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.