Twenty-five years after Chile’s return to democracy, glorifying Augusto Pinochet has finally become taboo, but the country is still fighting to erase the social and political legacy of his dictatorship.
Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody 1973 coup and ruled Chile with steely ruthlessness for the next 17 years, stepped down on March 11, 1990, handing the presidential sash to democratically elected president Patricio Aylwin after a lengthy transition.
With his trademark dark glasses and military uniform, General Pinochet was an emblem of the dictatorships that gripped much of Latin America in the depths of the Cold War.
He presided over a period of great prosperity but great divisions in Chilean society, implementing free-market reforms that won the approval of the business sector but repressing his left-wing opponents with gruesome violence.
More than 3,200 people were killed or “disappeared” (abducted and presumed killed) by Pinochet’s security forces, and 28,000 were tortured.
Pinochet’s constitutional status as a senator for life helped ensure he was never brought to justice for the crimes committed under his rule, despite numerous court cases that were pending at the time of his death in 2006 at age 91.
For years supporters vocally defended his legacy, but 25 years since the return to democracy his name is increasingly becoming a shared source of shame for Chileans.
Today, “Pinochet is a historical figure with neither tomb nor heirs,” sociologist Eugenio Tironi told AFP.
“The political groups that once declared themselves his successors now reject him and his family,” he said.
“Even the military doesn’t want to openly recognize him.”
– Falling symbols –
The symbols of Pinochet’s rule are falling one by one, such as September 11 avenue in the capital Santiago, named for the date of Pinochet’s deadly 1973 overthrow of Socialist president Salvador Allende — now renamed “New Providence” avenue.
The military has also rebranded one of its most prestigious medals, which bore his name.
Under the current government of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, Congress is debating a bill called “No street will bear your name,” introduced by a Communist lawmaker to eradicate references to the Pinochet regime from public spaces nationwide.
Dozens of streets across Chile are still named for Pinochet, his henchmen or the date of the coup, and monuments to them dot the country.
The military’s War Academy holds the “President Augusto Pinochet Library,” and the main highway to the south of the country also bears his name.
“Chile still owes a debt to the families of the prisoners who disappeared and were never found,” said the sponsor of the renaming bill, Karol Cariola.
“It seems unacceptable to us that they could be walking down the street and find themselves face to face with the name of … a murderer with blood on his hands.”
– ‘Dictatorship’s ghost’ –
In a sign of the changing national attitude, there was outcry in Congress last December when a lawmaker from a far-right party requested a minute of silence in tribute to Pinochet for the eighth anniversary of his death.
Still, many Chileans say Pinochet saved the country from communism and approve of his economic policy, much of which remains in place.
Bachelet, who served as Chile’s first woman president from 2006 to 2010 and returned for a new term a year ago, has vowed to undo Pinochet’s legacy across broad swaths of Chilean life — from labor laws that restrict the right to strike, to the heavily privatized education system, to the dictatorship-era constitution.
“The figure of Pinochet is much less present, but there’s a ghost of the dictatorship as a foundational regime that is only just now starting to be torn down,” said political analyst Claudio Fuentes.
“There was a turning point during the 40th anniversary of the coup in 2013, when the entire heritage of the Pinochet era was strongly questioned,” he told AFP.
“We had a lot of debates on human rights violations, and today I think those who defend Pinochet do it much more timidly.”