Chile Is Still Bitterly Divided by the Legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s Dictatorship

Fifty years after Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship came to power, Chile’s government has now admitted guilt for “disappearing” over 2,000 people. Yet many on the Chilean right still defend Pinochet — disturbing evidence of the dictator's lingering legacy.

Tenth anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup on September 11, 1983 in Santiago, Chile. ( Ila Agencia / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Over thirty years after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, the government of Chile has formally admitted responsibility for the disappearance, and presumed deaths, of over two thousand individuals at the hands of the Chilean military and associated paramilitary groups. The government has also committed to searching for and identifying those whose fates remain officially unknown, numbering over a thousand.

This move marks a major shift for the government, which until now has either ignored the fate of the disappeared or treated them like events from a tragic — and hopefully forgotten — past. Acknowledging the disappeared will go some way toward bringing these victims and their families some closure and justice.

But the initiative isn’t without its detractors — major sectors of the Chilean military and Chilean society in general oppose this move and continue to extol Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The controversy over the government’s admission of guilt highlights the divisions that still rend the country, and which have presented serious challenges for progressive president Gabriel Boric since he took office.

A Brutal Legacy

In 1973, Chile was governed by the only democratically elected leftist government in the Americas, led by Socialist Party member Salvador Allende, who won the presidency in 1970 and spent three years moving the country toward socialism. That vision was cut short by a military coup on September 11, 1973, led by the head of the Chilean Army, Augusto Pinochet. From its seizure of power until 1990, the military governed the country, first openly and then as a supposed civilian government after they rewrote the country’s constitution in 1980. The military would remain in power until a plebiscite removed Pinochet in 1990.

The Chilean dictatorship lost no time in repressing the left-wing movements that brought Allende to the presidency. Allende himself died in Pinochet’s coup, and thousands more were captured in the streets and sent immediately to prison camps. Many were tortured and killed.

But the most disturbing and well-remembered tactic of the dictatorship wasn’t what it did in the open, but what it did in secret. The Pinochet dictatorship practiced a form of kidnapping, torture, and murder that has come to be known as “disappearing” — so-called because while everyone knew that the missing persons had been taken by the government and were almost certainly being tortured, the government maintained complete silence about their absence and treated them like any other person who had gone missing. Throughout the 1970s, military governments across Latin America used this technique to inspire fear and crush left-wing oppositions.

Disappearance meant that the families and political comrades of the missing faced closed doors and bureaucratic walls when they tried to get any information: there was no way to request a visit, because the government maintained that the disappeared weren’t in detention. They couldn’t seek proof that their loved ones were alive, because the government said it had no way to know that. They couldn’t even get official acknowledgements of their deaths, because the government wouldn’t admit that they had died.

Roughly three thousand people were disappeared by the dictatorship between 1973 and 1980. This meant lives cut short, funerals without bodies, and parents left not knowing if their children were dead or alive. Though the dictatorship ended in 1990, Pinochet and his allies remained largely shielded from prosecution for their crimes due to legal protections and the Chilean constitution they had drafted. While some of them faced prosecution later in life, many of them escaped it, including Pinochet himself; he died in 2006 without ever being convicted for his crimes.

The fact that Chile is finally admitting to its participation in disappearing leftist activists is a testament to the efforts of those whose loved ones were killed by the dictatorship, and to the efforts of the socialist government of Gabriel Boric. The activists who have pushed for the government to make this move recognize it as merely the beginning of a long process of reconciliation for the government’s crimes. They commend the government for the “political will” it took to take this step, but also note that it’s too late for many — after all, it’s been almost fifty years since some of their loved ones and comrades were taken, tortured, and killed, and the government is only now acknowledging that it happened.

Deep Divisions

For Boric and his Apruebo Dignidad coalition, this is the completion of a long-standing promise to the victims of the dictatorship, fulfilling a commitment to begin to reconcile the legacy of the military government with Chile’s democratic present. But that task will not be an easy one to complete.

The admission of guilt comes at a time of serious weakness for Boric and his party, and for socialism in Chile in general. Boric’s presidency so far has been characterized by its failure to get Chile to adopt a new constitution, which would replace the constitution written under the Pinochet government. The failure of the new constitution underlines both the precarious nature of Boric’s power and, more worrying, the continued popularity of Pinochet and his legacy. There are many people in Chile who still believe that the dictatorship was a good thing for the country, with a poll earlier this year finding 36 percent support for the 1973 coup against Allende.

This puts Boric and his government’s new initiative to reveal information about the disappeared in a difficult position. Not only does it divide the country further between those who look back on the military government fondly and those who think of it as the worst crime committed in modern Chilean history — it also means that Boric, an already controversial president and a socialist — may be running afoul of the still extremely powerful Chilean military.

One of the central reasons that it has been so difficult to get information about the disappeared is that there are little to no records kept of their fate. What few records there are have been maintained by the Chilean Catholic Church, which largely escaped retribution from the military. Most people suspect that the military itself has some of the records that Boric’s government will need to complete its task of finally identifying those killed by the dictatorship. But if the military does have such records, it is likely to try its best to keep them away from the government, to avoid prosecutions and protect its image. The military isn’t above threatening Boric either. Retired generals and admirals of the Chilean military recently sent Boric a letter advising him that “opening wounds” just ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of the coup could prove difficult for him — that his activities threaten “national cohesion” and the postdictatorship political balance.

Getting the truth about the disappearances will start Chile on the road to reconciling with its past, but sadly it’ll also likely exacerbate the polarization that the country currently faces. With Boric’s approval ratings well below 50 percent, the controversial policy will likely embitter his rivals even as it offers rather cold comfort for those who have spent the last fifty years looking for their loved ones. Still, Boric’s decision to finally acknowledge the crimes of the military government is the only moral choice.