A SOMBRE government ceremony this week marked the 40th anniversary of the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet that toppled the chaotic Socialist government of Salvador Allende, unleashing political repression and, eventually, economic recovery.
The ceremony was held on a small patio inside La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago that was bombed by the air force in 1973. Chile's president, Sebasti°n Pi±era, spoke eloquently of the need for reconciliation. The only problem was half of the guests didn't show up. They were across town at a rival ceremony, organized by the centre-left.
It was an illustration of the division that still blights Chile. Under Pi±era, the right, more than in previous years, has embraced the anniversary, arguing that Sept. 11, 1973 was a tragedy for all Chileans. But the left does not accept this; it says there were those who stood on the side of justice, democracy and human rights, and those who didn't. Reconciliation is in short supply. Although three-fifths of the population was born after the coup, a survey taken by CERC, a pollster, suggested that three-quarters of Chileans believe the wounds opened in 1973 have yet to be healed.
According to two commissions set up to look into the abuses of the dictatorship, over 3,000 were killed or disappeared between 1973 and 1990; a further 38,254 were imprisoned or tortured. Thousands more were driven into exile. Only a minority of those responsible have been tried. Amnesty International says 260 people have been convicted, but only 60 have been sent to jail. Over 1,000 cases are still grinding on. Many of the perpetrators are dead or, if alive, are unlikely to face justice.
Policy differences have narrowed greatly in the past 40 years in what has become in many respects Latin America's most successful country. Politicians from both left and right have issued public apologies in recent weeks for their past actions (or lack of action) during the Allende years and the dictatorship that followed. But with a presidential election due in November, partisanship trumped reconciliation.
The main candidates in that election are Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who led the country between 2006 and 2010, and Evelyn Matthei, a conservative former labour minister. As children, they lived opposite each other on the same air force base in northern Chile. Their fathers were close friends until the coup. Alberto Bachelet remained loyal to Allende, was tortured and died in detention. Fernando Matthei supported the coup and rose through the junta's ranks. Their daughters have played down their childhood connection. But however hard Chile tries to escape its dark past, the ghosts of 1973 cannot yet be laid to rest.