Burying Augusto Pinochet

At long last, the age of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile is over. Thirty-six years after the left took power for the first time with Salvador Allende’s peaceful revolution – one supported by votes rather than armed struggle – Chileans have opted again for real change by i naugurating a socialist and a woman as their president.

“My commitment will be to travel with you on yet another stretch of this great promenade of freedom we have been opening,” Michelle Bachelet said after being elected in January. Her comment was an explicit reference to Allende’s last speech from the besieged La Moneda palace on September 11, 1973, when he declared that some day, much sooner than later, “we will reopen the great promenades down which free men pass.”

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The street euphoria that greeted Bachelet’s victory felt very much like the emotions that gripped Santiago back in 1970, when Allende was elected. Even the stage from which Bachelet spoke was located at almost the same place from which Allende delivered his historic victory speech 36 years ago. But the balcony of the Students’ Federation of Universidad de Chile no longer exists, having been replaced by the tall buildings and modern subway stations that have marked the intervening years of Chile’s history.

Indeed, although Michelle Bachelet, like Allende, is a socialist and a physician, today’s Chile is not the country of 1970. This is not only because Pinochet’s 17 years in power, from 1973 to 1990, dramatically shattered the country’s democracy, with thousands of people executed, missing, or tortured – among them Bachelet’s own father, an air force general who died under torture because he opposed the coup. The changes go much deeper, which explains how a country with a huge Roman Catholic majority has chosen to be led by a woman who is a socialist, an agnostic, and an unmarried mother.

With Allende’s victory, Chile’s stock exchange and markets were gripped by financial panic. But this time, the markets were calm, mostly because economists believe that Chile’s GDP will continue growing in 2006 at a brisk 6.3% annual rate. This change in market sentiment is one of the great achievements of President Ricardo Lagos, Bachelet’s predecessor, who was also a socialist. So it is small surprise that he left office with more than 75% popular support.

Bachelet’s margin of victory was far larger than the scant 31,000 votes that brought Lagos to power in January 2000. Back then, many predicted that Lagos wouldn’t last the thousand or so days that Allende ruled before Pinochet launched his coup. Today, however, nobody is predicting chaos for Bachelet.

Lagos brought Chile free-trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, and China, an unemployment rate of less than 8%, and a growth rate over 6%. Investment this year could reach a record-high 30% of GDP, and changes in education, health, and justice have transformed society. Most importantly, Lagos leaves office having erased from the constitution the dictator’s signature. The new constitution eliminated the so-called “authoritarian enclaves” by subordinating the armed forces to civilian rule and removing their designated senators from Parliament.

As for Pinochet himself, ever since July 2004, when the US Senate revealed his vast secret bank accounts, the once-powerful dictator has become a pariah. At age 90, he is being prosecuted for his crimes and corruption. Thus, the general who yearned to see his picture in Chilean history books next to that of our liberator, Bernardo O’Higgins, must now resign himself to dying abandoned even by those who, until only two years ago, revered and honored him.

That is hardly surprising. After all, one of the reasons Chile’s right hasn’t won an election since 1990, when democracy was restored, has been its silence regarding Pinochet’s crimes and financial misdeeds. But, in yet another sign of Chile’s transformation, the right-wing candidate that Bachelet defeated, Sebastián Piñera, is a liberal entrepreneur who has never hidden his rejection of Pinochet and his dictatorship.

Piñera’s great challenge will be to use his 46.6% of the vote in January to strengthen his leadership and his effort to build a new right-wing coalition with unimpeachable democratic credentials, thereby enabling it one day to defeat the ruling “Concertación” coalition that Bachelet leads. Such a reformed right’s opposition to Bachelet will probably focus on her efforts to modify the country’s neo-liberal model as she tackles the country’s persistent knots of poverty and inequality.

If Bachelet, who has already served as Minister of Health and Minister of Defense, is to succeed as president, she must transform this other Chile, where 18% of the population is poor, and 5% indigent. These are the Chileans for whom a lack of hope might make social unrest seem to be the only alternative. From now on, the danger of a military comeback will no longer be present to act as a deterrent.

In any case, on March 11, when Michelle Bachelet crosses the presidential sash over her chest, a new Chile will set itself in motion. The first truly post-Pinochet-era government will have begun.