General Augusto Pinochet’s ashes have barely been scattered and already the debate in Chile has begun over how he should be remembered. Right-wing politicians have proposed a bill in the Chilean congress to erect three monuments in his honor. Municipal leaders of Las Condes, a wealthy Santiago suburb, plan to name a street after him. Chile’s Defense Minister has suggested that Pinochet might merit a bust to accompany other past presidents in La Moneda presidential palace.
Even major US newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal counsel that while the man who ran Chile for seventeen years was no friend of human rights, he nevertheless “righted” the country. They ask us to consider a more “complicated” story of Pinochet’s place in history. These newspaper editorials claim that thanks to Pinochet, democracy now flourishes in Chile. According to their argument, somehow the renowned dictator paved the way for the democrats that followed his 17-year rule.
But consider the following:
The Chilean government denied Pinochet a state funeral because he was under indictment—and house arrest at the time of his heart attack—for the murders of Chilean men and women and for the embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet said that a state funeral for Pinochet would be an assault on the Chilean conscience.
While Pinochet supporters mourned the dictator at his service at the Military College, thousands of other Chileans participated in an alternative commemoration and protest at the monument to Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically-elected president overthrown by Pinochet in a bloody coup d’etat. As they mourned the death of democracy those many years ago, they also resurrected the memory of Pinochet’s victims.
Who were the victims? The musician, Victor Jara, whose hands were broken at the Chile Stadium, where thousands of prisoners were held in those first few weeks of terror after the coup, who was then shot and killed, his body dumped unidentified in a morgue. The university professor who taught subject matter incomprehensible to the military junta, subjects such as journalism, sociology, and political science. The schoolteacher whose student denounced her because he knew she was an Allende sympathizer. Doctors, professionals, workers, students.
In the press this week there was an image of a woman, a mother, kissing a skull. She was one of the few whose relatives’ remains had been identified, and she could kiss his skull to express her love. So many other Chileans will never be able to say goodbye to their loved ones even in this cruel manner, for there are still 1100 Chileans who remain disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s men, including hundreds who were taken in helicopters, had their stomachs slashed open, and then were dropped into the Pacific Ocean.
Another of Pinochet’s victims was the father of president Michelle Bachelet. A General in the Chilean Armed Forces, Alberto Bachelet opposed Pinochet’s coup. Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured to death in a Pinochet prison cell. General Bachelet’s wife and daughter were also tortured in one of the most sinister of torture centers, Villa Grimaldi. Many never survived Villa Grimaldi. But Michelle Bachelet and her mother did, and today Michelle Bachelet is the President of Chile.
In an effort to document torture, a government-appointed truth commission gathered testimony from Chileans who had been held and tortured in prisons all over the country. Torture consisted of electric shocks to the victims’ genitals, immersion in feces-filled waters to simulate drowning, the rape of female prisoners by men, dogs, and rats. Fully 28,500 people came forward to recount the most physically, spiritually, and psychologically destructive torture, which has marked them for life.
The tortured, the exiled, the murdered, the disappeared – these Chileans were remembered in the funeral procession to the Allende monument. The monument stands in Constitution Plaza, before La Moneda presidential palace. Allende himself is buried in Santiago’s General Cemetery, where a tall, dignified tombstone marks his gravesite. Not far from Allende’s tomb is that of Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former ambassador to the US and former defense minister, murdered by a car bomb in Washington, DC, a victim of Pinochet mercenaries. In the General Cemetery stands a memorial to the more than 3,000 disappeared and executed, a funereal monument with names of the victims of the dictatorship. And Victor Jara is buried in the General Cemetery. And General Alberto Bachelet.
In 1973, General Carlos Prats remained loyal to the Chilean constitution and refused to participate in the military coup. For that, the Chilean secret police planted a bomb under his car in Buenos Aires, killing General Prats and his wife Sofía Cuthbert, providing a premonition of what was to come for other leaders of Pinochet’s opposition living in exile. During the viewing of Pinochet’s body, General Prats’ grandson waited along with the dead dictator’s supporters, and when his turn arrived, he approached the coffin calmly, and spat on it.
How, then, should the world “remember” Pinochet? One of his opponents (who is known for his wry sense of humor) has suggested that a national cuspidor be created, where all Chileans who will never see justice can join together and spit on the dead dictator’s memory.
Memorials are commemorations – how does one memorialize a man who for so many brought terror, death, and the destruction of democracy? We say there should be no memorial to Pinochet at all, ever.
Katherine Roberts Hite is a professor of political science at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Eliana Loveluck was born in Concepción, Chile. During the Chilean dictatorship, they worked with Isabel Letelier at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.
Katherine Roberts Hite