Monday was a historic day in Chile. Citizens observed the 50th anniversary of the military coup that plunged the country into a 17-year dictatorship. This was supposed to be a moment for the nation to unite in condemning the coup as an evil act that must never be repeated. It didn’t work out that way. Many Chileans, it turns out, believe the coup was justified.
President Gabriel Boric, a young leftist, embodies the view that the coup was a disastrous tragedy for which there can be no justification. But the rightist leader José Antonio Kast, who was Boric’s opponent in the 2021 election and may run again for president in 2025, admires the coup leader, General Augusto Pinochet, and sympathizes with his seizure of power in 1973.
“If he were alive, he would vote for me,” Kast mused a few years ago. “If I had met him now, we would have had a cup of tea.”
A recent public opinion poll found that 36 percent of Chileans believe Pinochet “liberated Chile from Marxism” — up from 16 percent a decade ago. Even the director of the polling company was astonished. “There should be an overwhelming majority of Chileans who denounce the dictatorship and the military coup and acknowledge that the military destroyed democracy,” she said. “That would be the normal situation in a normal country. But that’s not the case.”
The run-up to Monday’s anniversary was filled with rancor. Key organizers were forced to resign after critics charged that they were trying to turn the observance into a pro-government rally. President Boric proposed that all political leaders sign a statement pledging to defend the Constitution against “authoritarian threats” and “to confront the challenges of democracy with more democracy.” Rightists refused. Then he unveiled a National Search Plan aimed at finding the remains of more than 1,000 victims of the coup whose bodies have not been recovered. Rightist parties scorned it as a reopening of old wounds. Leftists sought to remove Pinochet’s name from the official list of former presidents. A rightist senator replied that the reason leftists revile Pinochet is that “he prevented you from establishing a Cuban regime in Chile in 1973.”
Rightist parties boycotted Monday’s commemoration of the coup. “We will not put ourselves at the service of an official truth,” one senator explained. Another senator dismissed claims of sexual abuse in Pinochet’s prisons, which have been widely documented, as “urban legend.” Former president Sebastian Piñera said blame for the coup rested not with Pinochet, who carried it out, but with the victim, President Allende, “who with a minority tried to impose a Marxist model of society.”
A judicial ruling days before Monday’s anniversary brought this political conflict into sharp relief. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of seven military officers who participated in the torture and murder of a leftist folk singer, Victor Jara, shortly after the coup. Many cheered at the ruling. Then one of the convicted officers, aged 86, committed suicide as police came to arrest him. That triggered an outpouring of sympathy and accusations that prosecuting former torturers deepens the split in Chilean society.
At least a third of Chileans evidently agree that Allende, a Marxist, was leading the country toward chaos and Communism, and that Pinochet intervened to rescue it. That contrasts with the view held today in much of the world, including the United States.
American intervention in Chile, directed by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was decisive in producing the coup. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger reasoned.
In the half century since then, US intervention in Chile has been widely condemned as a misguided assault that derailed a long-established democracy and resulted in intense repression. One of Kissinger’s successors, Colin Powell, called it “not a part of American history that we’re proud of.” Last month Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Chile and urged the Biden administration to apologize for US actions there. “It’s very hard for us to move forward when there is this huge elephant in the room,” she said, “and a lack of trust due to that elephant in the room.”
Part of the reason increasing numbers of Chileans believe the coup was necessary may be that younger generations are not taught much about it. “Many people don’t know what happened because at home, parents didn’t want to discuss it,” a government spokesperson said. “The result of this is that unfortunately there are many people who don’t recognize how serious was this rupture of democracy and what it means for the history of our country.”
Many Chileans, however, apparently believe that Marxist ideology still threatens their country and that honoring Allende is a roundabout way of promoting that ideology. Rising crime and a stream of immigrants, mostly from Venezuela, lead some to conclude that a strong hand is more important than scrupulous respect for human rights.
“It’s a really toxic atmosphere,” lamented former president Michelle Bachelet, who was herself arrested and tortured after the 1973 coup.
Another former president, Ricardo Lagos, called the intensity of this debate unique in the world.
“Pinochet is the only dictator in Western contemporary history,” he said, “who, 50 years after his coup, is still appreciated by 30 or 40 percent of a country’s population.”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.