Chile: Remembering Sept. 11, 1973

A Chilean man hangs a banner of deposed president Salvadore Allende at his tomb, on Sept. 11, 2003, the anniversary of the coup that knocked him from power (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

In Chile, Sept. 11 was a notorious anniversary long before the events of 2001: On that date in 1973, a military coup ended the country’s brief experiment in home-grown socialism and unleashed nearly two decades of repression under Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The run-up to the 30th anniversary produced a rash of new revelations and bitter polemics.

Chile remains ambiguous about Pinochet’s legacy. There is broad agreement that torture, disappearances, and murders did occur. But recriminations arise over attempts to fix blame. The conservative daily El Mercurio, which consistently supported Pinochet, featured interviews with key political figures from the 1970s. Former Communist Party leader Luis Guastavino told the paper (Aug. 3) that both sides’ irresponsibility brought on the coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. His comments were echoed by other former communists who, like Guastavino, had shifted to the Socialist Party. But a key Pinochet minister from the 1980s, Sergio Onofre Jarpa, scoffed to El Mercurio (Aug. 4), “Those who feel guilty can beat their chests and ask God for forgiveness,” implying that he, for one, did not.

Meanwhile, Pinochet’s son, Marco Antonio, accepted that his father had “political, but not legal” responsibility for abuses during his 17-year rule. In an Aug. 22 interview in Que Pasa, Pinochet said he had never seen a document signed by his father with orders to shoot or kill. He denied that abuses were “systematic.” If so, “There’d be 20,000 people with problems.” An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Chileans disappeared during Pinochet’s regime.

Most uncomfortable with the historical record are the centrist Christian Democrats who opposed Allende and now form part of the five-party ruling coalition. Former President Patricio Aylwin, who succeeded Pinochet in 1990, insisted to El Mercurio that he was “categorically not” a supporter of the coup. However, he admitted to feeling “relief” when it occurred, and most older Chileans recall the Christian Democrats toasting Pinochet, then scrambling into opposition when the true nature of the new regime became apparent. Siete + 7, a biweekly linked to the Christian Democrats, editorialized (Aug. 22) that the party should admit it was a naive “sorcerer’s apprentice” in 1973, “unleashing forces that later proved uncontrollable.” 

Despite calls for reconciliation, leftist sociologist Tomás Moulián dismissed the possibility of “closure.” Wounds to the body politic, he wrote in La Tercera (Aug. 28), “like wounds to the human body, close only when they are healed. And healing cannot occur as long as so many bodies have not been found.” Moulián also referred to the surprising speech by current army commander Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre that Chile should “never again” allow democracy to be hijacked and political enemies slaughtered. “Never again what?” asked Moulián. “Never again the Popular Unity or never again the crimes of the dictatorship?” El Mercurio editorialized (Aug. 22) precisely along these lines. Those who promoted armed struggle and abused private property rights should “never again” do so. That way, the forces of “republican order” will never again be obliged to repress them.