Chile textbook controversy: Pinochet's rule now a military 'regime,' not a 'dictatorship'

Chile textbooks will now use the softer term 'regime' to characterize Gen. Pinochet's rule. But revulsion against Pinochet's human rights abuses remains widespread. 

Chile, which was governed by a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, plans to change how its national elementary school curriculum refers to the period, drawing angry criticism and even disbelief. 

The curriculum guidelines approved last month used the term "military regime," rather than "military dictatorship," to refer to the 17-year period when Gen. Augusto Pinochet and allied military leaders maintained control over the police, lawmaking, and press. The period complied with definitions of dictatorship, as the governing junta imposed a new constitution and left thousands of Chileans dead, disappeared, or exiled. Chileans who sympathize with Pinochet routinely use the term "military period" or "military regime" rather than "dictatorship."

The curriculum change at the National Education Council revived a longstanding concern about President Sebastian Piñera, who took office last year. He is the country's first right-of-center leader since Pinochet, and his critics often seek to smear him by associating him with Pinochet's human rights abuses. Piñera's brother served as a cabinet minister under Pinochet, but the current president has said he opposed the dictatorship.

The change in language was proposed by the Education Ministry and approved by the council almost a month ago. It didn't receive attention until the online newspaper El Dinamo covered it this week. The newspaper quoted one member of the panel that approved the change, Elizabeth Lira, as saying she "wouldn't be at all surprised" if the changed language had been intentional, as there are members of the government who sympathized with Pinochet.

Education Minister Harald Beyer, who took office just a week ago, faced his first crisis with equanimity. "The more general term will be used, which is 'military regime.' With respect to the concrete terms, it must be recalled that this went to a diverse panel, and that panel approved it," he said.

But that dispassionate tone was far from the norm. Yesterday, the country's news and conversations were filled with people upset over the possibility that Piñera's government would seek to cleanse history classes of the term "dictatorship."

News website El Mostrador collected quotes from people across the political spectrum.

"Dictatorships are dictatorships anywhere in the world, and history should recognize them with the word that fits," Karla Rubilar, a legislator from Piñera's own Renovacion Nacional party, said, according to the newspaper. "It is fundamental for countries to have memory. Only if we can learn from the facts can they not be repeated. This country had a dictatorship that lasted 17 years."

Hugo Gutierrez represents the Communist Party in congress. His party was banned under Pinochet's government and has struggled since to recover members. He said that along with changing the word "dictatorship," there have been efforts to change the term "violations" of human rights to the more neutral "excesses," El Mostrador reported.

Revulsion against the human rights record of the dictatorship remains widespread. A poll released yesterday by the Center for Study of Contemporary Reality found that only 12 percent of the public agreed that "the deaths during the military regime were a necessary evil to impede Communism."

The education panel will revisit the terminology if the Education ministry requests it, the panel said late yesterday in a statement.

"Regarding the new learning objectives in the civics focus, it is important to review the possible lack of coherence between these objectives and the social and historical content of the proposal," the panel said. The goal is to provide "a comprehensive understanding of the historical process alluded to in this controversy," it said.

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