Chile president defends democracy 50 years after coup ushered in brutal military dictatorship

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SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The president of Chile issued a fervent defense of democracy on Monday, the 50th anniversary of the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet that ushered in a brutal military dictatorship for almost two decades.

The anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup was a vivid reminder of the continuing divisions over the legacy of Pinochet, who died without ever being convicted for the crimes against humanity committed during his 17-year reign.

The problems of democracy must be addressed through more democracy, President Gabriel Boric said at the La Moneda presidential palace, which was bombed by warplanes at the start of the coup half a century ago.

“A coup d’état or the violation of the human rights of those who think differently is never justifiable,” Boric said in his address to a nation where a significant number of people, according to numerous polls, believe the 1973 coup was justified, and that Pinochet, who died in 2006, was a good leader who helped to modernize the country.

The military regime led by Pinochet violated human rights and brutally persecuted opponents, imprisoning and torturing thousands who were opposed to the regime. It Ieft a toll of 3,200 killed, including 1,469 disappeared. A half-century later, 297 have been convicted of crimes against humanity and 1,300 cases are ongoing.

Special Presidential Advisor for the Americas Christopher J. Dodd was leading the U.S. government delegation to Chile, according to the State Department. The U.S. government backed the 1973 coup and the Chilean government is pushing Washington to declassify documents that could shed light on the era.

Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson, said that “the Biden administration has sought to be transparent about the U.S. role in this chapter of Chilean history,” noting that it has recently declassified documents from 1973.

“We pay our deepest respects to the victims of the repression that followed,” Miller said.

The date in Chile is marked by political polarization between the ruling party and the right-wing opposition, due to their disagreements about the roles they played in the coup. Boric described the atmosphere as “charged,” and former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010 and 2014-2018) called it “toxic.” In Congress, lawmakers shouted at each other over the issue.

Those divisions spilled into the streets over the weekend, when a peaceful protest by thousands of Chileans to remember those disappeared and killed by the dictatorship was marred by violence. A small group of masked individuals threw rocks at windows.

In his speech Monday, Boric emphasized the need to stand up with the victims of the dictatorship and not seek a false equivalence in order to appease those who defend Pinochet's government.

“Reconciliation is not achieved through neutrality or distance but by unequivocally standing with those who were victims of the horror," Boric said.

Late last month, Boric unveiled what will effectively be the first state-sponsored plan to try to locate the approximately 1,162 victims of the dictatorship who remain missing, which on Monday he said would be his government's “legacy.”

“It is time to remedy those absences, correct the shortcomings, and repair the damage in order to project ourselves beyond our pains,” he said.

In the runup to the anniversary, Boric promoted an agreement for the protection of democracy and human rights, which was signed by his four predecessors, but none of the three leaders of the opposition adhered to it.

In a statement Monday, the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party did not mention the word coup, but talked about an “institutional breakdown” caused by an “extreme situation that Chile was living through.”

It described the events of Sept. 11, 1973 as “inevitable” given the “social, political and institutional breakdown” ushered in by the socialist government of President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

Earlier, the opposition coalition Let’s Go Chile issued a statement in which it did not mention the words coup or dictatorship, or human-rights violations. It referred to a “breakdown of democracy.”

UDI President Javier Macaya said the coalition would not participate in the Monday commemoration out of fear that it would include honoring “figures who we do not believe deserve tribute, such as former President Salvador Allende.” Allende died by suicide the day of the coup.

Allende’s daughter, Sen. Isabel Allende, also took part in Monday’s commemoration and accused some of trying to change history.

“There has been an attempt to reverse the responsibilities for the tragedy we experienced during the darkest 17 years of our history," she said. “The true culprits are those who broke the institutional order, bombed this palace, and killed thousands of Chileans.”

Cadem, a local polling group, found recently that 51% of Chileans believe the 1973 coup was “inevitable.” Local groups Pulso Ciudadano and Mori Chile also found that around one-third of Chileans say the coup was justified.

A tribute to former Presidente Allende by the Chamber of Deputies, Chile's lower house of Congress, was cut short after a UDI lawmaker used his time to criticize the former president. One lawmaker carried a sign that showed photos of both Allende and Pinochet crossed out.

“Neither Allende nor Pinochet,” read the sign.

More than 1,000 local and international guests took part in Monday's commemoration, including a few presidents from the region.

The guests included Presidents Luis Arce of Bolivia, Gustavo Petro of Colombia, Luis Lacalle Pou of Uruguay and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico.