Documentary paying homage to Augusto Pinochet incites anger, protests in Chile

The long-running grudge by the left against dictator Pinochet and by the right against his predecessor, President Salvador Allende, has played out in every medium from street marches to documentaries.

The drums were beating for a week leading up to the "Homenaje a Pinochet" – homage to Augusto Pinochet. It would be hard to come up with three words likely to provoke more intense emotions in Chile. The feelings overflowed Sunday as demonstrators let loose insults and even physical blows against attendees at the premiere of "Pinochet," a documentary remembering the positive side of the dictator who ran Chile from 1973 to 1990.

The long-running grudge by the left against Pinochet and by the right against his predecessor, Salvador Allende, has played out in every medium. Street marches, books, articles, and now documentaries. The most damning film made in opposition to Pinochet was probably "The Battle of Chile" (1978), which portrays the Chilean right as an irrational beast, organized by US intelligence and driven by hatred for the poor. And now comes "Pinochet,"  portraying him as someone who struggled to improve his country, who rescued it from the ostensibly dreadful fate of communism, who expanded state services to underserved areas, and who peacefully handed over power. Chile has a long way to go before these two images of the ex-dictator can be reconciled.

Part of the problem is that Pinochet has been portrayed for decades as the epitome of an evil dictator. This was, in part, because he was an evil dictator. He really did kill thousands of political opponents, create torture centers along the length of the country, and generally terrorize his population. Over 1,200 people remain "disappeared." But it was also partly about propaganda. Unlike the orders-of-magnitude-more-violent dictators of Guatemala, for example, Chile sent thousands of its most talented, smartest leftists into exile. When they settled in Canada, Sweden, Australia, and other countries, their messages were promptly broadcast to a global audience. 

Beyond the image of Pinochet, the reality has always been more complex. When leftist filmmaker Miguel Littín visited the country incognito during Pinochet's reign, he was depressed to see that daily life in Chile was much better than what he had heard abroad. He tells the story in Gabriel Garcia Marquéz's "Clandestine in Chile": "Contrary to what we heard in exile, Santiago was a radiant city, its venerable monuments splendidly illuminated, its streets spotlessly clean and orderly. If anything, armed policemen were more in evidence on the streets of Paris or New York than here … Even the wan little streetwalkers did not seem as destitute and sad to me as they used to." (That impression didn't last. Littín quickly noticed the East German-style fear in everyone's face, the fact that no one would look at anything in particular, that they were all rushing home before curfew.)

After 15 years in power, Pinochet's government fulfilled its long-standing promise to hold a referendum to decide whether to retain him as president. He got 44 percent of the vote. Even if that election was influenced by well founded fear of Pinochet's legions of informers and thugs, there is no doubt that a chunk of the Chilean public supported him to the end. It has long been taboo to recall the dictator fondly. Walmart Chile had a brass plaque of Pinochet in its lobby, inscribed "patriotic soldier and visionary statesman." A visitor snapped a photo that got published in the Village Voice-esque weekly "The Clinic," January 3.

On January 4, Walmart said it had removed the plaque. Similarly, one of the few public memorials to Pinochet is a street named for the day of his coup d'etat, September 11. The signs marking that avenue are frequently covered with stickers that say "Bad Day" and "Terrible." The long-time leader has no sculptures dedicated to him in the capital. His right-hand man, Jaime Guzmán, has been honored with a plaza and a memorial in the largely conservative eastern boroughs of the capital. Someone left a bomb at the memorial last year.

The people who held an all-night vigil against the positive memorial to Pinochet have every right to be frustrated. Policies he put in place continue, and a constitution designed to create political gridlock make major changes difficult to impossible. But it was ironic to see some people call for the film's presentation to be forbidden by the state, and others to physically attack the moviegoers. Pinochet's government censored documentaries and physically attacked opponents. Is censorship and physical attack a way to purge his memory? Or is such acts, in fact, exactly the kind of homage he would have liked?

– Steven Bodzin is the Santiago, Chile correspondent for the Monitor. He also blogs at Setty's Notebook.

Editor's note: the original post misspelled the name of Chile's former dictator.

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