Forty years after the coup, the Chilean right remains powerful and influential

allende4Nick MacWilliam, a writer based in Santiago, has written the following article exclusively for the Pluto blog. He analyses the enduring legacy and influence of the Chilean right as the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup approaches – which ousted the revolutionary democrat Salvador Allende from the presidency. 

Click here for more on how to get your copy of the new ‘Revolutionary Lives’ biography of Salvador Allende.


As Chile approaches the fortieth anniversary of the coup d’état that established the Pinochet dictatorship, the government of Sebastián Piñera finds itself attempting to perform a delicate balancing act. With an eye on the upcoming general election in November, the Piñera administration will stage commemorations to mark the coup while trying not to alienate its political base, the conservative upper-classes, many of whom supported and continue to revere General Pinochet.

El golpe de estado was staged against the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) government of Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected socialist head of state. Following its election in 1970, the Popular Unity implemented policies that sought to redistribute wealth amongst the population, through such schemes as the nationalisation of foreign firms and the breakup of large, privately-owned estates to be handed over to poorer families.

On the 11th September 1973, the Popular Unity was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces in a bloody coup which resulted in the death of Allende and led to the establishment of a military regime that became notorious for systematic human rights abuses and state repression. Over 3,000 people were killed by the authorities while thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. For the families of the dead and the surviving victims, the anniversary is a time for remembrance.

However, not everyone subscribes to the view that the events of 1973 and the subsequent military rule were a humanitarian catastrophe. A sector of the right claims that the coup was necessary in order to depose of the communist system that was destroying the country. Many also argue that Chile’s modern prosperity and economic success provide further evidence of the necessity of removing Allende, as neo-liberal policies implemented by the military regime opened up national markets to foreign investment.

The 2010 election of the la Alianza coalition, which chose Sebastián Piñera, one of Chile’s richest men, as its candidate, saw a right-wing government enter La Moneda for the first time since the dictatorship. The governing coalition is made up of two main political parties, the Independent Democratic Union (Unión Demócrata Independiente or UDI) and the National Renewal Party. The former is today the largest political party in Chile.

The UDI was formed in 1983 by Jaime Guzmán who, as a student leader, firmly supported the military coup. His adherence to neo-liberal economic theory made him one of Pinochet’s closest advisors, and he played a key role in drafting the 1980 constitution which consolidated military rule in Chile. Guzmán’s assassination by left-wing militants in 1991 turned him into a martyr of the right.

UDI party doctrine is based in an ultra-conservatism that holds much sway over government policy. Its influence can be seen in Chile’s anti-abortion laws, in which abortion is illegal under any circumstances (one of only five countries in the world that outlaws the practice totally). A recent headline case in which an eleven-year old girl became pregnant following sustained sexual abuse from her stepfather saw Piñera praise her “maturity” after she allegedly said she wanted to keep the unborn child.

The UDI also favours Chile’s private education system, which has been widely criticised as unequal. The student protest movement of 2011 brought the issue of education in Chile onto the global stage, as its intensity created headlines around the world. The movement continues to stage large-scale demonstrations in Chilean cities, many of which have witnessed violent clashes between armoured police and protestors, with much public criticism aimed at the excessive use of force by police.

One of the most shocking recent examples occurred in June this year, when riot police entered the main campus of the University of Chile, one of Latin America’s oldest and most venerated educational institutions, the Chilean equivalent to Oxford or Harvard. Once inside they let off teargas and attacked student protestors, who reacted furiously.

While many in the country, including the university head, were indignant at the violation, los carabineros remained unrepentant. Under what justifications could they raid a place of learning, one of the most distinguished on the continent? The authorities claimed that a Molotov cocktail launched from the university premises obliged police to enter.

Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick spoke out in support of the police. “It is not necessary to ask permission to a homeowner, a university rector, or a parish priest (to enter property) if there is a flagrant crime. If they are throwing Molotov bombs from inside a building, police are going to act to detain those who are committing this.” Chadwick’s statement was strongly refuted by the University of Chile’s student union, which said, “We reject completely this police repression… Mr Chadwick must give explanations (because) carabineros don’t just send themselves and they can’t have entered (without official sanction).”

No conclusive evidence was provided that an incendiary had been launched from the university. The fact that Chile still maintains a military police force, with few discrepancies from the dictatorship days, does nothing to alter mistrust or hostility towards los carabineros. Student demonstrations and the occupation of schools and universities continue to take place in Santiago.

Andrés Chadwick is just one of many current cabinet members with links to the dictatorship. He was appointed president of the Students Federation of the Catholic University (Chile’s other grand old educational institution) by the military regime. He is also first cousin to Piñera, who himself made his massive fortune through credit cards under military rule. The president’s brother José Piñera was a minister under Pinochet, and another who played a key role in the implementation of neo-liberal economics in Chile.

