Honoring a Murderer: The Confusing Politics Surrounding Pinochet’s Dictatorship in Chile 21 Years Later

By: Madeline Wiseman

December 6, 2011

Every weeknight since my arrival in Santiago on July 14, I have watched the 9:00 p.m. news with my Chilean host parents. On November 21, one story captured a fact that has become clear to me over the last 5 months: particularly in respect to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chilean politics is just plain messed up.

Before I explain, a little background is necessary. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean army removed the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in a coup d’état that the United States helped plan. Military chief Augusto Pinochet assumed power and ruled as a dictator for the next 17 years.

The dictatorship was characterized by human rights violations; over 28,000 people were tortured, 2,279 of them executed. Approximately 1,248 people disappeared during the dictatorship, and to this day the location of their bodies is unknown. These people were tortured and killed simply for disagreeing with the politics and policies of the people in power.

On September 11 of every year, Chileans who lost family members and friends during the dictatorship take to the streets. Many walk with photos of their loved ones, marching in the name of those who died and in the name of those whose exact fate remains unclear. The coup d’état and the dictatorship are painful memories for many Chileans. I have gradually learned, however, that many Chileans do not remember the dictatorship in this way.

In a two-week Contemporary Chile course with my program, I learned that the current president, Sebastián Piñera, had a number of ties with Pinochet’s government and benefitted financially from his policies. I was shocked to learn that he had been elected; obviously Chileans had not forgotten about the dictatorship, and Piñera’s ties to Pinochet were hardly a secret. Chileans have told me of a few possible reasons why Piñera was elected, but one in particular pertains to my point about Chilean politics.

Stated plainly, some Chileans see the dictatorship as a positive period in their country’s history. I have yet to figure out whether these people simply ignore the facts or choose to adopt some twisted view of reality, but many people continue to support the ideologies and actions of the Pinochet regime.

The news story I saw on November 21 covered a ceremony that a group of people, including government leaders, held to honor of a man named Miguel Krassnoff. Currently serving 120 years in prison, Krassnoff is a convicted murderer and violator of human rights. He took part in the 1973 coup d’état and subsequently remained part of Pinochet’s inner circle, participating directly in torture and executions.

And yet this group of people somehow believes that he deserves to be honored for his actions, for his “contributions” to Chile as a country. When the story came on the news, my host father said with frustration and a tinge of resignation, “Only in Chile.”

Obviously every country has extremists who deny or skew what the average person knows to be fact, but for those people to be government leaders? For those people to hold a ceremony in the name of someone who has been convicted for such awful violations of human rights as torture and rape? Someone who was a prominent leader during a period when thousands of Chileans were imprisoned and killed for committing no crimes? I simply don’t get it.

Two back-to-back interviews in the news story exemplify my confusion. First, a middle-aged man explained that Krassnoff directly participated in his imprisonment and torture. The man saw Krassnoff; there is no doubt that he was there. Next, an older man with white hair clearly stated his belief that “Miguel Krassnoff has not committed any crimes.”

Despite the incredulous questions that continually surface as I learn more about Chilean politics, I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never fully grasp it, nor will I understand the complexities of Chileans’ attitudes toward the dictatorship. That period remains a difficult and sensitive topic even 21 years later, and I would never claim to know the best way for Chileans to proceed. I must say, however, that I hope the next election hands power to fewer compadres of Pinochet, and to more men and women who truly want the best for Chile and its people.

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