Pinochet homage heats up bitter debate over legacy

The poster makes its plea from one of the pock-marked walls once splattered with blood at Londres 38, a former detention and torture center where 96 people were killed or disappeared during Chile's long dictatorship. It reads: "Pinochet, may your legacy die."

Yet that legacy is far from dead. Gen. Augusto Pinochet's loyalists on Sunday held their biggest gathering since his death in 2006, and it has ignited a national debate about the limits of freedom of speech as groups on the other side sought to block the event and then staged protests to try to disrupt it.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to try to disperse hundreds of anti-Pinochet demonstrators protesting the premiere of a documentary about the run-up to his dictatorship years. The film casts him as a national hero who saved Chile from communism and who died victimized by vengeful leftists who accused him of embezzlement and human rights crimes.

Inside the theater, thousands of the former strongman's backers, known as "Pinochetistas" waved Chilean flags and held up photos of Pinochet. When his grandson, retired Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, took the stage, they gave him a long standing ovation.

The screening was organized by Corporacion 11 de Septiembre, named for the day when Pinochet seized power in a bloody 1973 coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende.

"We want to set the record straight on Pinochet," Juan Gonzalez, a retired army officer who leads the pro-Pinochet movement, told The Associated Press. "We have stoically put up with the lies and cheating and seen how the story has been manipulated."

Although Gonzalez's own sister Francisca has said publicly she was tortured by Pinochet's forces, Gonzalez disputes that there were human rights abuses during the dictatorship. He says those killed and tortured were casualties of a war against leftist subversion.

"Why can't we have a documentary if they have their monument to Allende," he said, referring to a statue outside the presidential palace with Allende's last words: "I have faith in Chile and its destiny."

Relatives of the disappeared and more than a dozen human rights groups sent a letter to President Sebastian Pinera asking him to ban the event. Presidential Spokesman Andres Chadwick said on local TV Sunday that although organizers had the right to express themselves, he "regretted having supported a government that committed human rights abuses," and that "it is not necessary" to pay tribute to Pinochet.

The homage comes against a backdrop of increasing political divisions, with widespread street protests demanding more diversity in political parties as well as free education, protection of the environment and a more even distribution of the country's wealth.

Chile remains highly polarized over Pinochet and his 1973-90 rule.

His thick mustache, spotless dress uniforms and dark glasses, even the mere mention of his name, make many Chileans cringe with the memories of his shutting down Congress, outlawing political parties and sending thousands of dissidents into exile, while his police tortured and killed thousands more.

To his loyalists, though, Pinochet is the fatherly figure who oversaw Chile's growth into economic prosperity and kept it from becoming a failed socialist state.

The current governing coalition led by the conservative Independent Democratic Union and the center-right National Renovation is the first conservative government since Chile's return to democracy in 1990. Members of both parties supported Pinochet's dictatorship and several Pinochet-era officials now serve as lawmakers and mayors.

Analysts say Pinochetistas such as Gonzalez are emboldened by the conservatives' winning control of the government in 2010.

Still, last year, Pinera's government officially recognized 9,800 more victims of the dictatorship. That increased the total list of people killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons during Pinochet's regime to 40,018. The government estimates 3,095 of those were killed, including about 1,200 of whom no trace has ever been found.

About 700 military officials face trial for the forced disappearance of dissidents and about 70 have been jailed under crimes against humanity.

"There's obviously an effort to revive and clean up Pinochet's image," said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. "They're saying: 'This is really a guy who deserves a tribute.' So I ask: What would happen in Germany if someone would try to pay tribute to Hitler?"

But Lagos says Chileans have a harder time deciding where the line should be drawn because Pinochet died under house arrest without facing trial on charges of illegal enrichment and human rights violations.

"We're facing an ambiguous situation, especially among the younger generations who were not part of the time and who have never voted or are apolitical," Lagos said. "The fact that he wasn't judged turns out to be a major point. They see this man who was never convicted and think, 'Well, there must be a reason.'"

Families of the dictatorship's victims are outraged over the praise of Pinochet, calling it a dangerous campaign to rewrite Chile's history.

"We can't allow this homage because it seeks to vindicate the dictatorship, the state-sponsored terrorism and its crimes," Mireya Garcia, vice president of the Group of Families of Detainees and Missing People, said at Londres 38. She wore a black-and-white-photo around her neck of her brother Vicente Israel Garcia, a student and Socialist Party member who disappeared in 1977.

"Our family members didn't die in vain in the struggle for democracy for something like this to be allowed. But Pinochetistas are not the only ones to blame for this. The government must be held accountable for this serious blow against democracy," Garcia said.

Guillermo Holzmann, a political science professor at the Universidad de Valparaiso, said the event could bring a needed discussion on Pinochet and his regime.

"Chile has to start a new phase of maturity," Holzmann said. "This issue must be on top of the table, not hidden under the rug, so that society's evolution on its own leaves them aside. ... I'm sure that the radical visions on Pinochet don't represent the opinion of the majority, but that has to be shown."