The headlines (e.g., here and here) are all pretty much the same: Patricio Aylwin, who died yesterday, successfully guided Chile to the restoration of democracy.
But in the interests of real history (as with others, such as Jeffrey Sachs), we need to keep in mind what actually happened: Aylwin played a central role in the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973.
At the time, Aylwin was the president of the Senate and the president of the Christian Democrats. His led his party into an alliance with the right-wing National Party, forming the so-called Confederation of Democracy, which was opposed to Allende’s Socialist government and served to paralyze the activities of government. In the meantime (and in a campaign of covert action in Chile that stretched back to the 1960s), the CIA was paying some $6.8–8 million to right-wing opposition groups to “create pressures, exploit weaknesses, magnify obstacles” and hasten Allende’s overthrow—as revealed by the Church Committee (pdf) and in a now-declassified document from July 1975, “Agency Covert Action Operations in Chile Since 1962” (pdf).
Just one week before the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, Aylwin participated in drafting and then signing a congressional act to the effect that the Allende government “sought to impose a totalitarian regime” and asking the military to “help reestablish the rule of law.” This document, little noticed at the time, was later used as the main reason for the uprising of the normally apolitical Chilean military.
Much later, Aylwin did in fact participate in negotiations that led the government and the opposition to agree on 54 constitutional reforms, thereby making possible a peaceful transition to democracy. He was eventually elected president of the Republic on 14 December 1989, thus ending 16 years of the brutal military dictatorship.
Still, given Aylwin’s support (together with many other members of the Christian Democratic Party and, from abroad, by none other than Henry Kissinger) for the 1973 coup, history will not absolve him.
*For younger readers or those who may not closely follow events in Latin America, the title of the post refers to the title of the famous speech by Fidel Castro, “History Will Absolve Me,” which he delivered in his own defense on 16 October 1953 while in court (as one of about 100 defendants) after he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks.