Feature: Former and current student activists reflect on General Augusto Pinochet’s lasting legacy.
Chile’s military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. What followed was one of the most brutal dictatorships in Latin American history.
More than 3,000 were killed or simply disappeared without a trace. Thousands were tortured and a million were exiled. But in the midst of repression, a social movement emerged that fought to bring the dictatorship down.
In 1988, the movement campaigned to vote “No to Pinochet” in a plebiscite that many thought would be afait accompli. They were wrong. Chile listened and in 1990 democracy began.
Today, 40 years after the US-backed coup, thousands of students plan to take to the streets to mark a day they never lived - but whose legacy has inspired their own political struggle. A new generation has emerged demanding free education and an overhaul of the socioeconomic system set up by the dictatorship. They have walked alongside the student activists who risked their lives then, and who feel betrayed by the system now.
Al Jazeera talks to two former students who risked their lives back then and another who continues the fight about their political demands, a democracy that failed to live up to their expectations, and protest movements worldwide.
Particularly with the recent whitewashing of Pinochet’s regime in many circles, it’s important to remember this.
But the 1973 Chilean coup also could serve as a warning (as it did for many political scientists at the time) that democracies can collapse due to increasingly polarized, uncompromising, ideology-driven politics. In the end, a lot of blame for the causes of the collapse of Chile’s democracy can be spread around (the left and the right both shared blame, as did the centrists)—as recounted in Arturo Valenzuela’s classic The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile (part of a series of monographs that covered other democratic breakdowns, such as Weimar Germany’s).
Of course none of that excuses the sheer brutality of the Pinochet regime.
Sadly, many today seem willing to excuse Pinochet because they believe he did what was “necessary” to save Chilean democracy. Often they do so based on falsehoods about the Allende regime. But even if these were true, it betrays a sense that violence and brutality are excusable to prevent a Marxist dictatorship. The irony that this is the very logic of totalitarian regimes (fascist and communist) before seems utterly lost on such people.
All citizens of Chile as well as foreigners legally residing in Chile for at least five years, who are 18 years of age or older on the day of the election, are eligible to vote. Enrollment in Chile is automatic for those aged 17 and older and voting is voluntary.
There’s a lot of talk lately about the Chilean economic model (apparently it’s chic to admire Pinochet these days). If we’re going to adopt Chile’s economic model (privatized social security, public education, etc.), why not also consider their suffrage laws, which allow all citizens and non-citizen resident aliens to vote (no taxation without representation, right)? While we’re at it, let’s also automatically register everyone to vote, too.
If you don’t trust Wikipedia, here’s a link to Chile’s constitutional provisions regarding voting. The suffrage rule regarding non-citizen resident aliens is Article 14.
BTW, the one part of the economic model no one ever mentions, is that Chile also has mandated universal health care. Not only are all citizens required to purchase health care coverage, the price is set at 7% of their wages. Those too poor are, however, automatically covered.