Piñera won. Will he uphold Chile’s post-Pinochet moral legacy?
Billionaire Sebastián Piñera won the presidency in Sunday’s election. His task is to ensure that his precessors’ commitment to human rights continues.
For the first time in more than a half-century, Chileans have elected a president from the political Right. Although the race tightened in the last month, the win on Sunday by Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman and former senator, was long expected.Skip to next paragraph
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While commentators focus on what the election portends for Chile and Latin America, it is worth pausing to reflect on the legacy of the defeated Center-Left Concertación coalition that ruled from 1990 to 2010. What does it mean that Chileans elected Concertación governments time after time for the past 20 years?
These two decades were a time that required more than just politics as usual. Chile needed to rebuild democracy itself after the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet from 1974 to 1990, a regime unprecedented in the nation's history in its duration, repressiveness, and radical ambition.
Facing a Right that long rallied around pinochetismo, the Concertación had to govern effectively and democratically. And this it did, gradually achieving more democratic, accountable institutions and mitigating the devastating social and infrastructural deficits left by the dictatorship. It leaves behind a Chile that is far freer, richer, more modern, and more stable.
But this small country also faced a deep moral deficit in 1990, in the systematic violation of human rights throughout Pinochet’s regime. The 20 years of four Concertación governments allowed Chile to achieve a remarkable reckoning with this dark past.
Since 2000, the courts have sentenced 204 individuals convicted of human rights abuses, and an additional 325 are still under investigation. Pinochet himself was facing some 300 criminal charges for human rights violations, embezzlement, and tax evasion at the time of his death in 2006
Emblematic sites of repression – such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center and a notorious section of Santiago’s General Cemetery where the “disappeared” were buried anonymously – have been made national monuments. More than 100 other memorials throughout the country bear public witness to a determination that such acts must never occur again.
Chile also created two official truth commissions – in 1990-1991 and 2003-2004 – that scrupulously documented the scope and savagery of repression throughout Pinochet’s regime.
These advances would not have occurred without Chile’s human rights movement, which sprang up within days of Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Throughout the dictatorship, it fostered a form of moral resistance that became a pillar of the movement to restore democracy. After the transition, the relatives of the victims together with a small, intrepid band of human rights lawyers, kept cases alive in the courts and pressed politicians for justice.