Why a Pinochet disciple gives hope for reconciliation

A new Senate president assumed office in mid-March. While Juan Antonio Coloma was a participant in the dictatorship, he markedly softened his views over the year. The office is set to shape the man – who has a unique chance to advance democracy.

In a weird twist of history, Juan Antonio Coloma, who helped draft Pinochet’s Constitution behind closed doors, will preside over the Senate in a year in which a new Constitution will be voted on in a plebiscite and when Chile commemorates the 50th anniversary of the civic-military coup.

Coloma has been senator since 1990, when the transition to democracy began. He graduated from the elitist Catholic Colegio San Ignacio in 1973 and the military appointed him student union leader when he studied law at Universidad Católica.

Changing History

Of course, Coloma is not the same as he was. He used to defend the dictatorship without self-criticism and ignored the lack of freedom and the severe human rights violations. He was a dedicated follower of Jaime Guzmán, who was the brain behind the Pinochet Constitution. Coloma was a founding member of UDI party and led it without much internal opposition.

But from 2010, he toned down his dictatorship defense. He quenched the party’s most radical wing, led by José Antonio Kast, who left the party to found the Republicans and competed in the 2021 runoff against Gabriel Boric.

Without a doubt, Coloma is a shrewd politician who evolved from dogmatist to center-right lawmaker, aligned with current UDI leader Javier Macaya. Coloma’s founding party colleagues either passed away or play only the second fiddle.

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Force of Lawmaking

In Congress, Coloma has had to promote all kinds of bills and political agreements with various sectors. Skilled at bringing positions closer, he has acquired a sense of pragmatism, unimaginable in the 1980s.

It is also a fact that habit forms the politician, as President Gabriel Boric and some ministers have already learned, who had to rebuild their ideological pillars.

But leading one of the chambers of Congress seems to have the most profound impact, due to the solemnity of the posts. The leaders usually become more consensus-building and even-handed.  For example, Álvaro Elizalde, who stepped down as Senate president on March 15, is not the same as he was before assuming the position. The same goes for the last two presidents of the Lower House. It is as if they become state leaders.

Historic Opportunity

In that context, Coloma has a tremendous opportunity, especially regarding the rights’ debt with history. No doubt, part of the right that participated in the dictatorship has repented over the years, but they could still do more to heal wounds and allow the country to look toward the future.

Most current right-wing leaders in Chile were barely born when the coup happened. But as an active participant, Coloma is still linked to these times. He may seek dialogue and create distance to Kast’s Republican party, which continues to think like UDI in the 1980s.

What a paradox, Coloma in front of the Senate as a new Constitution is written and observing a minute of silence for the disappeared detainees. What happened between 1973 and 1990 in Chile must never happen again.

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