Controversy Over Former Pinochet Residence

Chileans wearing masks stand behind a portrait of late Chilean president Salvador Allende during a demonstration at Sol Square in Madrid, Spain on Dec. 12, 2006 to celebrate the death of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. (Photo: Javier Soriano / AFP-Getty Images)

Nearly two months after the death of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet provoked widespread unrest in a still deeply divided Chile, the battle over the controversial leader's legacy is now being fought over presidential real estate.

Just 24 hours after Chile's center-left government declared the former house of deposed president Salvador Allende a national monument, opposition politicians demanded that Pinochet's former residence also be given the same honor.

Chile's National Monument Council cited several reasons for the Allende property's new national monument status, including the numerous historical events that took place in the house as well as violence sustained in the 1973 military coup when the house was attacked by assault helicopters.

Allende bought the house on Tomás Moro Street in the Santiago borough of Las Condes in 1971 and the property was closely connected to his presidency. The house was site of the historic 1971 dinner between Allende and Fidel Castro, and former Gen. Carlos Prats also announced his resignation from Chile's Armed Forces in August 1973 at the house in support of Allende's troubled presidency.

On Sept. 10, 1973, some believe that Allende sat inside the house as he penned a speech to be given the following day that would announce a national referendum on his rule. It is rumored that Pinochet got wind of the speech and moved the date of the planned coup forward to Sept. 11 so that Allende's speech would never get delivered.

After Pinochet came to power, the house faded into obscurity. The property currently houses a retirement home, but conservationists have been working for years to preserve the residence, including the restoration of a coat of arms painted by muralist María Martner that Pinochet had covered up with several layers of paint.

But, as is to be expected in Chile, any new honor to Allende provokes a strong reaction from Chile's conservative opposition. Lawmakers Alberto Cardemil and Iván Moreira, both members of the conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) political party, argued this week that the house from which Pinochet headed his government from 1973 to 1998 should also be declared a national monument.

They argue the same justifications the National Monument Council used to honor the Allende property should also qualify the Pinochet property for the same honor. "They made very important decisions in that house," said Cardemil. "They planned Chile's Southern Highway, avoided war with Argentina, and created Chile's new institutional and economic structure."

Moreira went on to criticize the government for honoring the Allende property. "How can a place where the destruction of Chile's democracy was planned and where Fidel Castro visited be made into a national monument," he asked.

The dispute over which former leader should be honored is just one of a number of "tit for tat" fights that have dominated Chile's national media following the Pinochet's Dec. 10 death.

Several members of the Pinochet-friendly UDI political party unsuccessfully argued for a Santiago street to be renamed in his honor, suggesting that the very street inhabited by President Michelle Bachelet should take on Pinochet's name.

Augusto Pinochet Molina, grandson of the former dictator, was fired from Chile's Armed Forces for giving a controversial, uncensored speech at his grandfather's funeral, and the grandson of former Gen. Carlos Prats, Francisco Cuadrado Prats, was fired from his job as a cultural director in Santiago's borough of Las Condes, where he was in charge of the restorations at the former Allende presidential residence.

Prats received widespread attention after he waited in line 12 hours to see Pinochet's body lying in state, only to spit on the casket. His grandfather, Gen. Carlos Prats, had been loyal to overthrown President Salvador Allende and was blown up, along with his wife, in a 1974 car bomb attack in Buenos Aires organized by Pinochet's secret police force.

Las Condes Mayor Fransisco de la Maza, also a member of the UDI, ordered Prats' dismissal and was a leading proponent of naming a street to honor Pinochet.

While calm quickly returned to the streets of Chile's business-orientated capital city after hundreds of thousands of Pinochet supporters and detractors took their version of history into the streets shortly after his death, those who thought the passing would allow Chile to finally move on and reconcile its complicated past have apparently been proven wrong.

Pinochet's supporters credit him with saving Chile from communism and for creating what is today Latin America's most successful economy. His detractors, however, condemn the dictator's violent rule. Over 3,000 political opponents were killed or disappeared, at least 27,000 tortured, and tens of thousands more were exiled.

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