The ongoing legitimisation of the Pinochet dictatorship by Chile’s bestselling newspaper, El Mercurio, betrays the memory of thousands of regime victims and their families’ struggle for justice.
In 1967, a group of students at the Catholic University in the Chilean capital of Santiago challenged the status quo by raising a banner with a particularly provocative message: ‘El Mercurio miente’ (El Mercurio lies). For those unacquainted with Chilean history and politics, El Mercurio is the country’s bestselling newspaper, which dates back to the 19th century under the constant ownership of the Edwards family. El Mercurio’s conservative stance is, and always has been, reflected in the way it reports events in Chile and in its dissemination of international news.
The students in 1967 were angry at El Mercurio’s representation of their activism around university reforms that had started a few years earlier (and which were later halted by the coup d’état in 1973). El Mercurio was highly critical of the student movement, reporting that Marxist forces were using the students to disturb democratic peace: the students retaliated by raising a banner above the entrance to the university’s Central Campus in Santiago. This resistance to El Mercurio was evoked during the 2011 student movement that mobilised hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and ordinary citizens to demand universal free education at school and university level. Outside the Casa Central, a banner paid homage to the past: ‘44 years later El Mercurio still lies’. As in the 1960s, El Mercurio clearly opposed the student movement and was trying to destabilise it.
From 1970 to 1973, El Mercurio was complicit in undermining Salvador Allende’s presidency. The newspaper’s owner, Agustín Edwards travelled to the United States to push for military intervention in Chile – this is extremely well-documented in Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File, published in 2003. Given El Mercurio’s conservative and pro-regime discourse, many Chileans may have been unsurprised at what happened on 11 September 2019, the 46th anniversary of the coup.
In Chile, 11 September still arouses strong emotions. Each year, relatives of people disappeared by the Pinochet regime stage protests to demand truth and justice. Yet as the years pass, this seems ever more evasive. Many members of the Chilean armed forces have died without facing trial or providing information that would ease families’ suffering. Private events commemorate the coup and are attended by members of the elite and the military, who benefited immensely over 17 years in which they exercised total control over the country. Chile’s wounds have not healed – reconciliation sometimes feels like an empty word – regardless of the attempts made by the first governments following the return to democracy in 1990.
This takes us to 2019. On the coup’s anniversary, El Mercurio published a full-page announcement stating that ‘[o]n September 11th, 1973, Chile was saved from being like Venezuela is today’. Rightwing parties have stoked anti-migrant discourse around the large number of Venezuelans who have arrived recently in Chile, a similar phenomenon to that witnessed in Donald Trump’s United States or in Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Current president Sebastián Piñera, who governed from 2010 to 2014 and was re-elected in 2018, had campaigned under a message that his government would make sure Chile did not become ‘Chilezuela’. He eventually won the election with 54 per cent of the vote.
The main issue regarding El Mercurio was not its willingness to publish such content, but that it whitewashed the military regime’s atrocities and justified the coup as having saved the country from communism. It quoted former president Gabriel González Videla, who, following the coup, said ‘[w]e have no words to thank the Armed Forces… we are saved’. Regime supporters who put their names to the announcement included far-right columnist Hermógenes Pérez de Arce, former admiral Jorge Arancibia and the founder of the resolutely pro-Pinochet Independent Democratic Union (UDI), Javier Leturia.
The implication is that Allende intended to install a Marxist regime, even though it was the military junta, fully backed by Agustín Edwards, that ended up imposing a right-wing antidemocratic dictatorship which committed crimes against humanity. The announcement quoted Christian Democrat politician Patricio Aylwin – later the first democratically-elected president following the end of the dictatorship – who in 1973 said ‘Allende’s office was getting ready to execute a self-coup and impose a communist dictatorship by force’. Nowhere, however, was there recognition of the selfish interests of the regime or the total disregard for those who opposed it.
A 2013 BBC article on Chile’s 11 September reported that rightwing historians in Chile mostly adopt two arguments to legitimise the Pinochet regime: first, a polarised political context led to the coup, while, second, the free market reforms implemented during the regime paved the way for future economic prosperity. However, several studies have questioned the actual benefits from the regime in real economic terms, such as Joseph Collins’ 1995 book Chile’s Free Market Miracle: A Second Look. The regime’s neoliberalisation of Chile made only the rich richer. Today, the first generations of pensioners who paid into the privatised system generally receive under £250 per month. People who have worked their whole lives have been deceived by the economists behind the regime’s reforms: many of them will be poor and destitute. It was President Piñera’s brother, José, who structured and implemented the pension reforms under Pinochet.
Following publication of the announcement, a number of El Mercurio staff members decided to speak out. One staff member expressed her utter embarrassment as a relative of a torture victim and as someone with Venezuelan friends. Another journalist was the son of one of those who proudly signed the article, Enrique Tenorio, a Chilean entrepreneur. For him, denial of the past was absolutely unacceptable, as until the memory of the many victims of torture and forced disappearance was respected, Chile could not begin to heal.
The row has again revealed what lies at the heart of Chilean society: the dictatorship, embedded in our history, still provokes clashes within society and families. Let us hope that future generations will be taught to respect memory and to never forget. This can ensure these atrocities do not happen again, while showing denial of memory to be a repugnant discourse that has no place in our societies. Beyond agreeing or disagreeing on an issue, this form of denial twists and distorts history. Indeed, Chile could pass legislation banning the denial of atrocities committed during a time of authoritarianism and persecution. El Mercurio still lies, and it’s time to teach it a lesson.