Mar 042011

In a confidential cable sent to Washington in early 2007, shortly after Pinochet’s death, the US ambassador in Chile stated that the Chilean people were less resentful of their past and the dictatorship than Spaniards are of the Franco dictatorship. Albeit superficial and somewhat inaccurate, his remark can serve as a springboard for a quick venture into comparative history, regarding the similarities and differences between the two dictatorships and the way they are remembered.

Pinochet learned a lot from Franco. Like his Spanish predecessor the Chilean dictator tried to impose a view of history that would legitimise the need for his coup d’état and depict him as the saviour of the nation. During their dictatorships, Franco and Pinochet celebrated 18 July and 11 September respectively as the mythic events underpinning “national salvation” from Marxist revolution. This official version of things, embedded thanks to the control of education, censorship and harassment of anybody who dared take issue with it publicly, spawned disinformation policies and the massaging of history, and this proved very hard to combat during their respective transitions to democracy.

The Pinochet coup on 11 September 1973 was not the trigger for civil war and at 17 years his dictatorship lasted 20 years less than Franco’s. After murders by the thousands and massive trespass against human rights, both dictatorships enjoyed considerable support from their citizenry. Franco died in his bed and never had to worry about answering for his crimes against humanity. Pinochet outlived his authoritarian government by 16 years and his arrest in London in October 1998 provoked a thoroughgoing debate about the past, bringing the contrasting stories and memories of the military and of the families of the disappeared and the victims of repression flooding back.

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