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Allende Revival Stokes Animosity in Chile

Thirty years after his death during a military coup, the leftist leader is honored by a successor.

September 11, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, Chile — President Salvador Allende did not leave this world quietly. With army tanks surrounding his offices in the downtown La Moneda palace, and jets overhead poised to drop bombs on him, he went on the radio for one last defiant speech.

"I will not resign," he said. "I will offer my life to repay the loyalty of the Chilean people." Then he donned a helmet, grabbed a machine gun -- and eventually shot himself.

In the three decades that have followed the military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the name of the democratically elected leftist president has been all but erased from the nation's history. But now, on the 30th anniversary of the right-wing takeover, Chile's current president, Ricardo Lagos, is bringing Allende back to the forefront of this country's political life.

Allende is being honored this week in two acts of official remembrance that, though simple and muted, have shaken Chile's establishment. A meeting room in the presidential palace was renamed after him Wednesday. And Lagos today will become the first president since the leftist leader's death to enter La Moneda palace through the door by which Allende's body was carried out on Sept. 11, 1973.

The potent symbolism has provoked anger not only from the right-wing parties and military officers who backed the Pinochet dictatorship, but also from the centrist allies in Lagos' ruling center-left coalition, who have declined to attend the official ceremonies marking the coup's anniversary.

"It doesn't seem right to us that the former adversaries of the Allende government should be asked to attend an act in honor of a government we thought was a bad one," said Patricio Aylwin, a former president, reflecting a common sentiment in the Christian Democratic Party.

Elected president in 1970, Allende ruled during a heady time in which he and his supporters imagined themselves leading their country down a "Chilean road to socialism." He nationalized industries and earned the enmity of the Nixon administration, which worked covertly to undermine his government.

About 3,200 people died in the coup and in the 17 years of right-wing authoritarian rule that followed, according to the official "truth commission" report issued in 1991 under the government of Aylwin, the democratically elected president to whom Pinochet handed power in 1990.

Despite the reservations of Alywin and others, the image of Allende and his leftist Popular Unity government has undergone a remarkable rehabilitation here. No longer is he seen as the bumbling Marxist ideologue that the Chilean media once made him out to be. Instead, he is increasingly viewed as a courageous statesman and a victim of U.S. meddling in Chilean affairs.

Pinochet, meanwhile, is a largely discredited man who has escaped trial for gross human rights violations only because a judge said he suffers from "dementia."

The horrors of the 1973 coup are being detailed on nightly documentaries, such as a recent one that offered viewers images long considered taboo here: workers recovering bodies of executed prisoners from the Santiago trash dumps and the Mapocho River.

Most tellingly, the report used the Spanish word for coup, golpe, rather than the long accepted euphemism -- "the military process."

"There has been a 180-degree turn," said Sen. Jorge Patricio Arancibia, a member of the rightist Independent Democratic Union.

During the 1973 coup, Arancibia was a naval officer overseeing the detention of workers at a coastal factory. He said no one was tortured or killed there, and he remains proud of the military's overthrow of Allende.

Until 1998, he pointed out, Sept. 11 was a national holiday here, celebrated as the day of Chile's liberation from "Marxist terror." Then the holiday was canceled and replaced with a memorial Mass. Now Allende will be honored on that day.

"The government is making a mistake putting Allende's name forward on Sept. 11," Arancibia said. "Far from being a statesman, he was one of the worst presidents Chile has ever had. He ruined the country."

Arancibia and other rightists see political motives in the celebration, a distraction from economic woes and scandals that have eaten away at the popularity of the ruling alliance, the Coalition of Parties for Democracy.

All three presidents elected since Pinochet stepped down -- Aylwin, Eduardo Frei and Lagos -- have been members of the coalition, which united two parties that were bitter foes during the Allende period, the Christian Democrats and Allende's Socialist Party.

After taking office in 2000, Lagos enjoyed wide popularity until several congressmen from his coalition were implicated in a bribery scandal this year. Then a government fund was plundered by the worst case of financial fraud in Chilean history.

Sensing the government's weakness on the issue, the right-wing Independent Democratic Union in May put forward its a plan to prosecute human rights abuses from the Allende era.

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