The coup was backed by the United States, which, in the depths of the Cold War, sought to curb the spread of left-wing governments in its hemisphere and had previously failed to derail the election of Allende. Washington helped start 17 years of dictatorship under Pinochet. It had all the classic features of autocratic strongman rule: banning opposition parties, media censorship, and brutal repression of unions, indigenous communities, and suspected left-wing activists. The coup general also led a spectacular free market experiment in South America, adopting neoliberal policies that are, to this day, celebrated by Western conservatives and condemned by the left for fueling vast inequalities.
Pinochet’s reign ended in a period of conciliation greater than that of some other 20th-century dictatorships: a 1988 plebiscite foiled his attempt to retain power as a civilian president, and the 1989 elections opened the path to the return of constitutional democracy in 1990. Pinochet died of a heart attack in 2006. without ever facing full justice for his alleged crimes. But the deep traumas and divisions of that era persist, wounds that are arguably deepened even further in the current febrile period of world politics.
This unease was manifested on Sunday, when the young left-wing Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, participated in a march in honor of those killed and disappeared by the Pinochet regime. The commemoration was marked by scenes of violencewith masked protesters of uncertain political affiliation vandalizing property.
Boric was the first elected Chilean president to join this procession since the tradition began after Pinochet left office. The country remains polarized, with around a third of Chileans agree in a recent poll that the army in 1973 liberated their nation “from Marxism”. And the younger generation of Chileans, whose contemporary concerns are less tied to the weight of the past, might shrug their shoulders at the sins of a long-gone dictatorship. Novelist Ariel Dorfman, cultural adviser to the Allende government, linked influential oligarchic interests in Chile, which rejoiced in the collapse of the country’s democracy half a century ago, to the current lack of consensus on the good or bad of the coup.
“There was no mourning among the rich and powerful that night of September 11. » Dorfman wrote in the New York Times. “They were celebrating that Chile had been saved from what they feared would become another Cuba, a totalitarian state that would erase them from the country they claimed was their stronghold. The chasm that opened that day between the victims and beneficiaries of the coup persists, several years after the restoration of democracy in 1990.”
Indeed, José Antonio Kast, the far-right politician who appears poised to defeat Boric in the 2025 elections, has explicitly defended Pinochet’s legacy and balked at asking him to condemn the 1973 coup.
“If he were alive, he would vote for me,” Kast told a local newspaper before the failure of the 2017 electoral campaign, referring to Pinochet. “If I had met him now, we would have had a cup of tea at La Moneda.”
Kast is hardly alone. In neighboring Argentina, Javier Milei, the far-right candidate in a position to vote to win elections later this year, is backed by a running mate who is an apologist for the country’s military dictatorship, which after a coup in 1976 ruled until 1983 and killed some 30,000 people in 1983. his famous dirty anti-leftist war. His movement threatens to shatter the left-right consensus on the ills of that era that has prevailed in the four decades since the restoration of democracy.
Last week, Victoria Villarruel, Milei’s running mate, held an event aimed at drawing attention to left-wing guerrilla violence in the 1970s. massed outside the gatheringdenouncing the politician’s alleged defense of fascist authoritarianism.
“Those of us who are older and lived through the dictatorship know what state terrorism did,” said Beatriz Olhasso, a retiree from Buenos Aires. declared to the Spanish daily El Pais. “It is no coincidence for me that Milei’s vice-presidential candidate addresses very young children, who have not experienced this moment and who feel that we owe them something of these 40 years of democracy because they have precarious jobs and live poorly. »
The reactionary zeal that led to Pinochet’s coup can be seen in various democracies around the world, including the United States. Some members of the Proud Boys, the white supremacist hate group that participated in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, wear patches that read “RWDS” – a nod to “right-wing death squads » Latin Americans tacitly supported. by Washington during the Cold War. “Pinochet has come down to us as the perfect, caricatured reference for the apocalyptic villains of democracy, particularly the hellhounds who exploit the fear of Communism“, » wrote veteran Latin America observer Tim Padgett.adding that “Pinochet would have been proud of the Proud Boys.”
And for the American left, the coup is a constant reminder of the dark legacy of American foreign policy. A recent delegation of left-wing Democratic lawmakers visited several Latin American countries, including Chile, and echoed long-standing Chilean calls for the United States to declassify secret documents related to U.S. activities that allegedly may have encouraged the 1973 coup d’état. (The State Department recently declassified two relevant top-secret documents from the Nixon administration.)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who participated in the trip, highlighted ongoing connections between those who harbor nostalgia for Latin American dictatorship and the Trump movement at home.
“American far-right and fascist movements have worked extremely hard to export many of their tactics and goals throughout Latin America. » she told the left-wing magazine Jacobin. “We saw it in Brazil, famously, with (former President Jair) Bolsonaro and the January 8 attack on their capital. But in Chile this situation is also very widespread. One way we see this is the desire to erase history.
That’s more the reason, Ocasio-Cortez added, for “the United States to be able to declassify this information, to say that there was outside involvement, that this is something that happened and that was incredibly unfair.”
Boric, who faces many political difficulties since his victory in the 2021 elections, has made the case for democracy – and against the apologia for the coup – in a speech on Monday.
“Reconciliation is not achieved through neutrality or distance but through an unequivocal position alongside those who have been victims of horror,” he said. “Reconciliation, dear compatriots, does not imply attempting to assimilate responsibilities between victims and perpetrators. »