SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — President Sebastian Pinera marked the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende on Wednesday by urging Chileans to heal from — but never forget — the events of Sept. 11, 1973, that launched a bloody 17-year dictatorship.
That day, fighter jets unleashed an attack on the La Moneda presidential palace, and tanks and soldiers surrounded the building as it burst into flames. Allende, then the democratically elected president, committed suicide rather than surrender to the coup plotters led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
“After 40 years, the time has come not to forget but rather to overcome the traumas of the past,” said Pinera, Chile’s first right-of-center president since the country’s return to democracy in 1990.
Allende’s family, sympathizers and former members of his personal guard later held a minute of silence in his memory at a statue of the late Marxist leader outside the presidential palace, which is engraved with his last words: “I have faith in Chile and its destiny.”
“We remember this honorable man, this social fighter, who planted hope and dreams in Chile,” his daughter, Sen. Isabel Allende, said at the event.
“He taught us that deep changes were needed to achieve a different society and that we must work for the poor, for the workers, for the dignity of our people,” she added.
Allende launched what he called “the Chilean path to socialism,” nationalizing the copper industry that had been dominated by U.S. companies and using the money to fund land redistribution while improving health care, education and literacy. U.S. officials approved a covert campaign to foster a sense of economic chaos and provoke the military takeover.
The coup was initially backed by many Chileans fed up with hyperinflation, food shortages and factory takeovers. But it destroyed a system they had proudly described as Latin America’s strongest democracy.
Pinochet cut short Allende’s reforms. He privatized pension and water systems, slashed trade barriers and encouraged exports, building a free-market model credited for Chile’s fast growth and institutional stability.
But the prosperity came at a high cost as Pinochet shut down Congress, outlawed political parties and sent thousands of dissidents into exile.
In all, 40,018 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons. The government estimates 3,095 were killed during Pinochet’s rule, including about 1,200 who were forcibly disappeared.
“I lost what was dearest to me,” said Maria Salazar, 84. Her son, 20-year-old Edmundo Montero Salazar, was one of Allende’s bodyguards and was killed defending him the day of the coup
“We all lost,” Salazar said. “They were honorable kids, students and people who were working for this country, and they were all killed.”
Pinochet died in 2006 under house arrest, without ever being tried on charges of illegal enrichment and human rights violations.
To his loyalists, Pinochet is still the fatherly figure who championed Chile’s economic growth and kept it from becoming a failed socialist state.
But a poll this month said only 18 percent of Chileans now agree. Sixty-three percent think the coup destroyed democracy, the CERC polling firm said. The survey of 1,200 people had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Pinochet loyalists last year organized their biggest gathering since the dictator’s death. But tributes are rare now, and some of the last symbols honoring his rule are being slowly removed. Avenida 11 de Septiembre, paying homage to the coup, was renamed Avenida Nueva Providencia in July.
Allende’s shattered eyeglasses, rescued from the ruins of the presidential palace, were displayed this week by Chile’s national history museum in a special exhibit marking the coup’s anniversary.
“It’s a symbolic piece of one Chile’s toughest moments in history,” said Teresa Silva. She found the half of a pair of black-framed glasses at age 39, when officers guarding the palace asked her if she’d like to see the spot where Allende died.
“It’s a very sad episode,” said Silva, who sneaked the glasses out and then hid them in a cookie jar for years before donating them to the museum.
The anniversary of the coup is often marked by violence. Vandals clashed with police, throwing rocks and gasoline bombs and setting up flaming barricades. At least three public buses were also torched. Police arrested 68 people and said at least 13 officers had been injured, including Gen. Rodolfo Pacheco, one of the capital’s top police chiefs, who was taken by helicopter to a hospital.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao