Deep Division Over the Years of Gen. Pinochet : Past Shadows the Present as Chileans Vote on Future

Times Staff Writer

Claudio Espina cast his vote against Gen. Augusto Pinochet at the National Stadium and thought back to the weeks after Pinochet’s 1973 coup--when the stadium was a detention and torture center.

The stadium, in one of the strongest anti-Pinochet neighborhoods in Santiago, served Wednesday as the largest polling station in Chile for the presidential plebiscite. About 66,000 voters stood for hours in bright sunshine, waiting to vote at 160 tables by checking “yes” or “no” below Pinochet’s name on the yellow paper ballot.

“In 1973, some of my best friends at university were held here as prisoners,” Espina said. “Several were tortured, and some are still missing. People like me think about that. Others, no.”

As he waited while his wife voted, Espina, 38, played with his 16-month-old son, Francisco, in the shade outside the stadium. Along with others at different polling stations, he agreed that for the majority of Chileans, the decision to vote for or against Pinochet was mainly a judgment on economic and political prospects. But memories of the past have not faded for either side.


“I voted for our well-being, because things are good now,” said a 59-year-old schoolteacher in Buin, 25 miles south of Santiago. “I don’t want this country to be communist again.”

Thousands of women stood in tidy lines snaking around the tree-shaded town square. Here as elsewhere, men and women voted at separate polling stations.

The teacher’s daughter, 24, told a reporter that, if not for Pinochet, “you probably wouldn’t be here.”

“There wouldn’t be freedom of the press as there is now,” she went on. “People speak openly. This is not tyranny.”


Both mother and daughter said Pinochet had created an economic environment in which all Chileans could prosper if they worked hard, in contrast to the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, which fell in Pinochet’s 1973 coup.

“This has never been a dictatorship,” the mother said.

Like other Yes voters, they refused to give their names, while newly confident No voters freely did so.

Everywhere the mood seemed solemn and determined in this first vote in 18 years for a president, even though there is only one candidate.

Poll watchers from as many as six political parties--three from the opposition and three pro-Pinochet parties--scrutinized every move at the voting tables. The 22,247 voting tables in the country were to have no fewer than two opposition party monitors to ensure a fair vote and a fair count.

All five officials at each voting table were chosen by lottery from among the 350 voters inscribed at that table, so local people formed the backbone of the election process. Lack of experience was apparent as the electoral crews slowly organized for the nine hours of voting, but by mid-morning calm efficiency was the norm.

In La Victoria, Santiago’s poorest and most militantly anti-government area, Luis Gutierrez, 35, woke up the 10 members of his soccer team at 7:30 a.m., tossing stones onto the roof in some cases, to make sure they voted. He said the team was solidly No and “if the Yeses win, they will have to steal it.”

“We are fighting for a better life for all, for the children,” said Roberto Lopez, 60, a father of four who earns $40 a month as a school guard. “We have had 15 years of suffering. There is great misery here. They have done nothing for the workers.”


Neighbor Florinda Basoalto, 60, said her son, Sergio Pino, 21, had been in jail since April, accused of being a member of a Communist guerrilla group. She pointed proudly to a bold mural her son painted before his arrest and said, “There is still oppression.”

A 30-year-old economist, a poll watcher for the Yes forces at the National Stadium, said foreigners have trouble understanding Chile.

“Most people,” he said, “think that until 1973 Chile was a beautiful democracy and then the bad guy took over. But by 1973, the country had collapsed and was on the verge of civil war. Since then, a lot of changes have occurred to move us toward democracy. People here have a lot more choices than anywhere else in Latin America--more control over their own lives.”

He acknowledged that there have been serious human rights violations, but he said these are decreasing and will soon disappear altogether. But if Pinochet loses, he said, “we will revert to being a third-rate Latin American country--and the military will just return in 10 to 15 years.”