At Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s funeral, one of his grandsons, an army captain also named Augusto Pinochet, gave a eulogy so defiant that he was cashiered the next day. Earlier, as the general lay in state in his dress uniform and Chileans filed by his casket to pay their last respects, the grandson of another general, assassinated by Pinochet’s secret police, spat on the former dictator’s cadaver.
That was three years ago, and it suggested that the ghost of Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 and continued as army commander until 1998, would be hard to exorcise. But the scenes of Chileans’ embracing soldiers who aided in rescue and reconstruction efforts after the earthquake last month make all that divisiveness seem an eternity ago.
“This disaster was so immense that what people are seeking above all now is stability,” said Gregory B. Weeks, author of The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “This is the first real troop presence since the end of the dictatorship, and obviously raises a certain amount of nervousness. But it marks a return to a normal civil-military relationship.”
The euphoria is such that Chileans seem willing to overlook serious lapses in the performance of the other military services. Instead, public dissatisfaction with the government’s slow response has been transferred to Michelle Bachelet, who began her term as president four years ago as a symbol of reconciliation. Still, Bachelet, the daughter of a general and herself a former defence minister who was jailed, tortured and exiled, stepped down Thursday with an 84 percent approval rating.
“Ironically, by hesitating to send the troops out sooner, she transferred some of her own political capital to the military,” said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist who teaches at New York University and Diego Portales University in Santiago. “It was poetic justice” because “her links with the military had helped her become president” in the first place.
Traditionally, Chileans are said to have had a cordial relationship with the army, at least in comparison with some other Latin American societies.