Walking down the street on September 11th, I passed a large banner that commemorated the date. “We have gotten rid of everything except the memory,” it read. This banner was not written in English, and was not in the United States. Nor had it been set up to commemorate the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. September 11 has been a grim date for Chileans nearly three decades longer than it has been for us. In case anyone needed a reminder why, the banner’s painter had added, in one corner, “forty-two years since the coup.”
September 11, 1973 marked the third major interruption of Chile’s 150 years of democratic rule. By any measure, it was the bloodiest. That morning, the country’s military launched a plan to unseat President Salvador Allende, the only democratically elected Marxist in world history. As soldiers took control of key positions around Santiago, fighter jets dove toward La Moneda, the country’s presidential palace, and fired rockets into its second-floor window. Rather than surrender, President Allende retreated into the study of his burning mansion, put a pistol given to him by Fidel Castro to his head, and pulled the trigger.
He would be the first of many victims of the military’s sixteen-year rule, followed by a number of his supporters, opponents of the military, and others who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. All told, the junta led by General Augusto Pinochet detained and tortured 27,255 Chileans, 70 percent of them in its first three months of power. Of these, 2,296 were executed. Approximately a thousand more remain unaccounted for. Chileans have a name for them: “The Disappeared.”
In a nation with only 10.1 million people at the time of the coup, few remained untouched by these deaths. To put Chile’s 9/11 into perspective, I checked how bad ours would have been if we had lost the same percentage of population. Imagine if al-Qaeda’s attacks had killed almost 96,000 Americans, instead of nearly 3,000, across the country in a three-month span, and if many of those victims’ families never heard from them again.
As that banner in the town of La Serena made clear, the memories of a tragedy of this scale endure. The mother of my homestay family remembers watching the fighter jets crest over the hill where I go jogging. Her husband, working as a taxi driver at the time, was stopped regularly by military police in downtown Santiago. For every story like his, there are probably several more that were lost. When my BA research led me to search for details of a strike in October 1973, I discovered that the newspaper issues from the days following the coup had gone missing. Scrolling through the National Library’s catalog, I saw listings for the months “January-March 1973, April-June 1973, June-August 1973,” and “January-March 1974.”
Despite gaps like these, Chileans have worked hard to preserve the events of those months. Today, a statue of President Allende faces La Moneda’s restored façade, with the words of his final radio broadcast to the nation etched on a plaque. A short metro ride away, the Memory and Human Rights Museum presents visitors with videos of tanks rolling through Santiago, harrowing testimonials of torture victims, and chess sets carved by political prisoners in concentration camps. For its part, the National History Museum displays half of the eyeglasses Allende wore when he shot himself.
I had seen most of the dictatorship’s grisly dregs in these museums by the time 9/11 rolled around. When it did, several of my Facebook friends in the United States posted some version of the story that Americans have told themselves for most of my remembered life: our fellow citizens were cut down by a foreign, inhumane ideology, one that must be destroyed. Chileans can’t console themselves with this narrative. Since the return to democracy in 1990, their task has been to understand how so many of their fellow citizens met the same fate at the hands of their own leaders.
The short answer is: they had help. While the coup and all that followed was carried out by the Chilean military, a declassified set of files in the National Security Archive reveals that the CIA waged a covert campaign to unseat Allende. Conventional wisdom holds that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger refused to tolerate a Marxist president in the Western Hemisphere. Other documents suggest that, when Allende nationalized the Chilean telephone system controlled by International Telephone and Telegraph, one of the American corporation’s executives prompted the Nixon administration to act. Beginning with Nixon’s 1970 order to “make [the] economy scream,” Chile received an array of covert operations: truck drivers’ strikes across the country, unofficial sanctions imposed by American corporations, and money and weapons for the military.
After one of Pinochet’s agents killed an Allende supporter with a car bomb in Washington, the United States government was quick to denounce the regime. Other American institutions, however, have also had a hand in the junta’s activities, including the University of Chicago. The regime turned to a group of Chilean economists who had studied in Chicago under Milton Friedman to dismantle Allende’s centralized economy and implement neoliberal economic policies. The so-called “Chicago Boys” raised Chile’s GDP, but at a cost. Today, Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world; there are sprawling shanty towns within a few metro stops of horse racetracks and ten-story shopping malls.
In the United States, on September 11, 2001, American Muslims became victims of guilt-by-association. If Chileans viewed gringos from the same perspective, a UChicago student traveling here to research the period of the dictatorship would deserve their suspicion. But the most I’ve gotten is a knowing smile when I tell my interviewees where I study. (“Yes,” I admit, “I’m a Chicago Boy.”) There have also been bits of black humor at my Spanish-immersion program, and during our occasional tours of Santiago. During one, our guide turned to the two Chicago students in our group, grinned, and said, “I don’t know whether you are friend or foe.”
The image featured in this article was taken by Dan Lundberg. The original image can be found here.