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Chile Braced for Unrest on Anniversary of Pinochet Coup

Date stirs divisions over legacy of dictatorship, days after bomb attack in Santiago.

by Hannah Strange
Sep 11 2014, 2:40pm

Image via Getty

Chile was braced for unrest on Thursday as the country observed the anniversary of the 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet, days after a bomb exploded in a busy shopping mall, injuring at least 14 people.

A bus was set on fire in a Santiago suburb and a police vehicle was attacked in another part of the capital, as the protests that regularly mark the divisive date began to gather momentum.

The anniversary of the military coup on September 11, 1973 against leftist president Salvador Allende exposes the deep wounds from the dictatorship years that still linger in Chilean society. A festering antagonism between those who supported and those who opposed the brutal right-wing junta spills on to the streets and demonstrations often turn violent.

In the run up to midnight protesters injured a policeman in San Bernado while attacking his vehicle and makeshift barricades were built across streets in the district Villa Francia. These poorer areas in the south and west of the city still harbour strong resentment of the Pinochet regime having been areas of resistance during the dictatorship and the focus of much of the military government's harsh political repression in the capital.

This year, nerves have been set on edge by Monday's bomb blast at a mall attached to the Escuela Militar subway station in the capital, the worst such attack the country has suffered since the end of the 17-year dictatorship in 1990.

Chile's centre left president, Michelle Bachelet, has ordered extra security measures and expanded authorities' investigative powers following the attack. Officials say they are looking at the possibility that it was carried out by anarchists who are thought to be behind a wave of bombings in Santiago this year. 

"Those who carry out these acts think they will frighten us, but we're not going to let a small group of terrorists and cowards scare the vast majority who want a peaceful country," Bachelet said after an emergency security meeting.

A Chilean flag flies next to a statue of Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Pinochet. Image via VICE News

She said police would reinforce security on the subway system and in other places where people gathered in large numbers. Santiago is one of the safest capitals in Latin America, but residents have been alarmed by at least 29 bombs planted across the city this year. Some of them did not go off and none caused any injuries until Monday's attack.

Two small homemade devices also detonated this week in a shopping mall in the city of Viña del Mar, 125 miles from Santiago. A worker was injured in one of the blasts.

"Chileans are dominated by the fear of the past."

Security measures are particularly tight for the coup anniversary, with protesters expected to pour onto the streets in Santiago and other cities as emotions run high. Last weekend clashes broke out at a demonstration by a human rights organization for victims of the military dictatorship.

Ricardo, a market analyst for an energy firm in the wealthy Las Condes district who would only give his first name, told VICE News, "To me, these protesters use September 11th as an excuse to protest. They are anarchists. They don't care what government is in power. They're just angry with "the system", the rich and powerful. They just want to destroy everything. I think some of them are just poor and frustrated, they expect the government to give them something but not to have to work for it."

Claudia Santibáñez, curator at the down town Museum of Modern American Art, had a different take on the protests. She told Vice News, "Every September 11th Chile stays silent about the history, something born from fear. Every year is the same, the same protests at the same places. People always say "this 11th will be dangerous" and everybody stays in their homes believing that the city is burning. Chileans are dominated by the fear of the past. I think the authorities use that fear to their advantage."

Despite Chile's status as one of Latin America's economic powerhouses, it is riven by stark social inequalities.

It is also still split over the legacy of the dictatorship, during which over 3,000 political opponents were killed or "disappeared" as Pinochet sought to tighten his grip on power. 

That fissure that played out on the country's highest political stage earlier this year as the presidential election pitted Bachelet, whose father was killed by the military regime, against Evelyn Matthei, the daughter of the officer in charge of the base.  The two families had been close friends until the coup left them on opposing sides.

Additional reporting by Lewis Merdler

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange