Why Pinochet is the dictator who never dies

Why is there still support in Chile for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history.

Some Chileans don't want to forget Augusto Pinochet. Image: Getty

Thousands were tortured, killed or “disappeared” during the rule of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990 and yet even today many believe the late general was the best president Chile has ever had. They are hoping that the presidential and parliamentary elections on 17 November will lead to a revival of his ideals.

There’s plenty of evidence online of nostalgia for Pinochet. Facebook pages such as the Fundación Pdte Pinochet (Foundation President Pinochet) have achieved tens of thousands of likes and some Twitter users call him “tata” (daddy) or “mi general”.

The pro-Pinochet movement isn’t limited to the internet. There have also been moves to bring back Pinochet’s political party, Avanzada Nacional. The party’s aim is to represent the 44 per cent of Chileans who backed the military regime in the 1988 referendum. The leadership has postponed registering Avanzada Nacional until 2014, probably because they weren’t able to collect the signatures needed (according to their most recent statement they collected 20,000 but they need 30,000 to register). Its leader, Roberto Francesconi, is running as an independent candidate instead.

Similarly, hardcore Pinochetistas tried to put forward their own candidate for the presidential election but the man they had in mind, the retired colonel Cristián Labbé, declined to run.

Why is there still support for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history. To show “who he really was”, a group of retired military officials – who are among his most ardent supporters – made a documentary, entitled Pinochet, last year.

They argue two points. First, that Pinochet saved Chile from Cuban-style communism, a handy argument against those who highlight the human-rights abuses during his rule. Second, they maintain he transformed a bankrupt economy into the most prosperous in Latin America. As for political killings, they reason that the 1973 coup prevented many more deaths by averting a civil war and that, in any case, those killed were “Marxist terrorists”.

Many Pinochet supporters have accused the current rightwing administration of betrayal. When Sebastián Piñera won the top office in 2010, after 20 years of left-wing government, they deemed it the resurgence of Pinochetism. But the president has disappointed their hopes of ending investigations into human-rights abuses and moved towards the left.

“This government, and the political right in general, want to get rid of the figure of my father. Many were his close allies but now they want to get rid of him,” the dictator’s daughter Lucia Pinochet told the Chilean newspaper La Segunda last year.

Avanzada Nacional are pinning their hopes on the rightwing presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei. As much as Matthei might like to please Pinochetistas, she also needs support from those who reject the Pinochet years as a dark period in the country’s history. She seems uncomfortable every time a journalist asks about her links with Pinochet: her father was part of his military junta.

It looks unlikely, however, that Matthei will win. According to opinion polls, she is currently achieving around 22 per cent of the vote, while the left-wing candidate Michelle Bachelet is polling at between 36 and 47 per cent. It seems Pinochetistas will have to wait to advance their beliefs beyond internet forums.