The Guardian September 10, 2003


Chile: The long shadow of September 11, 1973

by Bob Briton

It's now thirty years since the bloody coup launched by the Chilean 
military overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of 
President Salvador Allende. We've all seen the images: jet fighters 
screaming across the skies above the burning presidential palace, the 
grainy black and white photo of the popular head of state taken moments 
before he fell under a hail of bullets. His face seems resigned or 
determined  it's hard to say which  but even in those circumstances, it 
was a kind and very human face.

We also remember the singularly repulsive sight of General Augusto Pinochet 
sitting among other sinister-looking military figures in a TV studio. He 
wore heavily tinted glasses, perhaps as a disguise; his whining high-
pitched voice announcing the death of democratic institutions in Chile and 
his war against Marxism and Chile's democratic, popular organisation.

And there were those scraps of footage showing the unrestrained ferocity of 
soldiers beating civilians in the streets of the capital Santiago and the 
shantytowns surrounding it. The armed, helmeted figures had faces distorted 
by hatred as they went about their task of rounding up the politically 
conscious citizens.

Killed, tortured

In the first four months of the Junta's rule, the French news journal Le 
Nouvelle Observateur estimates that nearly 20,000 were killed and 
30,000 arrested as political prisoners. Many were cruelly tortured. A 
further 25,000 students were expelled from universities and roughly 200,000 
progressive-minded industrial workers were sacked from their jobs.

Tens of thousands of Chileans fled the brutal repression  60,000 in just 
the first three years of the fascist regime. Many found new homes in 
Australia.

While the coup and its immediate aftermath were unfolding, I was in my 
final years of high school, blissfully unaware of what acts of barbarity 
were being inflicted on the people of Chile.

When I started work and began to take an interest in trade union and 
political matters, Chile was THE international solidarity issue. In 
Canberra, where I lived at the time, I was constantly meeting Chileans of 
my own age or just a bit older in the thick of political activity. It made 
me think: What happened in those brief few years of the Popular Unity 
government after 1970 that had raised the awareness and sense of 
internationalism of all these people?

I started to learn more about the changes that the government of Salvador 
Allende had made to Chilean society. It had nationalised the metallurgical, 
cement, copper mining, saltpetre, iron-ore and coal mining industries. 
Sixteen commercial banks were brought under state control. An agrarian 
reform was started. The estates of 5,500 rich landlords were broken up.

The wages share of gross national income grew from 49 per cent to over 62 
per cent. The annual rate of increase in the number of children going to 
school was 18.2 per cent and for higher school students it was 34.9 per 
cent.

For the first time in their lives, masses of children were given milk where 
before, poverty had prohibited such a "luxury". The Allende government was 
 in the words of an Australian priest who stayed on to work in the 
shantytowns  "that little summer of the poor".

Naturally, reactionary forces worldwide were alarmed by these developments. 
After Allende's election, heaven and earth were moved to sabotage the 
program of his popular people's government. World copper prices were 
manipulated, credits and aid (except military "aid") dried up. Stoppages by 
owner-driver truckers were funded. Upholders of the traditional 
"apolitical" role of the military were sidelined or, like the Generals Rene 
Schneider and Carlos Prats who upheld the constitution, simply 
assassinated.

Amazingly, every challenge seemed to strengthen the people's resolve. 
Committees were formed to combat hoarding and other problems caused by the 
artificially created shortages. Abandoned industries were run by their 
workers.

To stop this people's revolution a coup was needed and the reactionary 
forces in Chile, along with agencies of international reaction like the CIA 
and even Australia's ASIS, conspired to inflict on Chile and the world the 
events of September 11, 1973.

In the 70s, I felt that the Chilean experience had shown just what could be 
achieved within the bounds of the institutions of countries like our own 
when the change is pushed along by popular organisations determined to work 
in the interests of the working people and poor farmers.

The military coup taught me that we cannot trust the pillars of the 
existing capitalist state when the working people travel down the path 
towards their liberation and socialism.

I thought that when the dictatorship ended, as it formally did 1989, the 
Chilean people would quickly take up the tasks that were so brutally 
interrupted all those years ago and that the political right would die of 
shame.

I didn't consider that, as happened in Spain after the defeat of the 
fascist Franco dictatorship that the world could turn its back on the 
heroic efforts of masses of people and remain indifferent as the capitalist 
class and conservative politicians regained their control of society.

But that is what has happened. Chile now has a president who is applying 
the same neo-liberal economic agenda begun under Pinochet. General Pinochet 
and his henchmen from those times, still enjoy effective immunity from 
prosecution for the myriad crimes against humanity carried out during the 
dictatorship. Genuinely left forces  like the Communist Party of Chile  
endure official harassment designed to exclude them from the political 
mainstream.

Harsh test

The harshness of all this is a test of political commitment. To their 
credit, a high proportion of those Chilean refugees that I knew in the 70s 
and 80s, who burned with the injustice of the coup, are still active in 
support of their people and involved in the struggles that swirl around us 
in Australia. They are in the peace movement, trade unions and in 
solidarity organisations. Some tried to go back to Chile but were forced to 
return because of the harsh economic realities that they encountered.

However, like the Communist Party of Chile, they are not put off by the 
slowness of history to right its wrongs. Inevitably, though perhaps not as 
soon as we once thought, the job of building a really democratic and just, 
socialist society remains on the agenda.

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