Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Pinochet museum divides Chileans

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

Gen Pinochet's office on display at the museum
General Pinochet ruled Chile for 17 years

A museum dedicated to the life and work of Chile's former military leader Augusto Pinochet has opened in the capital, Santiago, rekindling the debate about how he should be remembered.

Visitors to the museum can see the late general's office, desk, uniforms, medals - even his large collection of toy soldiers, representing all the divisions of the Chilean army in which he served during his long military career.

There is a bronze bust of Pinochet alongside those of the other members of his four-man military junta, which seized power in 1973 by violently overthrowing the democratically elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende.

The items on display include Pinochet's black military beret, swords, coins and gifts from former US Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

"We want to allow Chileans to get to know Pinochet, the man, the general, the president, and what better way to do that then by opening a small, boutique display of his personal effects," said Major General Luis Cortes Villa, executive director of the President Pinochet Foundation which oversees the museum.

"Foreigners often think that his government ruled in isolation, that the people didn't love him. Well, here's the proof to the contrary."


Pinochet's widow Lucia Hiriart de Pinochet inaugurated the museum on Friday and it opened its doors to the public on Monday. All tours are guided and the museum is already fully booked for several weeks.

Some Chileans have expressed their disgust at the idea of a museum honouring a man whose government became known around the world for its human rights abuses.

Bust of Gen Pinochet (left) and other figures who led the military coup in 1973
Pinochet: Chileans remain divided over his legacy

Some 3,000 political opponents of Pinochet were killed or "disappeared" during his 17-year rule. Thousands more were tortured or went into exile.

Pinochet was charged with human rights crimes but never brought to trial before his death in December 2006.

But while some of Pinochet's opponents condemned the museum, others viewed it as an encouraging sign that Chile is coming to terms with its dark past.

"I thing it's a positive thing," said Pedro Matta, who was arrested and tortured in 1975 at Villa Grimaldi, the most notorious of Pinochet's detention camps in Santiago.

"It shows that the country has changed enormously since the time of the dictatorship," he told the BBC.

"The fact that they've opened a Pinochet museum shows that these days we are free to express our differences, and I don't fear differences."

In the same week that the museum was inaugurated, Chile's Socialist President Michelle Bachelet - who was herself detained in Villa Grimaldi - laid the first stone in what will eventually be a museum of human rights in Santiago.

Pinochet's legacy remains hotly debated in Chile. While many revile him as a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people, some hail him as a hero who saved Chile from Communism and laid the foundations for the political and economic stability the country enjoys today.

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