Pinochet's Long Goodbye

  • Share
  • Read Later
Last Saturday, two of Chile's top soccer teams met in the semifinal of a national competition. More than 30,000 fans went to the stadium; most cheered Colo-Colo's 3-0 victory, but Cobreloa supporters grieved and stood by their team. The crowds that poured onto the streets of Santiago the following day in response to the death of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 91, were similarly divided: Some mourned an adored "savior of Chile from Marxism"; others celebrated the passing of a ruthless dictator who ruled with an iron fist from 1973 to 1990. In death, as in life, Pinochet divided Chileans, although not evenly. Supporters, who see him a good soldier and patriot who saved Chile from the chaos of its socialist experiment and laid the foundations of today's prosperity, are in the minority — comprising as much as 20% according to polls. The vast majority remember Pinochet for the thousands of murders, disappearances and instances of torture for which his regime was responsible.

The number of people who attended the funeral on Wednesday — about 30,000 — surprised many in Chile. Most were from sectors that benefited in some way from the dictatorship, such as the military, business and landowning communities. But they mourned for days, lining up patiently to pay their respects over a casket draped by a Chilean flag, in which the general lay in dress uniform, his sword nearby.

The crowds celebrating his passing last Sunday turned out mostly in downtown Santiago and in the capital's poorer neighborhoods, where police used tear gas to disperse violent protestors. During Tuesday's funeral, about 3,000 opponents gathered outside La Moneda presidential palace to honor Salvador Allende, the socialist president overthrown by Pinochet and the armed forces on Sept. 11, 1973. Allende committed suicide while the palace was bombed by the air force on that day. Many expressed anger that Pinochet had escaped justice, never facing a trial on any of the approximately 400 suits filed against him for human rights violations. The former dictator was also under investigation for allegations of tax evasion and illegitimate money appropriation.

Pinochet died at a moment when the democratically elected government in Chile is led by the same party he overthrew in 1973; President Michele Bachelet suffered torture at the hands of the regime and her father was assassinated by its agents. The government refused the former dictator a state funeral on the grounds that he was never legitimately a head of state; it argued that a military funeral was appropriate for a former head head of the armed forces. That angered Pinochet's family and supporters, and many mourners jeered at the arrival of the only government representative, defense minister Vivianne Blanlot. They also interrrupted the funeral mass many times with cheers and chants, waved flags and white handkerchiefs, and applauded furiously every time Pinochet was lauded.

One speaker went too far for the government: The general's grandson, 33-year old army captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, praised his grandfather as a head of state who defeated Marxism, and criticized the courts for persecuting him. Captain Pinochet was discharged the following day after the government copmlained. President Bachelet gave the official response, expressing the hope that Pinochet's death symbolizes the end of "a period of division, hatred and violence in the country."

After a funeral ceremony characterized by military ritual and occasional shouts of protest against the government, Pinochet's remains were transported by helicopter to the coastal town of Concón, north of Valparaíso, where the general was born in 1915. After a private cremation ceremony, his ashes were taken to the family's farm in Los Boldos, 87 miles southwest of Santiago, where, the family hopes, they will be safe from the scorn of his enemies.

The day after Pinochet's funeral, Colo-Colo played another soccer game, this time against Mexico's Pachuca. More than 70,000 people watched the local team lose 2-1, their passionate loyalty undiminished by the defeat. The response of Pinochet supporters will likely be the same, even though most Chileans believe he died in disgrace after losing his own game.