New Internationalist

Chilean students defy Pinochet’s legacy

2013-09-12-students.jpg [Related Image]
Students demanding a free education. Francisco Osorio under a Creative Commons Licence

On the morning of 28 of June 2009, Honduran army soldiers kidnapped President Manuel Zelaya. Masked and armed, they stormed the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa and put Zelaya on a plane to Costa Rica, forbidding him from returning for several months and banning him from Honduran politics.

In a sequence of events all too familiar to Latin Americans, democracy in Honduras was suspended in favour of an alliance of conservatives and military bound together by a shared admiration for free-market capitalism. As with Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s, the supporters of the coup in Honduras came from the country’s élite.

Threatened by Zelaya’s refusal to sign free-trade agreements with the US, as well as his pro-poor policies and tacit alliance with Venezuela’s socialist government, the landlords and urban industrialists of Honduras had started the campaign to oust the president. After the coup, the conservative government of autocrat Porfirio Lobo Sosa signed free-trade agreements with both the US and the European Union, thereby entrenching the interests of the élite in Honduran law.

As a Latin American and the child of two political refugees from Uruguay who fled the military junta of the 1970s-1980s, I feared for the future of Honduras and of the continent as a whole. Much like the coup d’état of March 1973 in Uruguay, which heralded a dawn of authoritarianism in the Southern Cone of Latin America, the events in Honduras in 2009 had the potential to ripple through the continent in the 21st century. While this, luckily, did not happen, the message was resoundingly clear: Latin American progressive movements cannot presume that authoritarianism is a thing of the past.

40 years after Pinochet

On Wednesday, Chile marked 40 years since the coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power. Yet the legacy of Pinochet’s 17-year rule of Chile, which left thousands of people dead or ‘missing’ at the hands of the military, remains contested.

When Pinochet died in 2006, 60,000 people joined the public procession to mourn his death and many conservative parties still fondly remember the dictatorship. In the run-up to the anniversary of the coup, the rightwing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) politician Iván Moreira thanked Pinochet  for saving an entire generation from a Marxist dictatorship. Moreira’s party is part of the ruling conservative coalition and has been a pro-Pinochet party since its emergence in 1983.

UDI presidential candidate Evelyn Metthei lambasts commemorative statements by President Sebastián Piñera as reigniting the ‘hatred and the divisions of the past’, but many in Chile would disagree. There are still 1,210 people ‘missing’ from the military dictatorship, a persistent reminder that those who suffered have still not had justice. That was the message on Sunday of, when 30,000 Chileans protested in solidarity with the families of the missing. Recent polls show that 76 per cent of Chileans think that Pinochet was a dictator. Only nine per cent believe that he was a good leader.

In Chile, Pinochet’s legacy includes the 1980 Constitution, which remains virtually unchanged since the dictatorship, bar some alterations made in 2005. The Constitution gives protection to an educational model based on competition between the private and public sector. Since 2011, students across all levels of education have been demanding fully funded education, including tertiary institutions, as well as reforms to the democratic system regulated by the Constitution. The students aim to break with the Constitution’s neoliberal educational model in favour of a system which is free for everyone, regardless of income.

The Chilean student movement has been continuously occupying schools and universities in protest for two years now and is an inspiration to justice campaigners across the continent. Despite the last 80,000-strong student demonstration on 6th September ending with 214 arrests, the youth of Chile continue their campaign for free education.

Most young people have a negative view of Pinochet and have taken a robust aim at the economic policies which brought him into power. While Pinochet used the military prowess of the Chilean armed forces to oust his predecessor Salvador Allende, he clung on to power by maintaining close ties with the rich landowners and urban industrialists of the country. He succeeded in this by scrapping welfare programmes for the poor in favour of fiscal prudence, deregulating the economy and delegalizing trade unions. The result was a dramatic rise in inequality which still persists today: the top 10 per cent owns 40 per cent of the wealth and the bottom 10 per cent owns 1 per cent.

In contemporary Latin America, we need to remember the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s for what they were: brutally repressive, free-market regimes which institutionalized inequality across the Southern Cone. Yet we must not become complacent and think that dictatorships are a ‘thing of the past’. It is evident from the Honduran coup of 2009 that the spectre of military authoritarianism persists across Latin America.

We have a lot to learn from the students as they continue their fight for a more egalitarian and democratic society. That is ultimately the best way to commemorate those who died under the reign of Pinochet: to continue our fight for a better society, regardless of what adversity may lie ahead.

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