Comment: The Other 9/11: remembering Chile’s descent into dictatorship

Relatives of victims of the dictatorship visit the memorial 'The Disappeared-Detained' at the General Cemetery, in Santiago, Chile, 07 September 2014. (EPA)

In 1973, Chile's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup. What followed were years of repression, torture, forced disappearance, fear and, for many Chileans, exile.

 

While the events of 9/11 in the United States have slowly faded into the background of anti-terror campaigns, embroiled wars, and polemics about the role of the United States in world politics, an equally important 9/11 is often overlooked. In Chile, on 11 September, 1973, a military junta launched a coup to overthrow the democratic socialist government of then-president Salvador Allende. The junta was comprised of General Gustavo Leigh Guzmán (Air Force), Admiral José ToribioMerino Castro (Navy), General Director César Mendoza Durán (National Police), and General Augusto Pinochet (Army). Within a year, Pinochet would rise above his colleagues to become “Supreme Chief of the Nation” and finally president by the end of 1974. He remained in power until 1990.

Members of the junta initiated the coup in response to what they feared was the start of a communist uprising evidenced by the election of socialist candidate Allende. The election was incredibly close. None of the three presidential candidates, Jorge Alessandri Rodriguez, Radomiro Tomic, and Allende, got enough votes for a popular majority. Allende received 36.6% of the popular vote, the largest share, but by no means definitive. Ultimately, the National Congress decided in Allende’s favor. For socialists everywhere, this was an historic achievement. A socialist president had been democratically elected. La via chilena, or Chilean way, seemed to presage a new political era in which armed conflict was no longer necessary for social revolutions.

“2014 marks the forty-first anniversary of the coup and, for most Chileans, the 11th of September still has profound resonance in daily life. Many still remember where they were when the assault on La Moneda happened. Most had a family member who was affected by the political repression that followed. Torture, imprisonment, and disappearances have a place in many Chilean family histories. Even for those whose families escaped this treatment, an inescapable post-9/11 political reality besets the country.”

However, forces both inside and outside Chile considered Allende’s election a bad omen. Particularly in the United States, many felt that la via chilena was indicative of a growing militant Marxism in Latin America. When Fidel Castro visited Chile at the end of 1971, this proved to many observers that Chile was indeed headed down a dangerous path. For Americans, another communist country in their own backyard presented a palpable threat. For Chilean military officials, it was their job to ensure that the rule of law be restored.

The military junta launched their coup early on that fateful Tuesday morning. By 8:00am, the military had successfully shut down most television and radio broadcasts, to ensure that Allende would not be able to get accurate information nor communicate with military factions loyal to him. At 8:30, the military declared its victory and deposed the president. Allende refused to resign and soon after gave his last speech to the nation on one of the last remaining functional radio stations. In that speech, he implored the Chilean people to defend themselves and punish the men who put foreign capital over the needs of local workers. Shortly after, bombs dropped on the presidential palace, La Moneda. Allende and those who had tried to protect him did not survive the siege. What followed was nearly two decades of state-sponsored violence and repression.

2014 marks the forty-first anniversary of the coup and, for most Chileans, the 11th of September still has profound resonance in daily life. Many still remember where they were when the assault on La Moneda happened. Most had a family member who was affected by the political repression that followed. Torture, imprisonment, and disappearances have a place in many Chilean family histories. Even for those whose families escaped this treatment, an inescapable post-9/11 political reality besets the country. Chileans on the left and right clash over issues such as whether Allende was killed or committed suicide. They also debate whether the Pinochet era was a repressive dictatorship which tortured thousands of citizens or a military regime which ultimately preserved Chile’s democratic traditions.

The effects of this event rippled outward from Santiago all the way to Sydney. In the years leading up to Allende’s presidency, a small but persistent stream of Chilean immigrants began arriving to avoid an increasingly unstable economy. During Allende’s presidency, middle class immigrants began arriving fearing that Allende’s new policies would hurt their economic prospects. After 9/11, an even larger wave of immigrants arrived to flee political persecution. Current Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, was one such immigrant. An exile at the age of twenty-two, she spent two years in Australia before moving to East Germany.

In Sydney, Santiago, and throughout Chile, the 11th of September is an opportunity to reflect on Chile’s political past, present and future. This year, as in years previous, a remembrance celebration will be held near the Salvador Allende statue in Fairfield Park. For many Chileans, remembrance of the past is critical to preventing a day like this in the future.

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