For more than 70 years, 10 December has been celebrated around the world as Human Rights Day, a way of commemorating the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed on that date in 1948 by the United Nations. It has turned, in time, into an occasion for those who enjoy those rights to seek ways to amplify them and for those who suffer in lands where those rights are repressed to demand that they be respected.
In Chile, my country, the date took on a special meaning after the 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet that overthrew the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. During the 17 years of dictatorship that followed, 10 December was an occasion to publicly rally for those rights that were being egregiously violated, as the regime arrested, tortured, executed or exiled opponents, and abrogated free speech and the right to assemble peacefully.
In such an atmosphere of terror, the very congregating of citizens to protest was considered by our rulers to be an act of defiance. I can remember one such insubordinate meeting in the central plaza of Santiago – it must have been in the late 1980s – when I barely escaped being dragged into a van and beaten by riot police, even though we were merely singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. After democracy was restored in 1990, those gatherings became less dangerous to attend but more necessary than ever to hold, as a reminder that never again – nunca más – should such an oppressive regime be allowed to return.
It was thus particularly significant, one might even venture magical, that of all possible days when Pinochet could have died, it turned out to be on 10 December 2006. How appropriate that death should have come for one of the most reviled tyrants of our time precisely when the world was celebrating the birthrights he had done so much to infringe. It seemed to signal to me, as it did to thousands of my compatriots who poured into the streets to welcome his departure, that never again, nunca más, would he breathe our air, contaminate our dreams. Perhaps this was best expressed by a tearful pregnant woman who told me, “La sombra se fue”: the shadow is gone.
Moved as I was by that prophecy, I was also wary of it. I happened to be in Chile at the time filming a documentary and I had met far too many fanatical supporters of the dictator – who spoke for a third, and perhaps more, of the country’s electorate – to be that sure that the darkness of the night had indeed receded so completely. Pinochet’s legacy seemed to endure in many ways. We were ruled by the same constitution that he had fraudulently pushed through in 1980 and which acted as a straitjacket for the indispensable economic and social reforms that Chile required to become a truly fair and democratic country. And the small percentage of those Chileans who, during his neoliberal reign, had become overly privileged and obscenely rich still controlled the economy and much of the media.
Even so, I remained cautiously optimistic. It mattered that the president of Chile on that December day when Pinochet died happened to be Michelle Bachelet, a torture survivor herself, one more victim, along with her family, of the dictatorship. Her life story guaranteed that the defence of human rights would be central to her administration. But on a less political level – a more mythical one – I was also persuaded by a young Chilean whom I had met when I had joined in rebellious activities carried out by the relatives of the “desaparecidos”, those men and women “disappeared” by Pinochet’s secret police and never buried by their loved ones. I can’t recall his name now, only that, having been born after the dictatorship, he harboured an immense well of sorrow at never having met his grandfather, one of those swallowed by the night and fog of the dictatorship. He assured me that it was his abuelo who had come for Pinochet. “Not the clogged arteries or heart attack,” he said. “The dead took him away, those whom Pinochet killed, the ghosts of Chile, they are the guardians of our democracy and will not let us down.”
I think of that young person now and of the woman who believed that the shadow had been lifted. I think of them because there is a chance that a rabid follower of Pinochet, José Antonio Kast, could become Chile’s new president. A runoff election is to be held on 19 December against Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old congressman who embodies the desire to finally overcome the toxic remnants of the dictatorship and adopt a new constitution that could lead to a radically different and inclusive society. Kast, the son of a member of the Nazi party, once claimed that Pinochet would vote for him if he were alive. Of that there can be no doubt. Back in 2017, during his first run at the presidency, he promised to defund the Museum of Memory and Human Rights that Bachelet had inaugurated in 2010. It would not be surprising if he carried out that threat, given his relationships with some of the worst human rights abusers of the Pinochet era.
Recent polls give Boric the edge in this contest for the soul of Chile. We should never, however, underestimate the collective fear that a law-and-order, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion candidate can engender, as can be sadly noted across the world.
On Boric’s side there is not only the hope that millions of living Chileans will vote in the upcoming elections not to go back to an authoritarian past, but also, perhaps, that the dead will inspire those they left behind not to betray their pain and memory. Perhaps those guardians of my country’s dignity, the ghosts of those that Pinochet banished from this world, will protect their compatriots as we decide the fate of our beloved and besieged land.
This first appeared in The Guardian.