Chile's Right Tries to Shake Its Dark Past

  • Share
  • Read Later

Chile's right is haunted by the brutal legacy of Augusto Pinochet, center, who seized power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup and ruled for 17 years

Chileans have had macabre reminders this month about how vicious the country's political right once was. Last week saw the reburial ceremony for Victor Jara, a popular 20th century Chilean folksinger. His remains were exhumed recently to help determine just how he was killed in 1973, after he had been arrested by the brutal right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. (An autopsy revealed that Jara was tormented in a game of Russian roulette and then executed by machine-gun fire.) This week, a Chilean judge ruled that former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Pinochet opponent who died in 1982, had actually been fatally poisoned by Pinochet agents.

It's hard to consider those grisly findings and not wonder whether the Chilean right might still be capable of such reactionary cruelty if it ever came to power again. Chile, in fact, stands at that very crossroads this weekend. On the eve of Sunday's presidential election, conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera leads the liberal candidate, former President Eduaro Frei Ruiz — Frei Montalva's son — by at least 10 points in most polls. Chile's incumbent left hopes the Jara and Frei Montalva cases give voters pause. But the exhumations underscore how important it is that the right, after almost 20 uninterrupted years of center-left rule, gets a new chance to govern South America's most developed country. It can prove once and for all that it has purged the ghosts of Pinochet, who died in 2006. "This election," says political analyst Guillermo Holzmann, "is an opportunity to see that a center right exists in Chile."

That message has been a centerpiece of the campaign run by Piñera and his conservative coalition, the Alliance for Chile. The Chilean right is known less for open minds than for Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic society. But Piñera, 60, a Harvard-educated tycoon whose brother was a government minister under Pinochet, has deflected charges that he's a right-wing lapdog by embracing progressive causes like gay rights — a stance that has scandalized the country's Catholic Church. As an economist in the 1970s and '80s, Piñera followed Chile's free-market orthodoxy, but on the stump today, he pledged not to cut social programs. "On the contrary," he said recently, "we're going to strengthen them." Says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington, D.C.: "Chilean voters have been eager to see that kind of pragmatic evolution from the right."

Still, concerns abound that if he's elected, Piñera faces heavy pressure from conservatives, especially in the military, to move Chile far back to the right. The recent exhumations indicate how nervous many Chileans are that the rightward shift will enervate the robust human-rights apparatus established since Pinochet stepped down after a 1988 referendum rejected his continued rule. Piñera himself opposed Pinochet in that plebiscite. But last month he told a gathering of retired military and police officials who served under Pinochet that he'll work to rein in the trials — "proceedings that go on ad eternum," he remarked — that have convicted a number of their colleagues for murders and other abuses committed during the dictatorship. Some 3,000 people were killed or disappeared in that 17-year period.

Among them were leftists like Jara and, as the court has now declared, moderates like Frei Montalva, who was President from 1964 to 1970. He was succeeded by Salvador Allende, whose sharp leftward turn alarmed Chile's conservatives and prompted Pinochet's ironfisted 1973 military coup. Along with thousands of others in the putsch's early and darkest days, Jara was rounded up and held in Chile Stadium in the capital, Santiago. After he was tortured and killed, his body was tossed into the streets. Frei Montalva originally backed Pinochet's rule, but by the 1980s opposed it. According to the Chilean judge, three men tied to Pinochet, including a doctor, secretly injected Frei Montalva with toxic mustard gas and thallium while he was in the hospital for stomach surgery.

But it's doubtful that even those morbid revelations can turn enough voters back to Chile's center-left coalition, the Concertación. President Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist and Chile's first female head of state, remains hugely popular; but Frei Ruiz, 67, hasn't been able to exploit her cachet and has instead come to symbolize the Concertación's staleness after two decades in power, especially as the global recession slows Latin America's most envied economy. Frei Ruiz's problems have been highlighted by the remarkable rise of a third candidate, Marco Enríquez-Ominami — born, ironically, in the cataclysmic year 1973 — a socialist who bolted the Concertación and is gleaning younger voters weary of the two-party order. While none of the candidates look likely to win a majority on Sunday, the question is whether Frei Ruiz or Ominami will face Piñera in a January runoff.

Piñera is expected to win that round as well. And if he can truly govern as a reasonable instead of rabid conservative, it could do a lot to relieve the polarization and distrust that linger 20 years after Pinochet. "Pinochet is dead and fortunately not really an issue in this election," says Holzmann. "But if Piñera becomes the President most Chileans hope he'll be, it will amplify that gray area between liberal and conservative that countries like ours need more of."