Police in Chile clashed with demonstrators in the capital, Santiago, Sunday morning. The demonstrators were opposing the screening of a documentary that casts ex-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a positive light.The clashes are a sharp reminder that very little in Chilean society exists without a nearby shadow cast by Pinochet’s 17-year rule.
Pinochet seized power in a military coup on September 11, 1973. It’s believed that more than 3,000 people were subsequently killed. Some thousands more were tortured, arrested or forced into exile.
Pinochet left power in 1990 and died in 2006. But his influence remains such that early Sunday, in anticipation of the protests, police set up roadblocks surrounding the downtown movie theater screening the documentary, simply titled “Pinochet”.
By mid-morning scores of Pinochet supporters waving banners had turned out to pay homage. One woman carried a small bust of the former dictator in her hands, holding it aloft for photographers.
They were matched by hundreds of anti-Pinochet demonstrators. They jeered and threw eggs at people arriving to see the film, which its organizers say is an accurate portrait of Pinochet. The documentary portrays him as a strong leader who defended Chile against Communism but not, as is the more widely held view, as a ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands.
“We want to set the record straight on Pinochet,” Juan Gonzalez, a retired army officer who leads one of the pro-Pinochet movements, told The Associated Press. “We have stoically put up with the lies and cheating and seen how the story has been manipulated.”But the demonstrators on the other side of the police blockades said the film is offensive to the victims of Pinochet’s regime, many of whom make up the so-called ‘disappeared’: people believed to have been killed but whose bodies have never been found.
The legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet remains an open wound in Chile, and not one that the country yet seems able to tackle without recrimination. On Sunday Chileans on both sides of the debate argued that their rights to free speech were being infringed including, some said, by police who were keeping the two groups apart and, in some cases, attempting to keep journalists at bay.
Indeed it didn’t take long for Santiago’s police force to stamp its authority on attendees. Despite the roadblocks that effectively segregated the two camps of Chileans, police fired jets of water laced with tear-inducing chemicals into the crowd of anti-Pinochet protesters.
One man took the full brunt of the water cannon. Afterwards he stood on a nearby street and cried.