LIMA, Peru — Even from beyond the grave, General Augusto Pinochet continues to cast a long, dark shadow across Chilean politics.
The latest example has been the furious reaction to a proposed change in schoolbooks to replace the word “dictatorship” with the blander “military regime” in reference to the authoritarian rightwing administration led by Pinochet from 1973 to 1990.
Officials now appear to be backpedalling from the idea, floated by education minister Harald Beyer, after a major public and media backlash.
Socialist Party leader Osvaldo Andrade used heavy irony to insist that the Pinochet government was a dictatorship, telling Chilean TV: “It has a cat’s ears, a cat’s body, it meows like a cat, yet some want to call it a dog.”
For most outside Chile, the row may seem baffling.
Pinochet, after all, rose to power after using his position as head of the armed forces to lead a bloody coup d’etat against a democratically-elected government, in which the incumbent president died.
He then ruled without elections for almost two decades, using one of the most efficient and ferocious police apparatuses in the hemisphere to brutally squash dissent, including killing or “disappearing” some 3,000 opponents, according to Chile’s official truth and reconciliation report.
Yet many on Chile’s modern right, including the government of President Sebastian Pinera, still struggle to come to terms with Pinochet’s legacy — and their relationship to it in one of Latin America’s more stable democracies.
Justice minister Teodoro Ribera was the latest to tie himself into knots when he conceded to local newspaper El Mercurio that yes, there was a ”dictatorship” up to 1981, when a new constitution finally came into force. Thereafter, the Pinochet government became a “military regime," he said, even though there were no elections.
The National Education Council, which approved the proposal in December, has now given the education ministry another 60 days to redraft the proposal. Meanwhile, Beyer has said that schools are free to use the history textbooks of their choice.