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Ghost of Pinochet

June 11, 2012

Although former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died six years ago, Chile is still coming to terms with the general's historical legacy. A pro-Pinochet documentary has sparked outrage among victims associations.

Augusto Pinochet with high-ranking military officers, August 1987 in Santiago de Chile for a military parade for the 14th anniversary of the 1973 coup.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in Chile on Sunday over the screening of a documentary celebrating the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, after the country's conservative government refused requests to ban the film.

The anti-Pinochet protesters, some of whom were masked, threw rocks and sticks at improvised road blocs set up by the police. Some 500 riot police responded by firing tear gas and water cannons as the protesters advanced on the theater where the film was being shown. A dozen people were arrested during the two hours of clashes.

Simply entitled "Pinochet," the documentary portrays the Chilean dictator as a national hero who saved the country from communism. The Corporacion 11 de Septiembre organized the screening, which also hosted the biggest gathering of Pinochet supporters since his death in 2006. The group is named after date when Pinochet ousted socialist president Salvador Allende in a 1973 US-backed coup.

"We want to set the record straight on Pinochet," Juan Gonzalez, a retired army officer who leads the pro-Pinochet group. "We have stoically put up with the lies and cheating and seen how the story has been manipulated."

Rising revisionism

Pinochet supporters claim that his 1973-1990 dictatorship prevented Chile from becoming a failed socialist state and helped pave the way for the South American nation's current economic success. But opponents and victims of the regime say that the general was a war criminal who embezzled public funds.

"There's obviously an effort to revive and clean up Pinochet's image," Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori, told the Associated Press. "They're saying: 'This is really a guy who deserves a tribute. So I ask: What would happen in Germany if someone would try to pay a tribute to Hitler?"

More than 3,000 people were killed during Pinochet's rule, including around 1,200 who disappeared without a trace. Some 37,000 Chileans were tortured or illegally imprisoned for political reasons during the general's reign. Pinochet died in 2006 without ever having faced trial.

Film ban rejected

Anti-Pinochet activists and victims associations tried to have the film banned, a request that was turned down by President Sebastian Pinera. The president leads Chile's first conservative government since the return of democracy in 1990. Many members of the governing Independent Democratic Union and National Renovation were one-time supporters of the Pinochet dictatorship.

"Our family members didn't die in vain in the struggle for democracy for something like this to be allowed," said Mireya Garcia, vice president of the Group of Families of Detainees and Missing People. "The government must be held accountable for this serious blow against democracy."

Pinera's government said it does not support the showing of the documentary, but respects the right of organizers to hold the event.

slk/ipj (AP, AFP)