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CHILE: 30th Coup Anniversary Less Violent than Expected

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Sep 12 2003 (IPS) - Although more than 300 protesters were arrested and 24 police were injured in violent incidents in Chile late Thursday, authorities said Friday that there was less violence than expected on the 30th anniversary of the 1973 coup d’etat.

The anniversary of the Sep. 11, 1973 coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende is traditionally marked by poignant acts of homage to the former president, who apparently committed suicide while the presidential palace was bombed in the coup.

But in the evening, clashes generally break out between demonstrators and the Carabineros militarised police in the poor neighbourhoods ringing Santiago and other cities.

However, there was less violence than expected this year, Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza said Friday. He added that it was seen as inevitable that some incidents would occur, due to ”unruly” reactions by protesters in the slum neighbourhoods, and he praised the restraint with which the police responded.

The minister’s statements contrasted, nonetheless, with those of protesters who complained Thursday night of ”provocation” by anti-riot police at a ceremony held to pay homage to singer-songwriter Víctor Jara, who was killed after the coup in the stadium in Santiago, which now carries his name.

”Many people have complained about police brutality, but there have so far been no shooting victims among the demonstrators, while we have had injured Carabineros, on the other hand,” said Insulza.

Carabineros chief Gen. Alberto Cienfuegos reported that four police officers were seriously wounded. Two were shot, one was hit by a molotov cocktail, and another was injured when a truck carrying hoses used to spray water for purposes of crowd control tipped over.

But all four are now in stable condition, he added.

Another four Carabineros police sustained moderate injuries and 16 were slightly injured during incidents that took place at barricades that were thrown up, which Cienfuegos said were provoked by ”lumpen” (rough elements generally from slum neighbourhoods).

”The 32 events that were scheduled during the day took place peacefully, in absolute normalcy. I have to say that people behaved in a way that one would expect and hope for in Chile. We feel proud that we are a peaceful, civilised nation,” the police chief told the Cooperativa de Santiago radio station.

The biggest event on Thursday was the reopening by President Ricardo Lagos of the door on the east side of the La Moneda presidential palace, 80 Morande street, which was traditionally the entryway used by presidents until it was sealed off during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The members of a number of political and human rights organisations left flowers and wreaths outside the door in Allende’s memory before assembling at a monument to the former president in nearby Constitution Square, where crowds as big as 5,000 gathered.

But in the evening, disturbances marred the anniversary of the coup, by contrast to the calm that reigned during the events held to commemorate Allende’s death.

For example, electricity pylons were knocked down around 800 kms north of the capital, which caused blackouts that affected some 300,000 people in four cities. According to the police, pamphlets from the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, a small insurgent group, were found near the toppled pylons.

Nevertheless, the secretary-general of the centre-left coalition government, Francisco Vidal, and Santiago Mayor Marcelo Trivelli said they were pleased that relatively few violent incidents were reported, which they blamed on ”vandals” and ”lumpen.”

But Gustavo Hasbún, the mayor of the Santiago district Estación Central and a member of the right-wing opposition party Independent Democratic Union, disagreed, and complained of serious incidents in Villa Francia, a housing project in his district.

According to Hasbún, ”trained extremist elements” armed with guns clashed with police there, injuring two officers, which, he said, merited the application of the Law on State Security.

Sociologist Tomás Moulián told IPS, however, that it is not correct to describe those who take part in violent incidents every year on Sep. 11 as ”vandals” or ”lumpen,” because most of them ”act like normal, ordinary people the next day.

”Most of the people who take part (in the protests) have nothing to do with the Popular Unity,” the leftist coalition government led by Allende from 1970 until the 1973 coup, he said.

”They are generally young people who did not live that experience,” said Moulián, the author of ”Chile: Anatomy of a Myth”, a book on the country’s transition to democracy.

”Sep. 11 is a catalyst that unleashes the rage they feel over how things are today, not rage about the past. It is rage over their current living conditions,” he added.

”They are not vandals. The protesters are people who are expressing their rejection of certain things, like the appalling inequality in the distribution of wealth, because just 4.6 percent of the income is distributed among the poorest 20 percent of the population,” said the analyst.

One of the aspects that kept the level of violence down this year was the fact that the traditional pilgrimage from downtown Santiago to the memorial to the dictatorship’s 3,000 victims, in the General Cemetery, was not held.

The march, which habitually gives rise to the looting of shops and vandalistic destruction of public property, followed by a brutal police crackdown, was re-scheduled this year by the Human Rights Assembly, which brings together Chile’s leading human rights groups, and will be held on Sunday instead.

Gen. Cienfuegos said the Carabineros police will provide protection to those taking part in the march, which has been authorised by the local authorities.

The police chief warned, however, that the anti-riot police will have to intervene if the ”lumpen” mount aggressive attacks against those taking part in the pilgrimage.

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