Chilean election sees revision of Pinochet legacy

Chilean elections see potential rightward swing. Iranian men don headscarves in protest. Mugabe reelected leader of Zanu-PF. Thailand intercepts North Korean arms shipment. 31 prisoners escape in Philippines jailbreak.
Maddy Fry
14 December 2009

Early results from yesterday’s elections in Chile have provided a strong indication that the country will be moving to the right for the first time since the days of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Sebastián Piñera leads the Alliance for Change, a coalition of the National Renovation Party and the Independent Democratic Union. Piñera has proposed market-oriented economic policies and a business-friendly tax regime, an aspect of his campaign which has won widespread support due to the hope that it will help to revive the country economically. Although Chile’s good fortune since the fall of the Pinochet regime has resulted in outsiders hailing it as a South American success story, in recent years it has suffered a downturn, falling into what Piñera has called a “Chilean Siesta.” Many hope that his policies will provide the stimulus which the country needs.

Yet Piñera’s election has revived fears of militarism lingering from the Pinochet days. Although the senator has maintained that he voted against keeping the dictatorship in power in 1988, he has strongly relied on the military during his career, going so far as to vow to end the on-going prosecutions of those indicted under the regime.  The two parties that comprise his Alliance for Change were responsible for trying to create the impression of a democracy whilst thousands in the country were being murdered and forced disappearances and torture were common. His election would be a noteworthy shift from the politics of the last two decades – a period of time which has seen Chile try to bury the horrors of its past.

The openSecurity verdict: Piñera’s promise on Tuesday to a group of retired military personnel, some of whom had strong links to the former Pinochet government, to stop the “never-ending trials” of those accused of partaking in the abuses of that era comes at a significant moment in Chilean history. This week six people were arrested concerning what has long been suspected as the murder of former president Eduardo Frei, who was thought to have been fed toxic chemicals whilst undergoing stomach surgery in 1982. During the years after his presidency he became known for campaigning against human rights abuses committed under General Pinochet. Those arrested in connection with his murder include a former member of the Chilean secret police, who were famous for riding around the country in their ‘Caravan of Death,’ abducting and assassinating opponents of the regime.

Remembrance of the Pinochet regime has been an important theme of the current elections, especially as the presidential candidates include the son of the assassinated Frei (also called Eduardo Frei). Although some feel that putting an end to the prosecution of crimes committed in the past may better help the country to move on, such an approach would arguably be an inadequate means of addressing the anger felt by many at the lack of closure over the loss of loved ones under the dictatorship.

The investigation into Frei the elder’s death marks a turning point in Chile’s pursuit of justice. But if Piñera, who has already won 44 percent of the vote compared to Frei’s 31 percent, succeeds in a second round of voting in the new year it could mean the suppression of many of the country’s unresolved injustices – something which could seriously hinder Chile’s ability to come to terms with its past. 

Iranian men don headscarves in protest

A student activist has been jailed for dressing as a woman whilst trying to evade arrest. The Iranian authorities claim that Majid Travakoli was trying to leave Amir Kabir University in Iran after taking part in protests on Monday by wearing the hijab, a form of attire traditionally the preserve of Iranian women. The majority of protesters were supporters of the opposition, who have gathered together repeatedly over the last few months in outrage over the results of the election in June, a process that they claim was beset with corruption. Many insist that the pictures of Travakoli were forged in an attempt to smear his reputation. In response to the arrest, male protesters have uploaded photos of themselves dressed in women’s headscarves and robes onto the website as part of their ‘Be a Man’ campaign.  

Mugabe remains leader of Zanu-PF

Over the weekend a party congress in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare re-elected President Robert Mugabe as their official leader for the next five years. He used the occasion to speak out against the internal divisions and strife within his party, but many saw his claims as a sign of desperation in response to the party’s dire financial and political straits. Although Zanu-PF officially shares power with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar, along with sanctions imposed by the EU and the USA have eroded its financial base. Many within fear that the party will be unable to withstand a future battle for leadership against Morgan Tsvangirai. The weekend’s congress held by party officials is seen by observers as a futile attempt to present a show of unity against a background of the party’s unpopularity among the population of Zimbabwe.

Thailand intercepts North Korean arms shipment

Thai authorities have discovered at least 35 tonnes of North Korean weapons on a plane stopping over in Bangkok airport. The contents were confiscated and the five personnel manning the aircraft have been taken into custody. They are due to appear in court under Thai jurisdiction today, government officials have said. North Korea was placed under UN sanctions seven months ago after it was discovered that the government had been carrying out nuclear tests that many suspect were part of a programme to build a nuclear bomb. The sanctions are aimed at preventing more arms from being imported and exported to and from the country.

31 prisoners freed in Philippines jailbreak

Seventy armed militants were reported to have smashed through the walls and doors of a prison on Basilan Island in the Philippines. The assault provoked a gun battle with the prison guards, resulting in the death of a guard and one of the attackers. Those that escaped were mostly Muslim guerrilla fighters, who disappeared into the jungle-strewn heart of the province of Isabela after fleeing their jail cells. The government has announced that it is sending troops out to recapture the inmates. Many of them are thought to be from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rebel separatist group, as well as the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf movement.

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