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.”

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 But the balcony of the Students’ Federation of Universidad de Chile no longer exists, having been replaced by the tall buildings and modern subway stations that have marked the intervening years of Chile’s history.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.