The Guardian • Issue #2069

50 years after the coup in Chile: The struggle continues

Salvador Allende.

Salvador Allende Photo: – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 CL)

On 11th September 1973, the coup d’état under General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the president of Chile, Salvador Allende Gossens, the world’s first democratically elected socialist president. His life ended that day as the Chilean Air Force’s Harrier jets attacked the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of government.

Across the country thousands were arrested: union leaders; Communists; activist for MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left); supporters of the Popular Unity (UP); and those who wanted a better and fairer country for the poor. They were held in the thirteen concentration camps set up for interrogation and torture of political prisoners. Thousands were ‘disappeared’ – killed. Eighteen thousand Chileans were given refuge by the Whitlam Labor government.

The junta tore the heart out of Chilean society. A veil of terror and death fell upon the country, destroying all those against the military regime and what it stood for. During the 17-year dictatorship tens of thousands left as refugees. The regime wanted nothing to remain – political, cultural or economic – that could remind the next generation how much the UP had achieved in their thousand days of government. The junta systemically destroyed it all, creating a year zero, devoid of any socialist past. Chilean history ended with the coup and another began after. It was only after the end of Pinochet’s rule and the return to democracy that Chile started to progress socially and economically. The country suffered severely under the coup with any criticism of the military being countered with threats of a military take over. It deeply affected the nation’s psyche.

Since 2000, the Supreme Court has issued 640 rulings with seventeen special judges dedicated to investigating the crimes committed during the dictatorship. Military officers were given amnesty until the law was abolished, allowing them to be tried for their crimes. Chile’s Supreme Court upheld the 25-year sentences for seven former military officials convicted in 2018 of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the famous folk singer Victor Jara and Littré Quiroga (member of the Communist Party of Chile) during the coup. Retired army brigadier Hernán Chacón Soto and other officers committed suicide rather than face imprisonment. The court granted US$175,000 in compensation each to Jara’s widow, Joan Jara, and their children.

In 2021, following months of demonstrations and violent repression, Gabriel Boric and his Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party were elected. There followed months of threats and violence against Boric and the new left-wing government. In September 2022, a referendum was held for a new progressive constitution that recognised the Indigenous peoples. It failed after a well-financed campaign by the right-wing press, resulting in 62 per cent rejecting the change.

In August President Gabriel Boric announced the plan nacional de búsqueda (national search plan) to identify the victims of those executed by the military and provide reparations for their families. “This is not a favour to the families. It is a duty to society as a whole to deliver the answers the country deserves and needs,” said Boric. “The plan transforms the families’ efforts into a permanent public policy,” said Luís Cordero, Chile’s Minister for Justice and Human Rights, who lost two family members in 1973. “This is the first time ever that the state has assumed responsibility for the search, which is essential because the crimes were committed by the state and its agents in the context of a policy of repression.” The plan is being hindered by the armed forces’ lack of cooperation.

The commemoration is very polarising. Coalition parties (Broad Front, Communist Party, Socialist Party, Party for Democracy and Radical Party) have requested a minute’s silence in Congress and to remember the human rights violations with a loud nunca mas (never again). Luis Cuello, parliamentary member for the Communist Party, said “it would be the first time, after more than 30 years of post-dictatorship, in which homage is paid to a democratic president who gave his life for Chileans.” Jaime Naranjo, the Socialist Party, said, “we hope that the right-wing sectors, who have been accomplices in silence with the military coup, understand this time that this situation was a crime against humanity.” In comparison, the conservative parties want the truckers’ strikes leading up to the coup to be remembered.

As part of the commemoration, dozens of streets, public squares and bridges are to be renamed, to honour the victims of the dictatorship, including human rights activists and the ‘disappeared,’ the more than 1400 people still unaccounted for. Inside Estadio Nacional de Chile (National Stadium), Chilean artists have unveiled a mural, symbolising the coup.

In Australia, the CPA remembers the shocking events of the coup and the tragic years following, as members had witnessed the events. The AMWU (Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union) Victoria is holding a commemoration evening at the Victorian Trades Hall Council on 9th September. Other cultural events include the SURCLA (Sydney University Research Community for Latin America) Cine Club screening the Crossing the Pacific – Chilean Voices in Australia (2023) by Milena Ben David, and La memoria Obstinada (The Obstinate Memory, 1997) by Patricio Guzmán.

In Mexico, the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs will mark the 50th anniversary of the coup, the life of Salvador Allende and the Chilean refugees who fled to Mexico, with fifty activities. In the UK the People’s History Museum is marking the 50th anniversary with a display of material from the Chile Solidarity Campaign collection. In the 2023 Banner Exhibition, the Young Communist League London District Solidarity will display the banner used at a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the coup. In Germany, the Friends of the Willy-Brandt-Haus have the “Chile in transition – 50 years later” exhibition. Works by renowned photographers (Thomas Billhardt, Armindo Cardoso and José Giribás Marambio) portray the military dictatorship with images of torture and the memory never to be forgotten, two generations later.

At a time when Australia is being dragged closer and closer into the USA’s orbit, it’s very timely to remember this terrible coup that happened with US blessing and encouragement.


Guardian correspondent’s narrow escape

I was in Chile after the coup when I was arrested by the military. In Iquique in the north, after taking photographs, I was taken off the bus at gunpoint, my rucksack thrown onto the ground. I did not know it at the time, but there was a concentration camp near the town. I thought I was about to be shot, when I was taken into the desert to a hut where I was interrogated. After several hours the officer told one of the soldiers to drive me to the Peruvian border. There I was told to walk into the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. Fortunately, I was picked up by a truck load of Aymara Indians, later that day, and brought to safety. The military used to leave backpackers deserted in this arid wasteland, so when their bodies were discovered, they would appear to have died of natural causes – hypothermia and dehydration – another case of misadventure. What I witnessed in Chile ensured that I became a Communist.

Graham Holton

For a full account of Graham Holton’s experience in Chile,
see Guardian Issue 2021, 29th August 2022.

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