Politically divided Chile marks 50-year coup anniversary

Flowers at a statue to ex-president Salvador Allende, deposed in a coup 50 years ago (Pablo VERA)
Flowers at a statue to ex-president Salvador Allende, deposed in a coup 50 years ago (Pablo VERA)

A day after violence and arson marred a memorial march, Chile marked 50 years since the coup d'etat that brought Augusto Pinochet to power with events Monday honoring the dictatorship's thousands of victims.

Leftist President Gabriel Boric led an event at the presidential palace, La Moneda, to commemorate the violent US-backed ouster of Marxist leader Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 -- a date that divides Chileans to this day.

The presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Uruguay were in Santiago to attend the ceremony, with poetry readings and musical performances programmed to be interrupted by a minute of silence to mark the moment the bombs started dropping on La Moneda on the day Allende committed suicide while troops closed in.

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," and said on social media that such "intolerance and violence should have no place in a democracy."

"The irrationality of attacking what Allende and so many other democrats fought for is vile," he added.

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.

Half a century after the coup, Chileans remain deeply divided between those who defend the coup and those who repudiate it.

A survey conducted by Cerc-Mori in May found that 36 percent of people believe Pinochet "liberated Chile from Marxism" -- the highest figure measured in 28 years of polling.

The commemoration of an event which reverberated around the world does not arouse much interest today in a society preoccupied mainly by the economy and perceptions of rising crime.

A Criteria poll found that 49 percent found the anniversary was "irrelevant," while 48 percent believed marking it meant remaining "stuck in the past."

- Politics 'a little toxic' -

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.

More than 3,200 people were killed or "disappeared" -- abducted and presumed killed -- by Pinochet's security forces, and about 38,000 were tortured.

The general died of a heart attack on December 10, 2006 aged 91, without ever stepping foot in a court.

Michelle Bachelet, a former leftist president of Chile, told a local radio station Monday the country must "learn from the lessons of the past" at a time that politics "is a little toxic."

She herself was tortured during the dictatorship, as was her father, an air force general who had opposed the coup.

Chile's rightwing opposition has abstained from underwriting a document affirming a commitment to "defend democracy from authoritarian threats" that has been signed by four living ex-presidents of the South American country.

Guests to Monday's event will also be invited to sign it.

On Sunday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the 1973 coup "was an institutional breakdown that ruptured the bonds of coexistence and marked generations of Chileans, but also inspired many to fight for justice and freedom."

He added: "Today's strong Chilean democracy gives us hope that humanity, united in its diversity, can solve any global challenge."