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.

Comments on Chilean students defy Pinochet’s legacy

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Raymond Comau 13 Sep 13

    This is an interesting article, but the involvement of USA President Rickar5d Nixon, and Henry Kissinger in supporting Pinochet's coup is conspicuous by its absence .

    It is very important to include he historical facts about USA's involvement in the illegal coup against Salvador Allende's Democratically elected Government, especially, when the USA is still using war to achieve 'Regime change' to suit their interests around the world. Think Libya, Iraq, AFGHANISTAN, AND SYRIA. Thus things have not changes much in the past 40 years except perhaps the USA focus now is in the Middle East and then Russia and China.

    These coups will not stop until the USA is held responsible for its dastardly deeds around the world.

    I am very disappointed with the author of the article who for whatever reason fai8led to point out who was responsible for sending Pinochet to disappear 1200 people. Long live the memory of one who wasn't afraid Victor Jara !

  2. #2 Adriano Merola Marotta 13 Sep 13

    Thank you for your comment.

    I didn't intentionally exclude the US's involvement in the coup and it's prior campaign to destabilise the Allende government in the brief three years that he was in power. I left it out because of it is not directly relevant to what I was writing about above.
    Let it be known however, that I agree that the US has alot of responsibility for the Pinochet coup, but the main effect that the US's support had was to maintain Pinochet in power for 17 years.
    It is important to remember that Latin Americans have a will of their own, and in the incidence of Chile, the reactionary forces of the élites of the country were willing to overthrow Allende, and they were the ones that ultimately did it. It was Chilean soldiers, not US soldiers, which overthrew Allende, on the behest of the rich of Chile and the large industrial conglomerates of the US.

    Sometimes it's too easy to blame the US, the situation was more complex than that. But I appreciate the comment, and had the article looked more in-depth at the coup of 1973, I would have thoroughly discussed the US's role in facilitating Pinochet's power.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

About the author

Adriano Mérola Marotta  a New Internationalist contributor

Adriano Mérola Marotta is a Uruguayan-Swedish social justice activist and freelance writer. The son of Uruguayan political refugees, he grew up in Sweden and did his BA in Development and his MA in Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex. Personal tweets @AdrianoMerola.

Read more by Adriano Mérola Marotta

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Blogs

New Internationalist hosts several different blogs, from the Editor's Blog to the Majority World Blog, the Gaza Blog to the Books Blog

New Internationalist Blogs