Images of a dictatorship – DW – 09/10/2023

Everyone knows the image of Che Guevara, his steely gaze directed confidently into the distance. In the counterculture of the 1960s, the “Comandante” emerged as a symbol of the idealistic revolutionary and long remained an icon of youth culture.

The photo of Augusto Pinochet, on the other hand, embodies the dictatorpar excellence. The general who violently overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile on September 11, 1973, was commonly regarded as the ultimate evil. But why, compared to other Latin American dictators, Pinochet in particular?

Coup on camera

While the coup d’état in Chile shocked the world, the 1964 coup in Brazil went relatively under the radar.

That was due in large part to the widespread media presence in Chile, notes Caroline Moine, professor of political and cultural history at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.

“This coup d’état did not take place in the middle of the night and in secret, but in front of running cameras,” she told DW of the events of 1973. “There were many journalists there, so the images flickered quickly across the screens, even abroad.”

This was probably in the interests of the putschists, Moine suspects. 

“The military wanted people to see what had happened. They wanted to impress not only their opponents, but also their supporters inside and outside the country,” she said.

Through media coverage, the scenes were burned into the collective memory. The images of the bombing of the presidential palace, “La Moneda,” went around the world — as did the photo of the usurper Pinochet in uniform, with dark glasses and an expressionless face, sitting in front of his men.

Black and white picture of a building that's been bommbed. Smoke is seen rising from it.
Attack on the government palace in Santiago de Chile in 1973Image: AP/picture alliance / AP Photo

For Joan del Alcázar, professor of contemporary history at the University of Valencia, the image of this dictator was projected in stark contrast to overthrown president, doctor Salvador Allende.

“The figure of a friendly, empathetic doctor, an undeniably attractive man, contrasts with the odious image of an unpleasant, authoritarian, despotic and, moreover, criminal military man,” he told DW.

Fallen symbolic figure of left-wing intellectuals

When viewed against the backdrop of the Cold War, events in Chile transcended national borders.

“In West Germany and in Europe, Allende was an important symbolic figure because he represented the democratic path to socialism; he was a very strong symbolic figure for many left-wing intellectuals,” Lasse Lassen, a historian and researcher at the University of Würzburg, told DW.

“When he was overthrown, especially in such a brutal way — with the bombing of the government palace and his suicide — he became a shining beacon for the left in Western Europe. And Pinochet embodied the image of the enemy.”

A man pushes a barrow and is backdropped by mural of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, center, Chilean late President Salvador Allende, right, and Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, left
Legeds of socialist struggle: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, center, Chilean late President Salvador Allende, right, and Cuban independence hero. Jose Marti, left,Image: AP

At the time Europe, the left were divided, notes Caroline Moineshe.

“There were attempts, for example in France and Italy, to unite communist and socialist forces” in the same way as the Unidad Popular, an electoral alliance of leftist Chilean parties led by Allende.

“The coup put an end to that project and destroyed those hopes,” Moine said. Nevertheless, the communist party in particular, but also the socialist party in Chile, very quickly launched a major international campaign after Pinochet’s coup.

This not only stylized Pinochet as the embodiment of evil, but also glorified the ousted president.

“Allende was the one who wanted to defend democracy in Chile and died for it. In Europe, too, the idea of heroes who are willing to die for their ideas is highly emotionally charged,” said the French historian.

Yet, she says, the various parties within the Unidad Popular were not always so united.

“It was always said that the UP was a victim of the dictatorship; there was never any public talk of internal tensions. There was a kind of myth.”

Black and white picture of soldiers and firefighters carrying a covered body on a stretcher. It is identified as the body of Salvador Allende, former president of Chile.
The body of Salvador Allende being borne away — along with hope for a democratic ChileImage: El Mercurio/AP/picture alliance

Brutal repression

The extreme brutality on the part of the coup plotters in Chile shocked more than just the left.

Similar repression was being imposed by other dictatorships in the region, including in Argentina, Paraguay and Uraguay during the so-called Operation Condor camapaigns.  

“[Nonetheless] this military coup stands out for its cruelty, its extreme viciousness,” said Joan del Alcázar.

Historian Lasse Lassen believes that  knowledge of human rights abuses in Chile and simultaneous Cold War tensions in the West contributed to the coup in Chile being particularly present in people’s minds.

Ultimately, however, “neither Franco nor Pinochet were condemned as Hitler was, not even in their own country,” he added. “It’s a complex process.”

This article was originally written in Spanish.


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