Higgins pays tribute to Allende


President Michael D Higgins paid his respects at the tomb of Salvador Allende on the final day of his visit to Chile, saying the figure of the world’s first elected Marxist president transcended the borders of his own country.

Mr Allende committed suicide in his presidential palace as it was being attacked by the forces of General Augusto Pinochet during the military coup of September 11th 1973.

Speaking at Santiago’s General Cemetery, Mr Higgins said it was “very important to be here and pay tribute to Salvador Allende with all those others all around the world who do not want to forget the awful consequences that followed the ending of the life of a democratically elected president.”

Over 3,000 people were murdered or disappeared and thousands more tortured during almost 17 years of Pinochet’s rule.

The President and Mrs Higgins were met at the cemetery by Isabel and Marcia Allende, the daughter and granddaughter of the former president. After laying a wreath they entered the small crypt where after a few private moments of reflection they left red carnations.

President Higgins recalled that he had visited Allende’s tomb in 1988 when he first came to Chile as an international observer in the plebiscite that initiated the transition from Pinochet’s dictatorship back to democracy.

He said that he wanted to return as another gesture of respect to Salvador Allende and the people of Chile who “within that space of democracy are moving on and I think seeking to establish the dream of Salvador Allende for the dignity of Chile.”

Mrs Allende, today a leading senator representing Chile’s socialist party, said her family was “profoundly moved” by the president’s visit, describing it as “a homage to all those Chileans who gave their lives so that we could maintain our democracy”.

Later President and Mrs Higgins went to the periphery of Santiago where he visited the parish of San Matias.

There he was greeted by parish priest Pat Egan of Co Mayo, in Chile for 49 years with the Columban Order. Known as a “red neighbourhood” because of its problems of drugs and violence the parish of 70,000 people has missed out on much of the development that Chile has experienced in the last two decades.

There the president attended a recital by an orchestra and choir of six to 14-year olds from the local school, jumping to his feet to lead a standing ovation after a stirring performance of the opening movement of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

He then chatted with a class of teenagers recalling his own difficulties studying statistics and joking about his summer taking Spanish classes in preparation for his South American tour.

In a short speech in the parish church Mr Higgins paid tribute to the “long and proud tradition of Irish religious and development workers” in Latin America and also paid tribute to the liberation theology movement in the Latin American Catholic church with its preferential option for the poor.

“I am personally familiar with the many sacrifices that have been made in advancing that vision in this continent and in some places it has cost people their lives,” he said.

He once again touched on the main theme of his trip so far, telling parishioners that “in the pursuit of short-term profit the consequences are visited on the poorest of communities and in a school and in a parish like this it is important to say that there is nothing more important than a form of economics and a form of environmental policy that respects ethics.”

Among the locals greeting the president was a group of mothers with Ireland and Chile flags who said the visit would provide a boost to a community which suffers discrimination in the rest of Santiago because of its reputation for violence and social problems.

“It is important that the president has come to visit us,” said Maritza Camilo, whose two sons play in the school’s orchestra. “This way we can show the good things in our neighbourhood so people can see it is not just the bad image that most people have of here.”