A Day At Chile’s National Military Academy…
General Augusto Pinochet was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army from 1973-1998, and “President” of Chile from 1973-1990. He was one of only two Army commanders in the nation’s history to hold both titles simultaneously, and the only one to have a plaque honoring him on the school’s front steps.
La Escuela Militar: Chile’s fabled military academy. On the outskirts of Santiago, the imposing building houses 1,600 cadets, all aspiring to be part of the “proud tradition” of Chile’s Ejercito, or army.
When I arrived early Monday morning at the military academy, the cadets were out practicing their weekly drills to the beating of drums. While I’m sure that Chile’s military school is similar to those in other countries, including the U.S., never before had I felt like such a civilian. The military world is a rigid one, full of rules, order, and a sense of strict hierarchy, all concepts that seem to apply less and less in today’s democratic civilian life.
My tour guide for the day was the Department of Law and Social Sciences director, General Juan Lucar Figueroa, a smiling, cherubic man with a breezy, open manner. The general was stationed in Punta Arenas from 1970-1973, the years under Allende, and remembers the three years as “chaos.” He remembers the relief he felt when the military and General Pinochet stepped in to take the government back from “the Communist terrorist groups,” as he referred to the leftist coalition of the early 70s. “The Popular Unity government (Allende’s political coalition, he belonged to the socialist party), was an utter disaster,” he told me as we sipped hot tea in his office. ”The government was modeling itself after Cuba, in fact Cuba was secretly shipping firearms and weapons to the organized terrorist groups wreaking havoc under Allende.”
“Terrorist groups” was a new phrase for me. Figueroa was referring to the leftist social organizations including the most well-known supporters of Allende, the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR), which worked to bring down the Pinochet government in the 1980s, but in the early 70s was not yet a militant group.
Immediately following my interviews at the Escuela Militar I spoke again with a Chilean author, Mónica Echeverría, who has written extensively about the dictatorship and its key players. At the time, she did not participate actively in any political party, but her daughter Carmen Castillo, was married to Miguel Enriquéz, the leader of the MIR from 1967-1974, when he was killed. ”I can tell you that at that time, before the military coup occurred, there was never one single death or act of violence,” said Señora Echeverría. “They prepared for a war in case there was a need for one, but in the end, they were definitely not prepared for a Civil War. Especially not in comparison to the Chilean military, they just didn’t have the resources,” she said.
“Any acts of violence came after the military coup, after Pinochet came to power.”
Figueroa and his colleague, the head of the military school’s history department, Rámon Bascur Gaete, a lawyer, academic and former judge on the Supreme Court during the Pinochet years, disagreed.
I interviewed Gaete extensively during my time at the Escuela. “The left idolizes Allende even to this day, a man who managed in three years to destroy the fundamental economic, social and political bases in Chile…the majority of the Chilean people called for the end of his regime,” said Baete.
“Furthermore, there was horrible violence. Terrorists formed armed groups including the MIR, VOP and Frente Patriótico, and during those three years of the Unidad Popular there were civilian deaths as a result of this terrorist activity.”
Who to believe? Both sides, even today, believe their own versions of history. I went to the Informe Rettig, or Rettig Report, a comprehensive report released in 1991 detailing the historical events in Chile between 1973 and 1990, including the most accurate counts of the tortured, killed, and missing persons over the previous 17 years. Besides investigating the human rights violations and releasing official estimates, the Rettig Report, compiled by a team of six Chileans from varying political parties and experiences, evaluated the cause for the military coup and whether the military was justified in removing power from the hands of the Unidad Popular.
According to the Rettig Report, the MIR was a revolutionary group founded in 1965, based on the ideology of Che Guevara and his “armed way,” to liberate the people and bring about equality in Cuba. In 1968, the group went underground and began to “practice armed actions in preparation for insurrectional taking of power,” (Rettig Report, Part II, 29). However, although the MIR supported Allende’s government, the Unidad Popular never associated itself with the MIR and its tactics. Allende was known for his “passive way,” a rare concept in a Cold-War, communism vs. capitalism era.
In fact, said Señora Echeverría, “Allende wanted to die for his cause. He wanted to be a martyr. When the Chilean military advanced on La Moneda, the MIR called him and said they would defend him, but he told them no, to stay where they were, that this was not their fight,” she said. “It was not suicide, it was a sacrifice.”
Such is the confusion about the reasons and justification for the military coup that even the Rettig Report team states: “The Commission understands that all of these points we have presented are susceptible to diverse and contradictory versions and interpretations. It understands also, that the violence was not exclusively on the part of one particular group, and was fueled by the cause and effect of the acute political polarization, each side acting as if in self-defense.”
As one young Chilean ex-cadet of the Escuela Militar said: “Chile is a country of extremes, I guess nobody can be in the middle in the end even though they try to be. Everything comes back to Allende or Pinochet, or whether you are to the left or right, and nobody wants to take the blame.”