Chilean Police Clash With Anti-Pinochet Protesters

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Chileans of a certain age remember all too well their economic troubles. Recession gripped Chile in the 1970s and 80s. Unemployment hit 20 per cent. Those were also years of political turmoil in Chile. A military coup in 1973 ushered in the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Today the memory of the late Pinochet still divides Chileans and a new film that casts Pinochet as a national hero sparked clashes in the capital Santiago yesterday. The World's Alex Gallafent was there and saw how the opening of this documentary became such a lightning rod. What did you see Alex?

Alex Gallafent: This was the scene of the center of Santiago yesterday, a movie theater in downtown Santiago. And here you can hear supporters of the legacy of General Augusto Pinochet shouting "Long live Chile,"  "Long live Pinochet."  Beyond them, at the end of street, blocked off by Police more demonstrators, but these ones mostly young Chileans opposing the glorification of General Pinochet. And you can hear at this point, this is later in the morning about eleven o'clock yesterday, police truck moving in and spraying protesters with a mixture of water and chemicals that makes the eyes itch and the water stinks.

Mullins: Alex can you explain why this particular film set off such a demonstration?

Gallafent: Well remember that General Augusto Pinochet was a dictator who took power in the military coup on the 11th of September 1973. He held control in Chile for 17 years, died in 2006. But for many Chileans he is nothing less than a monster who presided over the murder of thousands of his political opponents, the torture or exiling of many thousands more. But for the people at the movie theater, to see this documentary, he's been maligned by the media, by public opinion over the years. And for them he was the savior of Chile, the man who defended Chile from communism in the early 1970s. They also say that he's responsible for some of the economic policies that have led to Chile being a relatively successful economy in Latin America.

Mullins: So what about the film itself. Why is it being released now and who produced it?

Gallafent: It's produced by an organization of retired military officers and by a group called "The September 11th Corporation,"  named for the day of the coup in 1973. And why now, well Chile remember saw huge protests on the streets last year, student-led protests about education reform. And that really was a watershed moment for the country. Thousands of people out on the streets demanding changes. And in this socially conservative country that was a huge shift. And we're now seeing other groups feeling confident to make their voices heard no matter what extremes they come from, environmentalists, students, and loyalists to the memory of General Pinochet.

Mullins: So you had people on the theater yesterday who were waving pictures of Pinochet, who were applauding grandly his grandson who took the stage at one point to speak. But I wonder if these people represent an emerging pro-Pinochet segment of the population. I mean is his reputation being changed for the better in Chile?

Gallafent: I don't think so. I mean the social memory of what happened during those 17 years is not in any danger of being lost. That said there's an ambiguity when it comes to his legacy. He didn't stand trial before he died in 2006. He died while he was on the house arrest. And so for people who didn't grow up with direct knowledge of Pinochet there's room for interpretation. Some young people see supporters for Pinochet out and waving placards, shouting slogans in support of him, and wonder well, there must be a reason for it. And that's something that the demonstrators are keen to stomp out.

Mullins: Thank you, The World's Alex Gallafent speaking to us from Santiago, Chile, which was the scene of demonstrations yesterday outside of a screening of a documentary, a pro-Pinochet documentary called "Pinochet."  Thanks a lot Alex.

Gallafent: Thanks Lisa.