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.

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.

Chile’s reckoning also owes to courageous judges who redeemed the honor of a judicial institution that failed to extend the protection of law to citizens’ most basic rights. The courts have provided some measure of justice for heinous crimes and, as the stream of cases swelled in the last decade, kept the character and practices of the dictatorship constantly in the public eye.

Each of the four Concertación presidents – repeatedly blocked by a Congress that overrepresented the Right – wielded executive power to advance a reckoning with the past.

Chile’s two official truth commissions, executive initiatives taken by Presidents Patricio Aylwin and Ricardo Lagos, cumulatively established a foundation of historical fact. An ad hoc roundtable on human rights (the Mesa de Diálogo) created under President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle contributed to the larger process.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, who was imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship, consistently strove to make human rights the foundation of national reconciliation. She leaves behind a lasting monument in the recently inaugurated Museum of Memory.

These four presidents all helped re-establish democratic civilian control over the armed forces – a goal in itself and a factor in reassuring judicial magistrates prosecuting Pinochet-era officials.

The Concertación fortified several offices under executive control – a human rights program in the Interior Ministry and a special unit in the civil police of Investigaciones – that played critical roles in providing evidence for the trials of the last decade.

In all, the cause of human rights united the politicians of the Concertación, even when they might disagree on particular policies to address past violations (as they often did). The use of executive power reflected their sensitivity not only to the issues but also to the political constituencies that supported their coalition.

Sebastián Piñera personally distanced himself long ago from Pinochet, but that is not true of many of his supporters. While he has said his Cabinet will not include figures from the dictatorship, he will surely face pressures from the far more conservative political forces behind him.

How he will wield his authority as chief executive remains to be seen, but his four predecessors have left their country a moral legacy that deserves to endure.

Alexander Wilde, currently a senior scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, worked in Chile for 10 years during its long transition to democracy.

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