Everyone knows the image of Che Guevara, his steely gaze fixed confidently into the distance. In the counterculture of the 1960s, the “Comandante” emerged as an idealistic revolutionary symbol and has long remained an icon of youth culture.
Augusto Pinochet’s photo, on the other hand, embodies the dictator par excellence. The general who violently overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973, is generally considered the worst. But why, compared to other Latin American dictators, especially Pinochet?
Coup caught on camera
While the coup d’etat in Chile shocked the world, the 1964 coup d’état in Brazil went under the radar.
The spotlight on Chile’s coup is due in large part to the country’s widespread media presence, said Caroline Moine, professor of political and cultural history at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.
“This coup d’etat did not take place in the middle of the night and in secret, but in front of running cameras,” he told DW of the events of 1973. “There were many journalists there, so the images quickly flashed across. the screens, even abroad.”
Perhaps it was in the interests of the putschists, he said.
“The military wants people to see what’s going on. They want to impress not only their opponents, but their supporters at home and abroad,” he said.
Through media coverage, the scenes are burned into the collective memory. Images of the bombing of the presidential palace, La Moneda, went around the world — like the image of the usurper Pinochet in uniform, with dark glasses and an expressionless face, sitting before his men.
For Joan del Alcazar, professor of contemporary history at the University of Valencia, the image of this dictator is seen as the opposite of the overthrown president, doctor Salvador Allende.
“The image of a friendly, empathetic doctor, an undeniably attractive person, contrasts with the bad image of a bad, authoritarian, despotic and, moreover, criminal military man,” he said. in DW.
Allende is a fallen symbolic figure of left-wing intellectuals
Seen against the backdrop of the Cold War, events in Chile transcended national borders.
“In West Germany and in Europe, Allende is an important symbolic figure because he represents the democratic path of socialism; he is a very strong symbolic figure for many left-wing intellectuals,” said Lasse Lassen, a historian and researcher at the University of Würzburg.
“When he fell, especially in a brutal way – with the bombing of the government palace and his suicide – he became a shining light for the left in Western Europe. And Pinochet embodied the image of the enemy.”
At that time in Europe, what was not divided, said Caroline Moine.
“There are attempts, for example in France and Italy, to unite communist and socialist forces” in the same way as Unidad Popular, an electoral alliance of leftist parties in Chile led by Allende.
“The coup ended that project and destroyed the hopes,” he 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.
It not only styled Pinochet as the embodiment of evil, but also glorified the ousted president.
“Allende was the one who wanted to protect democracy in Chile and died for it. In Europe, too, the idea of heroes who are ready to die for their ideas is very emotional,” said the French historian.
However, he added, the various parties within Unidad Popular are not always united.
“It is always said that UP is a victim of dictatorship; there is not any public talk of internal tension. There is a kind of myth.”
The brutal repression shocked the world
The extreme brutality on the part of the coup plotters in Chile shocked more than members of the political left.
Similar repression was imposed on other dictatorships in the region, including Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay during the so-called Operation Condor campaigns.
“[Nonetheless] This military coup stands out because of its brutality, its extreme brutality,” said Joan del Alcazar.
Historian Lassen believes that knowledge of human rights abuses in Chile and concurrent Cold War tensions with the West contributed to the Chilean coup being prominent in people’s minds.
In the end, however, “neither Franco nor Pinochet were condemned like Hitler, even in their own country,” he added. “It’s a complicated process.”
This article was originally written in Spanish.