September 11 remains a long moment of undying shame
September 11, 1973 remains a long moment of undying shame for Chile, indeed for the wider world. It was a day when a democratically-elected socialist government was overthrown by the country’s army with the connivance of the US administration headed by President Nixon.
In the days and weeks and months and years following the coup, thousands of Chileans were murdered. Prominent Chileans were hunted down abroad. At home, the regime of Augusto Pinochet made it its bizarre mission to reduce Chile to the pitiable image of a nation cowering before its soldiers.
The murder of Allende
It was a nightmare unimaginable three years previously, in September 1970, when Salvador Allende Gossens, a dedicated democrat and socialist, was elected president of Chile. As an Allende triumph looked like a possibility, Chile’s right-wing elements, in intrigue with Nixon’s American administration, went to work to undermine the election or, if that was not possible, to steal it.
Allende was elected to office with just 36.2% of the vote. In his moment of triumph, Allende told his ecstatic supporters, “Entrare a la Moneda y conmigo entrara el pueblo. Sere el Companero Presidente” -- he would enter La Moneda, the presidential palace, in the company of the people, for he was going to be their president. It was, as Ariel Dorfman later noted, a moment of baptism for Allende as Chile’s leader.
And yet for all the enthusiasm that greeted the socialist politician’s electoral victory, things of a portentous nature were already beginning to be felt. The CIA began organizing people against Allende, through recruiting agents in Santiago and pumping in money to elements ready and willing to destabilize the administration. With that went propaganda against the Allende government’s “attempts” to turn democratic Chile into a fortress of Marxism.
President Allende sent the young and articulate Orlando Letelier to Washington as ambassador in the hope that Letelier would be able to explain the causes behind the nationalization program underway in Santiago. To Paris, as ambassador, went the acclaimed poet Pablo Neruda.
And yet conspiracy was afoot. Funding from Washington strengthened Allende’s enemies. Steps were taken to influence the Chilean military into moving against the government. Economic destabilization was encouraged by the US government and its agents. Trade unions were drawn into the anti-Allende camp and truck drivers put a brake on their activities, bringing transport to a halt across the country.
The wives of Chile’s military officers took the unprecedented step of confronting the army chief, General Carlos Prats, and berating him over his “failure” to take action to “save” the nation. Their target was of course President Allende. It was an incident that left Prats deeply disturbed. Prats resigned on August 22, 1973. He was replaced the next day by General Augusto Pinochet, considered an Allende loyalist.
Over the following 18 days, Pinochet and his fellow officers in the air force and police went into shaping the strategy that would see the end of the Allende government. Besieged and beleaguered, President Allende waged a desperate struggle to assert his leadership of the country.
Early on September 11, military units in the capital and other cities in Chile came together to voice their support for the leaders of the coup. As Chile slept, soldiers went into action in Concepcion and Valparaiso. Before daybreak, the two cities went under the absolute control of the military. In Santiago, at 6:20, President Allende was awakened with news that a coup led by his new army chief was in progress.
In the following hour, the military sent a message to Allende, offering to let him leave the country. Predictably, the president spurned the offer. The air force strafed the presidential palace and by 9am Santiago went under the army’s control. A half hour later, President Allende made what would turn out to be his final broadcast to the nation. He promised defiance and pledged to fight on to uphold constitutional government in Chile.
Sometime later, Allende appeared on the balcony of La Moneda, an AK-47 in his hands and a helmet on his head. He soon went back in, never to be seen, dead or alive, by the world again. An aide who had managed to escape would later tell the world that he had seen Allende place his gun between his feet. As the aide ran, he had looked back to see the president’s skull fly off from his head.
A reign of terror
The more accepted version of how Allende met his end came from other sources: Soldiers had stormed La Moneda and stabbed and shot the president to death. After a so-called autopsy, Allende’s body was buried in his ancestral village. No stone or other sign marked his grave. The coup leaders wanted no trace to be left of the dead president. Allende was 65 when his life came to an end.
In the following days, murder and mayhem seized Chile. Thousands of people were rounded up by the soldiers and detained in the local stadium. Officially, the number of those who died from the excesses of the military regime was 3,192. Many more simply disappeared. Hundreds of Chileans went into exile in neighbouring countries and Europe.
Carlos Prats left the country and moved to Argentina. Orlando Letelier, Allende’s last defense minister, was seized on the morning of the coup and tortured over the next twelve months before being freed and allowed to leave Chile. He would eventually make his way to the US. Pablo Neruda, ailing at the time of the coup, would be humiliated by soldiers ransacking his home.
Within days of the coup, he would die. The popular singer Victor Jara, a vocal supporter of Allende, was picked up by the army and murdered in the very Santiago stadium where he had once roused his fans with his music. Salvador Allende’s widow would make her way out of Chile. The president’s cousin, the writer Isabel Allende, would leave the country and settle abroad.
The Pinochet regime, having put a brutal system in place, would not, however, rest until it had dealt with its enemies, real or assumed. Agents of the Chilean intelligence organization DINA murdered General Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires on September 30, 1974. On September 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier, busy marshalling support for Chilean democrats in the US, was blown up in Washington by DINA agents acting with assistance from American friends. The Pinochet dictatorship kept a tight leash on Chile till 1990, when General Pinochet left office, having guaranteed immunity for himself and his men. In later years, Pinochet would be a target of human rights groups around the world.
At one point, he was arrested in London on the strength of a warrant issued by a Spanish court. Eventually allowed to go back home by the British government, he saw a resurgent Chilean democracy strip him of his immunity and charge him with human rights violations during his years as dictator. He died, aged 91, in December 2006.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.