochet threatened a return to military rule, saying: ‘The day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends.’ Today, the four echelons of the Junta (navy, army, air force, and police) continue to enjoy privileges, of which impunity is a main feature.

Strong links to the Pinochet regime in the present cabinet point to the endurance of his influence: Sebastian Piñera is the brother of Pinochet’s labour minister, Jose Piñera. Andres Chadwick, interior minister until late 2019, was a vocal supporter of Pinochet, and is Piñera’s cousin. Hernán Larrain, (father of filmmaker Pablo Larrain) who perversely occupies the role of Chilean minister of justice and human rights, supported and defended German enclave Colonia Dignidad, which was established by the Nazi officer and paedophile Paul Shäfer. The enclave was used to torture and murder opponents of the regime. Last May, Piñera even appointed Macarena Santelices, Pinochet’s great-niece, as women’s minister – but she was promptly removed due to the public outcry.

While demands for a new constitution have led to a political breakthrough, the struggle for true democracy in Chile will not be straightforward. The political sphere and media is dominated by conservative right-wing narratives, protest has been criminalised, and grassroots candidates for the writing of the new constitution have limited resources. Despite these obstacles, though, the Chilean people are prepared to go all the way – they have lost their fear, and now have nothing left to lose.