History lessons

JanRoyall2011.jpgJan Royall on Chile’s remarkable journey from the Pinochet dictatorship to the re-election of President Bachelet

A week ago today, the 24th anniversary of Chile's return to democracy and three days after International Women's Day, I had the privilege of attending the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile.

The democratic election of a President is always a matter of celebration but this one was special. For the first time in Chile’s history, a female President was elected for the second time. With a majority in both Houses of Congress and notwithstanding the fact that she leads a coalition, Bachelet will be able to deliver the social democratic programme on which she was elected. And its main focus is the fight against inequality.

It was also a special celebration because the President took the oath before the most senior member of Congress – the newly elected Leader of the Upper House, Isabel Allende (a cousin of the author of the same name). 

Allende is the daughter of the brave, visionary socialist and former President, Salvador Allende who committed suicide in September 1973 when the Pinochet dictatorship began with a coup that heralded 17 years of human rights abuses, disappearances and executions. A regime that was supported by the Thatcher government in Britain; and with Labour colleagues I campaigned vigorously against as a member of the Chile Solidarity Campaign. We were right on apartheid South Africa and we were right on Pinochet.

President Bachelet's father was also a victim of the regime. An Air Force Brigadier General who opposed the coup, he was tortured and died in custody in March 1974. When Michelle telephoned Isabel to congratulate her on her election she said "our fathers would have been proud of us".

The election of these two strong women who have suffered personal tragedy and exile is a powerful symbol of the reconciliation that has taken place in Chile. Evidence suggests that 38,254 people suffered human rights abuses, 3216 were executed or disappeared, and more than 30,000 went into exile. But still atrocities are coming to light.

In the extraordinary Museum of Memories and Human Rights, I spoke with a man in his late twenties who had never been there before and for whom it was a painful experience. His parents had suffered under Pinochet and he knew they had received some financial compensation; but it was never discussed at home because it hurt too much.

Seeing the videos, listening to Allende's last words, reading the documents, hearing the moving testimonies of those who had suffered, looking at the photos of those who were executed or disappeared and a map of Chile studded with tens and tens of lights showing where the centres of torture had been, I silently wept. As did many other visitors, young and old.

Later that same day, I read about two Ukrainians who had disappeared in Crimea. When a Russian official was asked about their disappearance he said that they did not exist. At the time of the coup, Pinochet's ships surrounded the port of Valparaiso, his tanks were on the streets, and armed soldiers were everywhere. Those who did not support the regime were then systematically killed, tortured or forced into exile. 

The great thing about Chile's return to democracy is that it was achieved as a result of solidarity inside and outside the country, and through the ballot box. Many brave people in Chile fought against the tyranny; and the church played an important role, as did some remarkable women. Las Mujeres por la Vida searched for the disappeared, fought for their rights, remained strong and danced the Cueca – the national dance – alone. A beautiful, sensual dance for couples, dancing alone encapsulated the pain of those separated by violence perpetrated by the state.

According to statistics, Chile is a developed country but it also remains blighted by inequality. It now has a new government with a great determination to build a future where, through education, everyone has an opportunity to use their talents; and where inequalities will diminish. The UK and the EU are important partners on trade, defence and security. But they also work together on women's rights, LGBT rights and global human rights, and I trust the painful period in Chile’s recent history will not be allowed to be repeated elsewhere.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall

Published 18th March 2014

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