Chile learns how trust its military, 20 years after Pinochet

by Craig Janis

Chile has made great strides since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. Under Pinochet there was extreme political repression, including at least 3,000 people who were “disappeared” and murdered because of their political opposition to the regime. In the last 20 years Chile has enjoyed rapid improvements in its economy and society, but mistrust of the military has remained strong.

With the recent earthquake and ongoing aftershocks, however, the Chilean military has begun to redeem itself in the eyes of the citizenry. Outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has deployed thousands of troops to the hardest hit areas, and they are doing a commendable job of orchestrating search and rescue missions and maintaing security. It is revealing, however, that distrust of the military was strong enough that it took two days of widespread looting and crumpled infrastructure after the quake before President Bachelet was willing to call upon the military for help.

The military’s history might be one of oppression and fear, but residents seem to be thankful for a military presence in this crisis. From the NY Times:

In Chile, the military clearly evokes mixed emotions because of the role it played in the torture and disappearance of some 3,000 Chileans during this country’s bloody 19-year dictatorship.

But in the five days since Chile was shaken by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in its history, the military’s relationship with the country’s people was turning a new page.

Tanks were stationed outside supermarkets that had been looted and vandalized for two days before the troops arrived. Soldiers organized lines for residents to enter banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations. And for the most part, emotional and exhausted residents like Mr. Ramírez embraced them.

“The military arrived so late here,” said Mrs. Henríquez, 49. “The looters took everything in this city, even the lights in the supermarkets. It was dreadful. And all because the president was worried about what happened in 1973. We don’t care about that now. We want order, not chaos.”