In April this year, the president took the unusual step of opining on military rule in Chile, something that he had hitherto largely stayed away from: “The loss of democracy in Chile was very costly and expensive, it meant seventeen years in which our country couldn’t have democracy or liberty, and additionally grave and repeated human rights abuses were committed during this period.” But it was what he then said that raised many eyebrows: “The positive part of the military government must also be recognised, which has to do with profound modernisations that permitted our country to confront the challenges that would come in the future.”

Piñera’s comments emphasised the favourable light in which the Chilean right still regards military rule. The president has a moral obligation to recognise Chile’s traumatic past, but in a case of appeasement to core supporters, he counteracted this with praise for Pinochet’s achievements, referring to the dictatorship as a ‘military government’. It is a popular term with Pinochet supporters for the legitimisation it brings the regime.

In August, however, the UDI senator Hernán Larraín broke ranks when he said that military rule was “technically a dictatorship.” He also expressed remorse for having supported the dictatorship. This admission was criticised by, among others, the MP Juan Carlos Latorre of the centre Christian Democrats Party who said that it “would have been good for the country if people like Hernán Larraín realised that they were collaborating with the military dictatorship a long time ago and not forty years later, after so much pain.”

The dispute then spilled over into the current election campaign when the candidate for la Alianza, Evelyn Matthei, whose rival to La Moneda is the ex-president Michelle Bachelet, attempted to disassociate herself from the issue. “I was twenty years old when the coup occurred,” she said. “I have nothing to apologise for.” Nevertheless, Matthei voted for Chile to continue under military rule in the 1988 plebiscite that eventually led to the restoration of democracy, and as a member of the UDI has opposed trials for those suspected of human rights abuses.

Matthei’s father, Fernando Matthei, was commander-in-chief of the Chilean Air Force during the dictatorship. In a grimly ironic twist to the current election campaign, he has been repeatedly cited by the campaign group Families of Executed Political Prisoners for involvement in the death of General Alberto Bachelet, who was tortured to death in 1974 after being arrested by the authorities, and fathered the very woman who now challenges Evelyn Matthei in the presidential race. (Alberto’s wife Angela Jeria, mother to Michelle, has spoken of her belief that Matthei was not involved in her husband’s death, while the BBC has reported on the friendship that existed between the two men.)

The enduring strength of the Chilean right is perhaps best seen in the example of Cristián Labbé. As a paratrooper, the young Labbé participated in the military coup. He then entered the regiment which became known as the ‘Caravan of Death’, which scoured the country hunting left-wing dissidents and sympathisers in late 1973. Shortly after he was appointed to a position within Pinochet’s secret police force, the Direction of National Intelligence (DINA), which was responsible for the deaths and torture of many people, and became a byword for terror and brutality. In spite of the life sentence handed down to DINA director Manuel Contreras for human rights abuses, including murder, kidnapping and torture, Labbé has never been indicted.

Labbé’s fate, in fact, has taken a very different path. Between 1996 and 2012, he was mayor of one of Santiago’s wealthiest municipalities, Providencia, his consistent re-election confirming the area as a conservative stronghold. Labbé went so far as to suspend rubbish collection from the British and Spanish embassies following Pinochet’s detention in London in 1998. In 2012, it was claimed that Labbé had illegitimately fathered a child with one of Pinochet’s daughters, while one of Providencia’s main thoroughfares was until recently named ‘Avenida 11de Septiembre’ in tribute to the date of the coup (this was reverted to the original name of ‘Nueva Providencia’ following Labbé’s defeat in the most recent mayoral elections).

Fig Clark CoverIt is an anomaly of the post-dictatorship in Chile that numerous figures suspected of involvement in human rights abuses not only remain at liberty but occupy positions of public influence while thousands of families still search for knowledge of the whereabouts of their loved ones. The legacy of this is a seething resentment between right and left, most commonly expressed in the violence that regularly explodes between students, whose objectives are drawn along socialist ideals, and security forces whose role is seemingly aligned to the interests of the ruling elite. But the social struggle also exists in many other forms: the ongoing truth and justice campaigns; the commonplace workers’ strikes; a cultural scene that pays homage to the nobility of Salvador Allende’s popular vision; and in southern Chile’s indigenous Mapuche movement against land expropriation.

On the fortieth anniversary of the coup, tributes will be paid across Chile to the victims. It will be a time of reflection, not only for what happened, but for what is still happening in the country, as the balance of power remains tilted towards a wealthy minority. Many will view the official government commemorations for 11th September 1973 with cynicism, as hollow words and empty pledges, for the Piñera administration has done little to narrow Chile’s gaping social inequality or to seek justice for human rights abuses.  Away from the TV cameras, the Chilean right will remember the coup differently as they overlook a political landscape still very much shaped by that fateful day. The November general election, the first since 2011’s mass protests, will provide a clearer picture of what the future holds.

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