Chile struggles to shake off Augusto Pinochet legacy

My memories of reporting for The Irish Times in the central square of Santiago remain painful

We are reminded today, on the 40th anniversary of the Gen Augusto Pinochet’s blood-sodden coup in Chile, of a cruel dictatorship that still casts a pall.

My particular memories of reporting for The Irish Times in the comfortable Carrera hotel in the central square of Santiago remain painful. We watched the presidential palace burning under the incendiary bombs of the Chilean airforce which had set light to it on that fearful Tuesday.

That evening the management prepared makeshift beds in the sub-basement for our safety. We were lodged two floors below the grand reception area with its walls clad in black glass, where at cocktail time we had seen better-off Chileans, their wives in ball gowns, cheering and toasting the new military dictator with champagne as he announced his putsch on television.

The elected civilian government was overthrown and its president, Salvador Allende, the socialist physician whom I first got to know and admire in 1966, was dead. We guests had seen the hotel staff, dumb with fear in one corner, wondering what their lives would be like under the new dictatorship.


For four decades, all fair observers agree, the sacrifices in this increasingly inequitable society have been borne by the workforce, not by the rich.

The Chilean judicial system, long known for its extreme pro-Pinochet bias, allowed the old man to escape any punishment for his well-documented crimes against human rights.

Trapped miners
And just a month ago a tribunal determined that no one was at fault for the 2010 accident at the decrepit San José mine near Copiapó that left 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months before they were rescued.

The owners of the century- old mine had been continually ordered to build a new emergency exit but did not do so. Not surprisingly, president Sebastián Piñera concentrated on the skill of the rescuers and said little of the irresponsibility of the mine bosses and the officials who failed to enforce the regulations.

The prosecutor claimed there was not enough evidence to charge the owners of the mine or regulators despite a mass of evidence that the miners had for years taken their lives in their hands. Mario Sepúlveda, one of the miners who had to fight hard to get the miserly, delayed compensation, expressed shame at the decision.

“It is impossible that in an accident of this magnitude no one is held responsible.Today, I want to dig a deep hole and bury myself again, only this time, I don’t want anybody to find me.”

According to Francisco Domínguez, a Chilean who teaches at Middlesex University, millions of working Chileans have little or no safeguards against arbitrary dismissal. Alicia Bárcena, the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL), argued recently that the entire region – where there is great concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich to the disadvantage of the poor – must make greater equality a priority if it is to progress effectively.

“It is not enough to grow economically,” she said. “It is necessary to grow in order for there to be more equality but also have more equality in order to grow.”

There is no guarantee that a new Chilean government will take the UN's words to heart. Still there is some hope: the Socialist candidate in December's presidential elections, the former president Michelle Bachelet, is likely to beat her closest rival, the conservative Evelyn Matthei. The fathers of both women were generals in the Chilean airforce in the 1970s and the daughters have adopted many of their ideas.

Matthei is an aggressive right-winger who emulates the ideas of her father, a hand-picked ally of Pinochet. She was a noisy defender of his when he was detained in London in the late 1990s.

Bachelet, whose father died after being tortured for opposing Pinochet in a 1973 putsch, demonstrated in her four years as president that she was no revolutionary. Yet she may do something to make her country less of a millionaire’s paradise, and a more comfortable place for the millions at the bottom of society.

Chile is in a strong position to help those most in need – its economy is blossoming, for some. Its new strength is based on its vineyards, orchards, fisheries and minerals, notably copper. The state-owned Chuquicamata open cast mine in the Atacama Desert, for instance, turns out 855,000 tonnes a year, and must be one of the most profitable in the world.

It is also a member of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich countries’ club, and the gross national product of its 17 million people is about double that of Ireland. Sadly for the majority of Chileans, as CEPAL points out, their country’s social progress has not kept up with its economic advancement.