A day of pride, a day of anger Chile: The military overthrow of an elected president and the subsequent murder and torture of thousands leaves many Chileans divided -- 23 years after the fact.

Sun Journal

September 14, 1996|By Christina Asquith | Christina Asquith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Twenty-three years have passed, and Sarah Sharim and Luis Fernando Sagues retain their very different memories of the events of 1973.

Twenty-three years ago this week, the Chilean military led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Sharim vividly remembers frantic searches for friends who "disappeared" and were never found, and remembers being forced into exile. But Sagues remembers his feeling of relief.

"Under the Socialist government, we didn't have any food, nobody worked," Sagues says. "We were going to have a civil war." Then came the coup: "Finally somebody was going to restore order to the country."

As Chileans mark the anniversary of the military coup, they are divided about whether to celebrate or protest. For some, the coup ended a socialism they had opposed. For others, it ended a chapter of freedom and replaced it with the repressive dictatorship of General Pinochet -- and torture in place of civil liberties.

So high-ranking army officers held a respectful ceremony this week at Pinochet's house. On the same day, protesters marched to Santiago's General Cemetery, which has a memorial to the victims of Pinochet's regime.

"It should be abolished as a holiday," Fernando Cuervas, who opposed the dictatorship and fled the country in 1976, says of the anniversary. "How can we have a holiday in which on one side people remember what happened and cry, and on the other side people are celebrating?"

Pinochet surrendered most of his powers in 1989, and since then Chileans have gradually restored democracy. But the past still asserts itself: Stories of past military assassinations and torture trickle into the press, while human rights advocates campaign ,, against government pardons to military personnel accused of crimes. And there is Pinochet's lingering presence.

Now 80, Pinochet remains head of the army. But his influence extends further. Under the country's constitution, the military still appoints part of Chile's 40-member Senate, giving the military a de facto veto over legislation affecting investigations into the past.

Pinochet supporters credit him with building up Chile, whose economy is looked on with envy by its neighbors. Foreign investment has poured in, and unemployment and inflation hover at 6 per cent -- about half the rate in Argentina and Mexico. New apartment buildings and office towers are rising throughout Santiago.

But some say Chile's return to order came at too high a price.

"They found the remains of my friend last year in a military grave," says Sharim, a former professor at the University of Chile whose colleague disappeared a day after the coup. "We identified him by his teeth."

But Sagues, who now works for a Pinochet-created foundation to promote business, offers Pinochet unwavering support. Each year on the anniversary of the coup, he flies Chile's flag from his doorstep and holds a barbecue.

Sagues says he suffered far more under the Socialist government of Allende. Food became scare after land confiscations and after workers went on extended strikes. Inflation skyrocketed and black markets sprung up. "There was nothing in the supermarkets," Sagues recalls. At the pig farm where Sagues worked, there was no feed for the animals; the animals were released in hopes that they would find nourishment on their own.

"I wanted to sell my house and go to Argentina with my family, but I could only get $150 for it," Sagues says. "However, my little Peugeot was worth $400.

"Who would want a house in a country that was about to go into a civil war? On the other hand, with a car you could leave.

"The only alternative was an authoritarian government," he shrugs.

Sharim disagrees. Life under a Socialist government was desperate, but nothing like the systematic repression and violence that replaced it, she says. After the coup, Sharim saw her colleagues at the traditionally-left-leaning University of Chile exiled one by one. Open political debate ended.

And then authorities came for her. "We had just finished NTC watching a movie on TV and we heard knocking at the door," she says. "My husband, Fernando, said 'Who is it?' They answered, 'Don't worry, it's the police.' Then they said, 'Mrs. Sharim will have to come with us.' "

Sharim spent the next seven days locked in a small room, with no idea what would happen next. Sharim was luckier than most of those arrested, she said. She was released. But when she arrived home, she was greeted by a letter dismissing her from the university and instructing her to leave the country.

"Sept. 11th. It's not a welcomed day in Chile," she says. "It's a lousy day. It's a hateful day."

Sharim returned to Chile in 1989, when democratic elections were guaranteed. She worries that young people are dazzled by the country's wealth and will attribute it to Pinochet. She hopes they remember those who were killed.

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