On the evening of March 12, a broadly smiling woman emerged on the balcony of La Moneda, Chile's presidential palace in the heart of Santiago, the capital. Inaugurated the day before as the first woman to be elected chief of state in that country, President Michelle Bachelet extended her arms, acknowledging the cheers of 200,000 compatriots in the broad square below. Chileans had gathered from communities all along this string bean of a country that stretches 2,600 miles from northern deserts through fertile central valleys to rain-drenched southern forests.
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Bachelet, a 55-year-old Socialist, offered her audience a message of pain and redemption, drawn from her own personal experience. She recalled the numerous victims of the 17-year, right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that ended in 1990. "How many of our loved ones cannot be with us tonight?" she asked, referring to the estimated 3,500 dead and "disappeared"—citizens taken from their homes, often in the dark of night, who were never heard from again. They included her own father, Alberto Bachelet, a left-wing air force general who was almost certainly tortured to death in prison after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power. Bachelet, a 21-year-old student activist at the time, was also jailed and, she has said, blindfolded and beaten. "We are leaving that dramatically divided Chile behind," the president promised that March evening. "Today, Chile is already a new place."
So it would seem. Pinochet, now 90 years old and ailing in his suburban Santiago home at the foot of the snow-topped Andes, has become an object of scorn. His political measures are well documented: the several thousand Chileans killed and many thousands more jailed for having supported the freely elected government of President Salvador Allende, a Socialist who died during an assault on La Moneda Palace by Pinochet's forces 33 years ago in September.
Even most of the former dictator's admirers abandoned him after revelations since 2004 that he accumulated at least $27 million in secret bank accounts abroad, despite a modest military salary. Pinochet has evaded prison only because strokes and heart disease have left him too impaired to stand trial. "He has been so thoroughly discredited and humiliated that whether or not he ends up behind bars in a striped suit is almost immaterial," says José Zalaquett, 64, Chile's leading human rights lawyer.
And yet, Pinochet's despotic but economically successful legacy remains troublingly ambiguous to many Chileans. Led by young, free-market policy makers, Pinochet privatized everything from mines to factories to social security. He welcomed foreign investment and lifted trade barriers, forcing Chilean businesses to compete with imports or close down. The reforms were wrenching. At one time, a third of the labor force was unemployed. But since the mid-1980s, the economy has averaged almost 6 percent annual growth, raising per capita income for the 16 million Chileans to more than $7,000—making them among the most prosperous people in South America—and creating a thriving middle class. Today, only 18.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared, for example, with 38.7 percent in Brazil and 62.4 percent in Bolivia. At this pace, Chile, within a generation, will become Latin America's most prosperous nation.
Neighboring countries, many of which embrace populist, left-wing economic policies, tend to resent Chile's growing prosperity, rooted as it is in the policies put in place by the region's most notorious dictator. "We can't go around rubbing our neo-capitalism in the faces of other Latin Americans," says Raul Sohr, a Chilean novelist and leading center-left political commentator. "Bachelet certainly won't do that."
At home, however, neo-capitalism has taken root. The democratically elected governments that have succeeded Pinochet in Chile have barely tinkered with the economic model he ushered in. "Voters figure that the same economic policies will continue no matter who gets elected," says former economics minister Sergio de Castro, 76, who forged many of the Pinochet-era reforms. "So, if the left wants to appropriate the model we created, well that's just fine."
But traveling across this irresistibly beautiful country, it is hard not to notice the tension between economic consensus and brutal recent history, the origins of which I observed firsthand as a Santiago-based foreign correspondent for the New York Times at the end of the Allende government and in the early Pinochet regime.
My most recent trip begins with a visit to a rodeo in Coronel, an agrarian community some 330 miles south of the capital. During the Allende years, militant peasant groups took over many farms and ranches, especially around Coronel. Conservative landowners here still display strong loyalties to Pinochet because he crushed the militants and returned their properties to them.
Thirty years ago, I reported on the peasant takeovers here. Today, I return to find the landscape transformed. Roads have been broadened and paved. Scruffy corn and wheat farms have given way to intensively cultivated fields of asparagus, berries, broccoli and fava beans. The highway to the Pacific Ocean port of Concepción, 14 miles north, is lined with factories where huge harvests of produce are frozen and packaged for export to the United States and other Northern Hemisphere markets.