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40 years later, Chile struggles with legacy of Pinochet coup (+video)

A pledge not to repeat history isn't enough for some in Chile.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / September 11, 2013

Chile's former President Michelle Bachelet (r.) stands with her mother Angela Jeria (l.) as they both hold photographs of victims of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Pinochet's military coup in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. Bachelet, who was a victim of torture under Pinochet, held a memorial at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

Luis Hidalgo/AP

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Santiago, Chile

The Chilean air force doesn’t celebrate the only combat mission it ever flew. On this day 40 years ago, its jets bombed radio transmitters, the president’s residence, and the presidential palace in Santiago. The strikes were precise, and also effective. Before the fires were out, generals had overthrown Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president and replaced him with a military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet.

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But as a now democratic Santiago marks the anniversary, the actual planes that did the bombing are scattered to parts unknown. The pilots have never taken credit or responsibility. Instead, on this anniversary, one message rings clear: “Never again.”

But a pledge not to repeat history isn’t enough for some. The division between searing, painful memory and ongoing amnesia remains stark in Chile as the country marks the day that changed everything. There are also deep disagreements over how to ensure that history isn’t repeated -- with some calling for forgiveness, and others still pursuing justice for those killed and disappeared by Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship.

President Sebastian Piñera led a memorial Monday at La Moneda palace, which was bombed in the coup. “The end never justifies the means,” he told the crowd. “Human rights of all must be defended by all.”

In recent weeks, President Piñera has said that while the military has been assigned all blame for the dictatorship, there are still civilians who benefited from the regime but who have never taken responsibility. In the end, he said, the country needs both justice and forgiveness.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, who was a victim of torture under Pinochet, held a memorial at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights just minutes before Piñera’s event. Ms. Bachelet, who is once more running for president, inaugurated the museum at the end of her first term in 2010.

Divisions must be overcome through the political system, she said. “We have learned a terrible lesson,” Bachelet said. “We’re not inclined to repeat it.”

But while the politicians’ speeches had elements in common, a basic division remains between how the left and right see Pinochet’s reign. The right emphasizes Pinochet’s achievements in public works and economic development; the left focuses on his assaults on human rights.

The Museum of Memory has served as the center of the historical reckoning on this anniversary. It has organized seminars, photo exhibits, plays, a chorus, installations, and today, a replay of the live radio broadcasts that brought the Santiago bombing to the world in real time.

But the state-funded museum is often criticized by conservatives for downplaying the context that led to the coup, or for not giving enough attention to those killed by anti-Pinochet militants.

“The function of this museum is to teach about violations of human rights during the dictatorship,” says Richard Brodsky, the museum’s director. “It is to raise consciousness in the society that we can’t let these human rights violations be repeated. They cause a deep wound in society that persists today.”

Mr. Brodsky says the museum tries to embody a spirit of "moral reparations” to the victims of systematic human rights violations. While all killings are tragic, systematic state killing adds extra indignities, by leaving the dead stained with unproven charges of terrorism, he says. Over a thousand people were arrested and never seen again, their bodies now lost at sea or in the desert. So it only makes sense that the museum gives more attention to the victims of state violence than to those on the other side, Brodsky says.

Another breakdown in the national conversation is over how to move forward with reconciliation. The coup anniversary has brought a wave of mea culpas from those who benefited from the dictatorship or failed to speak up against it.

Sen. Hernán Larraín, long a defender of Pinochet, asked for forgiveness last month. “This is my voice for reconciliation,” Mr. Larraín said. “But it’s necessary to hear it from all.”

Andrés Chadwick, an adviser to Pinochet and now interior minister, said he “regrets having been part of a government that violated human rights.”

The country’s supreme court issued a statement calling its behavior during the dictatorship an “abandonment of responsibilities.”

Similarly, television networks, which in the 1970s and 80s complied with government censorship and declined to broadcast news reports showing police brutality or anti-government rallies, have used the anniversary to run powerful documentaries showing what happened to President Allende and to finally air censored footage.

But at a series of memorial marches this week, one participant after another said apologies are cheap. What’s hard, they say, is finding more than 1,000 bodies of people who were arrested by Pinochet’s state and never seen again, and to bring to justice those who killed 3,200 political opponents and tortured 38,000 more

Maria Jose Pérez, coordinator of the human rights center Londres 38, says the state has yet to make fundamental reforms. “The disappeared didn’t end with the dictatorship,” Ms. Jose Pérez says, referring to an arrest in 2005 in which the detainee was never seen again.

As she spoke, artists associated with Londres 38 hung city-approved banners from bridges, several of them bearing questions such as “Where are the disappeared?”

Late that night, special forces from the national police removed the banners.

Efforts to identify and prosecute those who killed on behalf of the government have advanced in fits and starts. Last week, the family of singer-songwriter Victor Jara sued a Florida man for allegedly pulling the trigger and killing Mr. Jara in the days following the coup. The accused denies the claim.

Recently, divers discovered railroad tracks in the Pacific, 500 miles north of Santiago. The location was revealed by a military service member just before he died. Detainees were allegedly handcuffed to the rails before being tossed in the sea.

But such confessions -- the specifics of who and where -- have been rare. The military says it has no more information, and those who have been jailed are in a special prison often criticized as being “five-star.”

Foreigners that exerted influence have not yet been called to account. The US assisted the coup, and has never offered a full account of what it knew and when.

Researcher Peter Kornbluh, speaking in Santiago last week, said that Brazil also actively participated in the coup, and that it should open its archives. Mr. Kornbluh called for information to be released from England, Australia, Canada, Russia, and Cuba.

In some versions of official history, the coup seems never to have happened. The bombing of Santiago is omitted from the history web page of the Air Force. That page leaps from the receipt of transport jets in 1972 to the receipt of more British bombers two years later. The air and space museum, which is controlled by the Air Force, didn’t even consider hosting an exhibit for the anniversary of the coup, says Patricio Vasquéz, of the museum’s planning office.

“No, no, definitely not,” he says. “Some things have yet to heal.”

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