Chile’s 9/11: President Piñera Speaks with TIME on 40th Anniversary of the Coup

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Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Sebastian Pinera speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2013.

Chile has its own reasons for marking September 11, 2013 as a somber anniversary. Forty years ago, the military putsch led by General Augusto Pinochet removed the leftist (and democratically elected) President Salvador Allende. The Air Force bombed the presidential palace and Allende committed suicide, sparking almost two decades of repression, disappearances, and dictatorship.

President Sebastian Piñera is the first conservative to lead the country since the end of the junta. The Harvard economics PhD who became a billionaire and then president met with TIME in La Moneda Presidential Palace to talk about Chile’s painful past and more hopeful future.

TIME: What does the 40th anniversary of the coup mean for Chile?
Piñera: This was a very dark part of our history. We should not forget it. But when we remember it, the question is what is the goal? To reproduce the same anger? Everybody has some lessons to learn. The only thing that [the left] would say is that nothing that happened before September 11, 1973 justifies what happened in terms of human rights abuses afterwards, and I fully agree with them. I was in opposition to the military government, from the first day.

I had left the country in August 1973 to go to Harvard. In my apartment there I saw things [on the television] I couldn’t believe. The Air Force bombing the palace… I had a girlfriend in Chile and I thought that my country had just gone mad, so I start calling her and I finally reached her late at night and we decided to get married. So for me this was a very personal time.

Chile had been a very stable democracy. [But] in the late 60’s President [Salvador] Allende, who was the leader of the leftist socialist Marxist coalition, won the election, with [just] 36 percent of the vote. Even though President Allende was elected democratically, my opinion is that he started by not respecting basic democratic principles. He didn’t have any respect for the law. This was a very dramatic situation for Chile because the Chilean people did not agree with transforming Chile to a socialist Marxist Cuban model. The situation started to become very controversial and very violent. At the same time he started to arm groups. A lot of people came from Cuba and other Latin American countries, the situation became very controversial, very violent on both sides. There was no dialogue.

At the end of the day since there was no democratic solution, my impression is that a lot of people started to think that the only solution was a military coup. Most people thought that was just going to be a short situation and the democratic party would resume afterwards. So the military came in not because they got crazy one day. It was not something sudden, it was not a surprise.

Is Allende’s growing popularity as a historical figure a danger to unity?
No. It is kind of romantic because he killed himself inside this palace. And people recognize that he was a romantic, a socialist, he tried to introduce more equality and more justice in Chile. But we have to remember that they wouldn’t want to go back to that period.

In this current election campaign, do people still associate the right with the coup d’etat in Chile?
Yes, yes. But the right has changed. Of course I can guarantee you that the right we have now is fully committed to the democratic system, with full respect of human rights. And I would also say that the left has learned from their own mistakes. Chile is a much better country than it was in terms of cohesion, in terms of unity, in terms of common values than it was in the 70s.

How is Chile’s economy doing these days?
The Chilean economy used to be growing faster than any other country in Latin America. One of our administration’s main commitments was to recover our leadership, our dynamism, our momentum. We have already created 830,000 jobs, more than 50 percent of which have gone to women, vulnerable sectors and middle class families.

[Center-left candidate and former president] Michele Bachelet is well ahead in the polls in Chile’s upcoming presidential election. Do you fear for your agenda in the next four years if she wins?
Candidates are very populist, they just promise everything. I hope that once they are sitting in this office, they will realize a president cannot say yes to everything. Michele Bachelet is [ahead] right now. But we still have 3 months and in politics, one week could be an eternity.

So Evelyn Matthei (the conservative candidate) has your full support?
Yes, yes. She is a very smart woman, very well educated with a very strong character, she has very clear commitment to democracy and human rights despite the fact that her father was part of the junta. He was a member of the junta in the last years, not in the first years. In any case, she has a clear commitment to democracy, to social market economy, to equality of opportunities, to human rights so basically the country is so different from what it was 40 years ago. I guarantee you if we repeated history nobody would behave the way they behaved 40 years ago.

Term limits are preventing you from running this time. Will you run again in four years?
I have to think about it. But then my wife tells me, don’t even think about it.

What is Chile’s view on the situation in Syria?
We fully agree that the Syrian government is not democratic and what they are doing with their own people is absolutely unacceptable. We prefer that any military action that takes place will take place within the framework of the UN.

Your neighbor Brazil is very concerned with the U.S. National Security Agency’s spying. Is Chile worried?
Of course we are worried. Who wouldn’t be worried if a friend is spying on you? We have asked the State Department to give us information: What are they doing? Why are they are doing it?

Are you satisfied with the answers?
We haven’t received a full answer, but if they are doing that, of course that is a problem. I mean, imagine if I were informed that the U.S. was spying on my emails, my phone conversations, or putting mics in my home… That is very unfriendly conduct and behavior.