20 years after coup, Chileans divided on Pinochet

September 12, 1993|By New York Times News Service

SANTIAGO, Chile -- On Thursday, students began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and burning tires. On Friday, hundreds of supporters of Gen. Augusto Pinochet staged an all-night vigil outside his home.

Yesterday, Socialists and Communists marched on the presidential palace and skirmished with the police; three bombs were deactivated at headquarters of right-wing political parties; two other bombs exploded at power pylons, and two McDonald's and one Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet -- symbols of U.S. business presence here -- were targets of attempted bombings.

Chileans are looking back in anxiety to 20 years ago yesterday, when the military, led by General Pinochet, swarmed into this city and bombed the presidential palace.

President Salvador Allende, a Socialist, killed himself rather than be taken, and Chile entered 17 years of military rule and the so-called dirty war to systematically eliminate the leftist opposition.

In the end, more than 2,000 people were killed or made to "disappear," and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. That ended in 1990, when General Pinochet stepped down as president after losing an attempt to be elected and was succeeded by the victorious Christian Democratic candidate, Patricio Aylwin.

The anniversary of the military coup is a day that divides Chile, which now enjoys one of the most stable democracies in Latin America and a booming economy.

"There is a fight for history going on here," said Jaime Esteves, a Socialist Party member of Congress. "Pinochet wants to pass into history as the man who modernized Chile, the great Jefferson of Chile. We want to say that bloody period was not a positive thing."

Many here dispute that point. In fact, what surprises observers is the strength of the conservative streak, the support for the general, who at 77 still runs the military, and the sentiment that stability and economic prosperity take precedence over righting the wrongs of the past government.

Though Pinochetistas, as they are called, do not wish the general to return to politics, they point to the economic and social convulsions brought on by the Allende government -- the food lines, the hyperinflation, the seizure of land and factories by workers and the political closeness to Moscow and Havana -- and say the coup was worth it.

The military re-established order, these people say, and left a vibrant economy.

Last year, with an inflation rate of 12.7 percent, Chile grew more ++ than 10 percent. Its fruits, wine, salmon, lumber and copper are exported to the world, and the country has become a focus of intense foreign investment.

"Pinochet marks the beginning of the modernization of Chile," said Domingo Arteaga Echeverria, secretary general of the United Democratic Union, a right-wing party. "Someday people will look back at Sept. 11 and see it as a key date."

But others remain deeply troubled by the human rights abuses and by the fact that no officer has been imprisoned for murder or torture. More than 800 cases remain unresolved, and the military has refused to provide information about the victims.

"This is an open wound in our society that cannot be closed," said Genaro Arriagada, secretary general of the Christian Democratic Party.

Under an amnesty law instituted by General Pinochet, no member of the military can be sent to prison for human rights abuses committed from 1973 to 1978, but the government has still permitted court investigations of the abuses.

General Pinochet is considered an embarrassment in the international political arena, but he also leads the finest army in Latin America.

Despite the fear of violence on the anniversary of the coup, no one fears military intervention, and Chileans seem to expect continued stability.

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