50 years later, wounds of Pinochet regime still raw

Politically divided Chile marks coup anniversary

SANTIAGO: In the basement of the presidential palace in Chile’s capital, Patricia Herrera was detained and tortured for months before being sent into exile. It was early in a military dictatorship that would kill or cause the disappearance of thousands of people. Fifty years after the US-backed coup that snuffed out Chile’s democracy, the wounds from all that suffering are still raw.

Chile on Monday marked 50 years since the coup d’etat with political divisions over the legacy of his brutal dictatorship on stark display. Commemorations of the violent ouster of Marxist leader Salvador Allende still evoke strong emotions, and police fired teargas and water cannons at protesters who vandalized the presidential palace on the anniversary’s eve.

Leftist President Gabriel Boric led an event at the palace, known as La Moneda, to mark the historic date, and stressed the need to condemn those who violate human rights “without any nuance.” “The coup cannot be separated from what came after,” he said, referring to the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship under which more than 3,200 people were killed or “disappeared” and tens of thousands tortured.


As she returned from class at the university, Herrera was detained by officers in plain clothes because she was “a woman and a socialist.” She was 19. Herrera was taken, blindfolded, to the basement of La Moneda, as the presidential palace is called. It was then also known as “El Hoyo,” or the pit, as it was one of the first detention and torture centers set up by General Augusto Pinochet’s new regime after the ouster of Socialist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

Allende committed suicide rather than be captured. “From the very first night we got there, there was sexual humiliation. At first, I thought it was just the guard who was overdoing it with me. I did not think it was an established thing that women had to suffer sexual, in addition to political, violence,” said Herrera, now 68 and a historian. Herrera was held for 14 months at the palace and in two other buildings in Santiago that were converted into torture centers by the Pinochet regime.

She was then sent into an exile that would last 15 years, first in France and then in Cuba. Two commissions created to study the dictatorship concluded that at least 38,254 people were tortured under the Pinochet regime, which lasted until 1990. The basement in the presidential palace where Herrera was held was also known as Cuartel, or barracks, N°1 and is now used as office space.

People taken there blindfolded could identify it because of its curved wall. On August 30 of this year, the current president, Gabriel Boric, had a plaque installed in the basement space to mark the horrors endured by around 30 people who were held there. “We want to put up a marker for everyone to see,” Herrera said, “that here, in the political heart of the nation, there was a torture center.”


The dictatorship triggered the biggest migratory movement in Chilean history. Just over 200,000 people went into exile, according to the non-governmental Chilean Human Rights Commission. Employees of the Allende government, union leaders, workers, students and farmers left the country, taking their families with them. Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, France and Venezuela were the main recipient countries.

Most of the exiles were able to return home starting September 1, 1988, when the regime issued a decree allowing them back, a year and a half before the dictatorship ended. A communist activist named Shaira Sepulveda was tortured in secret prisons called Villa Grimaldi and Cuatro Alamos. After her release she left in 1976 for France, along with her husband at that time. She left relatives and friends in Santiago.

“My family was here, my sister, my parents. But what really hurt was having to go to a country where you are a nobody,” Sepulveda recalls. She returned to Chile 17 years later with two children, but again her family was broken apart. The eldest child could not adapt to life in Chile and returned to Europe. “I am an old woman, so my grandchildren there will barely know me,” said Sepulveda, who is 74.

‘Never again’

On Sunday, Boric became the first president since the end of the dictatorship in 1990 to attend a commemorative march through Santiago for Pinochet’s victims. But the procession was marred by vandals causing damage to the exterior of La Moneda and the general cemetery that houses a victims’ memorial. Six police officers were injured and at least 11 people were arrested, officials said. Boric blamed the acts on “adversaries of democracy.” On Sunday night, some 6,000 women dressed in black held a peaceful vigil in the capital under the slogan: “Never again will democracy be bombed,” in reference to the 1973 air raids.

Led by Boric, Allende’s leftist political heirs are in power in Chile today. But the far-right Republican Party — Pinochet apologists — emerged the strongest from elections in May for a body tasked with drafting a new constitution to replace the one that dates from the dictatorship era. Pinochet died of a heart attack on December 10, 2006, aged 91, without ever setting foot in a court. – AFP

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