The Miami Herald
Sep. 06, 2003

Chile's Allende seen as a hero 3 decades after overthrow, death

  Knight Ridder News Service

  SANTIAGO, Chile - Thirty years after Chilean President Salvador Allende died in a U.S.-backed coup, new books, political tributes, court cases and press revelations are prompting Chileans to reassess the man and the 1973 coup that began the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

  Chile is tense as the Sept. 11 anniversary of the coup approaches.

  Protests have been banned next week, and young leftists challenged the government Wednesday with a surprise demonstration in the La Moneda presidential palace. They want Chile to match neighbor Argentina and revoke the amnesty laws that protect former military rulers from prosecution.

  Police made numerous arrests as the raucous demonstration spilled onto Santiago's streets.

  Over the objections of socialist President Ricardo Lagos, 10 lawmakers in his governing coalition introduced legislation Thursday that would void the amnesty laws in cases where torture, kidnapping and illegal detention were involved.

  The legislation is sure to keep the issue in public debate for months to come.

  In Valparaiso, Chile's Congress on Wednesday paid its first homage to Allende, a career legislator and a socialist who was narrowly elected president on Sept. 4, 1970. His daughter Isabel presides over Chile's lower house of Congress. His niece, also named Isabel, is a famous novelist.

  Only last month his daughter confirmed what historians had long contended: that her father committed suicide as Pinochet's forces approached the palace, using a rifle that his friend, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, had given him.

  On a talk show this week, she said that only now were Chileans honestly assessing her father and Pinochet's abuses.

  ''Nobody said there was a coup. There weren't murders; there were excesses. For years it was like this. Nobody was detained or disappeared,'' she said. "Today, people know there were murders and gross violations of human rights. People know it was the policy of the state.''

  Allende organized a tribute concert that at the National Stadium, where Pinochet's forces held thousands of political prisoners during the first weeks of the bloody coup. Top entertainers from Brazil and other parts of Latin America were to perform.


  The Nixon administration, fearful that Chile would become a communist beachhead, helped end Allende's three-year rule. President Clinton, and later Secretary of State Colin Powell, apologized for the intervention.

  Nominated as Allende's ambassador to Moscow before the coup, Lagos choked up Wednesday as he recalled watching the bombing of the presidential palace, which he
  now occupies, from his in-laws' house.

  "He was a quality person. You felt like you were in the presence of something special,`` Lagos said of his friend and former political comrade.

  Lagos went into exile after the coup, teaching for a while at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

  Pinochet dominated Chilean politics for almost three decades, which explains why Allende's record and place in history seldom were discussed.

  A truth commission found that 3,198 people died in political conflict during Pinochet's rule, from 1973 to 1990. After Chile returned to democratic rule, Pinochet flexed his muscles from the shadows as armed forces chief until 1998, when he became a senator-for-life.

  He was detained in October 1998 in London on an extradition request by a Spanish judge who was seeking to try him for the deaths of Spanish nationals in Chile. The detention emboldened Chileans, and after Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000, ruled medically unfit for trial in England, he was stripped of immunity from
  prosecution at home. Chile's Supreme Tribunal ruled in July 2002 that he suffered from dementia and couldn't be tried.

  ``I am convinced that Pinochet's detention in London started a process that ended with his political and moral death,`` said Carmen Hertz, one of the plaintiffs who brought the landmark human rights case against Pinochet in Chile.


  Lagos will unveil a plaque Wednesday in the room in the palace where Allende died. And on Thursday, while Americans mark the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lagos will reopen an entrance of the palace that Allende liked to use when greeting the public.

  Pinochet had it sealed off.

  The symbolic event, said Pablo Orozco, a close aide to Lagos, seeks ``to open doors to the past.''

  No representatives from the armed forces were invited.