Wednesday, September 11, marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile that brought Army General Augusto Pinochet to power. As the violent clashes between police and protesters that flared up on the anniversary show, the general’s legacy is still a bitterly divisive one. The remains of the roughly1,200desaparecidos(the “disappeared”) of Pinochet’s brutal rule have yet to be found; it is estimated that some3,100 peoplewere murdered and over 38,000 were tortured by Pinochet’s security forces, including the infamousNational Intelligence Directorate (DINA).
Yet even as the Pinochet regime carried out these repressions, it laid the groundwork (primarily by privatizing state-owned enterprises and decreasing state control over private enterprises) for making modern-day Chile a regional economic powerhouse, with flourishing industries and a generally stable economy. One of his most memorable decisions was to rely on the famousLey de Cobre(Copper Law) which was originally established in 1958 and maintained under Pinochet’s rule. Thanks to the law, 10% of the profits of copper sales of the state-owned mining company CODELCO were used for military purchases, which aided Chile in becoming the local military big fish that it is today. During Pinochet’s rule, the country also became an exporter of goods such asfish, flour and fruits.
Pinochet still has his defenders, thanks in large part to that economic legacy. Yet an astonishing move that may signal a change of attitudes regarding how Chilean society perceives Pinochet’s rule, an association of Pinochet-era judges recently released a statement to the public asking for forgiveness for aiding the dictatorship by not protesting the detentions of prisoners.The judges’ statementdeclares that “the Judiciary, and the Supreme Court of that era in particular, capitulated their duty of protecting fundamental human rights and protecting the individuals that were victims of abuse by the state.” Moreover, a plethora of new studies and analyses have appeared over the years, revising Chile’s economic successes during the Pinochet era. As analyst Farid Kahhathas argued, the average 1% growth of the gross domestic product in the 1980s in Chile is not in itself remarkable, and indeed is significantly less than the economic growth under the democratic governments that followed the end of the dictatorship.
All this, however, is not to say that Chile’s political system is coming out from the shadow cast by Pinochet. After all, he and his cadres never really faced accountability: trials of military servicemen that committed human rights abuses during the dictatorshipprogress painfully slowlyand Pinochet himself avoided actual punishment even though he was tried several times;he died a free man in 2006. And that shadow looms especially large now, in the months before the nation’s November presidential elections. There’s a visceral connection to that era at play. The frontrunner, former President Michelle Bachelet is known for having been an opponent of Pinochet. In 1975, she and her mother were detained and tortured by the DINA in the regime’s infamous detention center,Villa Grimaldi. Another candidate, Evelyn Rose Matthei Fornet, had a better life during the dictatorship. Her father served as Minister of Health and commander of Chile’s Air Force during the Pinochet years.
At the time of this writing, it is all but certain that Bachelet will be elected for a new presidential term. A recent poll carried out theCentro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) between July and Augustshow that 44% of polled Chileans would like to see Bachelet win. The closest runner up is Matthei Forner, with a distant 12%. And the public’s sense of Bachelet’s inevitabilityoutdoes even her popularity: 75% of that same pool of respondents believe that Bachelet will be re-elected, compared to only 6% who see Matthei pulling a major upset.
With the results of the upcoming November elections seemingly a foregone conclusion, it’s not too early to begin an assessment of Bachelet’s second-term, especially her economic ones. So far, it seems that the former president wants to carry initiatives such as hiking (or attempting to hike) public spending in order to appease citizens infuriated by the current Sebastián Piñera government, particularly theuniversity studentswho have carried out occasionally violent protests sinceMay 2011. At the international level, look for a continuation of her welcoming stance on free trade agreements. Of particular interest are the future negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious free trade area that would unite major economies from the Asia-Pacific region with the U.S. and Latin America’s rising economic stars (of which Chile is one of the brightest). So far, statements byBachelet’s entouragehint that she will maintain Chilean participation in the TPP negotiations.
So there is an irony here, and one worth remarking on: as rightly reviled as Pinochet was for his political repressions, his economic legacy has been cautiously embraced even by men and women of the left like Bachelet — an embrace that looks likely to tighten even as his political legacy becomes ever more toxic.