Chile reclaims an emblem of independence: the remains of Bernardo O'Higgins
Not long after seizing power here in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet ordered construction of an "Altar of the Fatherland" and an eternal "Flame of Liberty" and had the remains of Bernardo O'Higgins, the hero of Chilean independence, moved to that site. Ever since, Chilean democrats have been struggling to wrest O'Higgins away from the military and restore his legacy to the entire nation. On Thursday, they finally succeeded.
In an emotional one-hour ceremony at a square just off a boulevard named for O'Higgins and barely a stone's throw from the presidential palace, known as La Moneda, President Ricardo Lagos symbolically reclaimed "the Father of the Nation" for all 15 million of Chile's people.
He did so, he said, in the name of
Chile's "re-encountering its democratic values and traditions" and establishing "a new relationship between civilians and the military."
After delivering their speeches beneath a statue of O'Higgins on horseback, Lagos and General Emilio Cheyre, the armed forces commander, visited the newly constructed underground mausoleum, which still smelled faintly of fresh paint and damp granite.
The restoration of O'Higgins's tomb to civilian control is the culmination of a series of symbolic gestures that Lagos, a Socialist who will leave office Saturday, has taken during his six years in office.
He began by reopening a side entrance to La Moneda that had often been used by Salvador Allende, the only other Socialist to govern Chile.
He also allowed the public to move
through the palace's main entrance and courtyard.
Then, just before the 30th anniversary of the Pinochet coup, a statue of Allende was unveiled on the main square just behind La Moneda, where Allende committed suicide on Sept. 11, 1973, after air force planes bombed the palace.
As a parting gesture, Lagos also plans this week to dedicate a small plaque inside the palace to government officials killed in the coup.
"A lot of my friends died, either there or a few days later," Lagos said during an interview last weekend in response to a question about his fondness for such symbolic acts.
The common thread in everything he has done in that regard, Lagos said, is "to be able to recover a piece of the nation's history" but in a way that "does not divide Chileans again, but unites them."
In that sense, the "Altar of the Fatherland" and especially the "Flame of Liberty" have been problems difficult to resolve.
During the 17 years of the Pinochet dictatorship, opponents repeatedly
tried to extinguish the torch to protest the political repression and lack of freedom in the country during the period,
thus forcing the military to close the space to the public.
Even after the restoration of democracy in 1990, there were attempts to sabotage the monument, which remained a rallying point for Pinochet's followers. In August 2003, for instance, just before the 30th anniversary commemorations, three men were detained with fire extinguishers in hand as they tried to douse the flame.
Finally, in 2004, after a debate about who should pay the mounting gas bill for the flame, the torch and altar were removed, O'Higgins's remains transferred to the military academy and the
square was renamed the "Plaza of Citizenship."
Chile being Chile, however, those steps were taken, not as an explicit rebuke to Pinochet or the military, but supposedly in the name of an urban renewal leading up to Chile's Bicentennial in 2010.
"There is no special significance in changing the flame and putting a fountain in its place," Ricardo Trincado, the regional director of the Housing and Urban Planning Service, told skeptical
"It simply seemed to us a good way to take better advantage of the space and beautify the location," he said.
Determining who should have possession of the remains of O'Higgins, who was of Irish descent and was born in 1778, is of obvious importance. But his is by no means the only example in Chile of the way that bodies of historical and even contemporary figures been used for political purposes.
"There is an obsession in this country with burials, disinterrals and reburials," said Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt, a prominent historian and social critic. "We still have our unburied disappeared from the Pinochet years, of course, but beyond them, there is also Allende himself and Pablo Neruda and Diego Portales," another hero of Chilean independence.
"It is a very morbid thing, deeply psychological and social, born of problems that have not been resolved," Jocelyn- Holt said.
And a mystery about O'Higgins remains unsolved: the whereabouts of two of his swords.
Even today, every time a military officer is promoted to general, he receives a reproduction of O'Higgins's battle sword.
As a result, a great mystique is attached to the original, which was on display at the National Museum until Pinochet seized power, when it suddenly disappeared.
When the museum asked the military to return of the swords after the restoration of democracy, it received instead what were determined to be copies. A former director of the museum has said
publicly that she suspects that Pinochet ended up with both of the swords.
If the swords are indeed in Pinochet's possession, it would not be the first time that he has appropriated part of the national historic patrimony for personal use.
Descendants of José Miguel Carrera, another hero of Chile's independence, were shocked to find that his wartime diary had somehow ended up in Pinochet's library after 1973, and it was only after a public uproar that the
former dictator returned the journal to a museum late last year.
But Pinochet has always had a special obsession with O'Higgins, the general whom all Chileans love. Pinochet even bestowed upon himself a title, captain general, that had been awarded O'Higgins and then, out of respect for the father of independence, never used again.
"As a dictator, Pinochet was always in search of historical elements that could help bestow some sort of legitimacy on him," said Francisco Estévez Valencia, a historian and journalist who was one of those detained in 2003 for trying to extinguish the freedom flame. "So he symbolically kidnapped O'Higgins, who was not a tyrant but a progressive for his time, and only now are Chileans being allowed to re-encounter O'Higgins as he really was."
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