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Former LAB editor Javier Farje writes from Santiago about how Chilean society is overcoming the remains of its turbulent past.
Retired Captain Renán Ballas is a contented man, a short smiley pensioner with the look of a travelling salesman who has just closed a very good deal. An admirer of dictator Augusto Pinochet, Captain Ballas, a former Ambassador of the tyrant, is very happy to debate with anyone who dares to attack his hero. He does not lose his temper or resort to authoritarian arguments to refute criticism to the man who interrupted Chilean democracy on 11 September 1973.
Luis Casanova is a young journalist of the progressive Cambio 21 newspaper. He was born long after the coup and was a toddler when democracy was restored. He is, of course, critical of a regime that he himself, it should be remembered, did not suffer under. Unlike Captain Ballas, Luis believes that the current constitution, sanctioned by Pinochet in 1980 and approved in a referendum, should be replaced. And he seems to regard this as vital for the survival of the democratic process in Chile.
Both Luis and Captain Ballas represent today’s Chile, a country where the past can be argued and discussed with a ghost still hovering over their heads: Augusto Pinochet. We are having a cup of coffee in the Club Palestino, a small Arab enclave in the suburbs of Santiago (Chile has a large community of Palestinian and Arab descent).
Democracy in Chile operates under the Pinochet constitution. Successive governments have reformed its most controversial articles, like the excessive powers granted to the president – after all, Pinochet was hoping to stay in power forever – and the article which enshrined senators-for-life article, a measure designed to install members of the Pinochet regime in permanent seats in the upper chamber where they could influence and potentially veto future legislation.
Ballas argues that it is a pointless exercise to change a constitution that works. After all, most post-Pinochet governments, especially under Ricardo Lagos’s presidency (2000 – 2006) reformed the constitution, yet none of them dared to abolish it. “We need a dialogue about this”, he tells me without a hint of irony, despite having supported a regime that did not consider ‘dialogue among Chileans’ to be compatible with its principles . For his part, Luis seems to be intimidated by the brazen cheek of his fellow interviewee. Ballas defended the coup and used the same tired arguments used at the time by the plotters: Allende had become undemocratic; the economy was in shambles, etcetera. I would have expected Luis to come in the defence of Allende but his timid arguments disappointed me.
The fact is that young Chileans, those whose parents suffered under Pinochet, but who themselves learned about his regime only in the history books, express less anger towards the dictator. Only the more radical wing of the Chilean left demands a constituent assembly to replace the current constitution and although president Michelle Bachelet promised, during her election campaign, to do her utmost to replace it, this promise has slipped down in the list of priorities of this, her second administration.
Even the leaders of the new generation, mainly students, who demonstrated against the high cost of education during the last legs of Bachelet´s first government and of his successor, the right-wing Sebastián Piñera, are mostly silent now. The reason is simple: many of those leaders are now in parliament and have joined the very establishment they attacked with their placards and strikes when they were students. They have accepted the moderate changes the current government has introduced in the education system and constitutional reform does not seem to appear on their wish-list.
Chile today shows few scars of it turbulent past and maybe the current peace has persuaded many Chileans that it is better to leave things the way they are. The restored presidential palace, the Palacio de la Moneda, which was heavily bombarded during the 11 September 1973 coup, looks new. A statue of Salvador Allende presides over the square in front of it. The door on the left side of the palace, used by the military to withdraw the body of Salvador Allende after his suicide, has re- opened after its long closure by the dictator, and has flowers and a carabinero guarding it. The military can live with that. No problem.
Chile has one of the most developed economies in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced and the government is starting to address the concerns of the Mapuche people, the original inhabitants of this country. Until recently, any protest by the Mapuches was punished under anti-terrorist laws promulgated under the dictatorship. Mapuches still demand the land that was stolen from them but no government, dictatorial or otherwise, seems to be prepared to return it. It is fair to say that the Chilean democracy is failing the Mapuches.
My dialogue with Captain Ballas and Luis Casanova ended with handshakes and smiles a plenty. Ballas can afford to defend the regime that killed, disappeared and exiled thousands of Chileans, because he knows that he is not going to be punished for his discredited ideas. Luis Casanova’s mild criticism of Ballas shows that he belongs to a generation that has not seen the devastation caused by the Pinochet regime, a generation that finds it easier to look to the future because it did not suffer under the brutality of the tyranny in its past.
The monument to Allende and the door on the side of the palace remind Chileans of the price the country paid to get where it is now. The generation of exiles and activists who fought Pinochet is fading away with old age. That generation has seen the return of Socialist presidents to la Moneda without fearing that they will be overthrown, and can rest assured that Allende’s sacrifice was not in vain. Maybe the current constitution will undergo more piecemeal changes, until it reaches the point where nobody will recognise in it the original. This seems to be the choice of the Chileans and who can argue with that.