Chile marks the 10th anniversary on Saturday of the death of late dictator Augusto Pinochet, who has gradually become a national pariah even as his legacy continues to dominate the country. Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years, died of a heart attack on December 10, 2006 at age 91, without ever being brought to justice for the crimes committed by his regime. He had stepped down 16 years earlier, but continued to enjoy the staunch support of many conservative Chileans – so much so that more than 50,000 people turned out to mourn him.
In a sign of the changing times, less than 100 people are expected to attend the only ceremony remembering him this on Saturday: a small, private mass at his former residence in Los Boldos on the central Chilean coast, where his ashes lie. The government of President Michelle Bachelet, whose father was tortured to death at the hands of Pinochet’s agents, said the anniversary had little relevance for modern-day Chile.
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“Pinochet is a figure of the past,” said presidential spokeswoman Paula Narvaez. “Chile has to live in the present and look to the future.” With his dark glasses and military uniform, General Pinochet was an emblem of the dictatorships that gripped much of Latin America during the Cold War. He seized power from Socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody 1973 coup and ruled with ruthless efficiency until 1990. He presided over a period of great prosperity, but also great barbarity. More than 3,200 people were killed or “disappeared” -abducted and presumed killed – by his security forces, and 28,000 were tortured.
After stepping down, Pinochet continued for years to serve as head of the military and a senator for life – helping ensure he was never brought to justice, despite numerous court cases pending when he died.
Today, few Chileans publicly back him. His old political allies defend his policies but distance themselves from the man. But his legacy looms large. His 1980 constitution is still the law of the land. And despite Bachelet’s best efforts, reforming his privatised pension system and deeply unequal education system has proven to be a treacherous project.
“Ten years after his death, Pinochet has been disappearing from the public scene as a personality, in terms of his biography, in terms of the man who led a dictatorship for 17 years. But not his legacy,” said historian and political scientist Manuel Garate of Chile’s Alberto Hurtado University. “There are contradictions in Chilean society. People reject the man but are accustomed to living in his economic model.”