Late in the afternoon on September 4th, 1970 a crowd gathered in central Santiago, Chile to celebrate the election of socialist president Salvador Allende. Among the participants in the celebration were the leftist folk singer Victor Jara and his wife Joan.
In her book, Victor: An Unfinished Song, Joan Jara recounts this scene “full of happiness, hugs and tears.” People pushed through the crowd, eager to congratulate Allende. When Joan neared the president-elect she remembers embracing him in a cathartic, bear-like hug. Allende said to her, “Hug me harder, compañera! This is not a time for timidity!”
The hope of that day ended in bloodshed just three years later. On September 11th, 1973 Allende was overthrown in a US-backed coup. The military dictator Augusto Pinochet took power, and led the country in a reign of terror which left thousands dead, tortured and traumatized. Among the coup’s victims were Victor Jara and Allende.
As part of the crackdown, armed forces searched the home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda told the soldiers, “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.” He died days later of heart failure, on September 23rd.
Though the dictator and many of his accomplices have escaped justice – Pinochet died in 2006 at age 91 – the horrors of Pinochet’s reign are widely documented. The book Clandestine in Chile: The Adventure of Miguel Littín by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, tells the story of Littín’s 1985 return to Chile after living in exile since the coup. The story was told from Littín’s perspective.
Hunkered down in the Basque city of San Sebastián, the leftist laments cutting off his beard in preparation for his return to Chile under a new identity. “The first thing to go was my beard. This was not just a simple matter of shaving. The beard had created a personality for me that I now had to shed.” To cushion the shock, he took the beard off gradually.
Reflecting on Chile under Pinochet, Littín remembers the tireless struggle of coal miner Sebastián Acevedo, who fought to end the torture of his twenty-two-year-old son and twenty-year-old daughter. The desperate Acevedo ultimately warned public officials, journalists and religious leaders, “If you don’t do something to stop the torture of my children, I will soak myself with gasoline and set myself on fire in the atrium of the [Concepción] cathedral.” Acevedo followed through with the threat, and became a haunting symbol of the fight against the dictatorship.
Non-violent demonstrations against Pinochet’s crimes followed the death of Acevedo. Littín described the confrontation. “The police attacked the group [of protesters] with water canons while more than two hundred of them, soaked to the skin, stood impassively against a wall, singing hymns of love.”
Before he left the country in 1973, soldier’s burned Littín’s books in a bonfire constructed in the garden of his home. Over a decade later, in 1986, Pinochet was still burning books. The dictator himself ordered 15,000 copies of Clandestine in Chile to be destroyed.
On September 11, 2010, over six thousand people gathered to mark the anniversary of the coup. Participants converged in homage to the victims of the dictatorship, as well as to demand justice and respect for human rights under the current Sebastián Piñera administration. Chile’s right wing President Piñera, one of the wealthiest people in the country, did not participate in the acts that commemorated the start of the dictatorship.
“We are living under a right wing regime which participated in the dictatorship and even today is justifying the [dictatorship’s] human rights violations,” Mireya García, the vice president of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared, told Telesur.
Some members of Piñera’s administration also worked in the Pinochet dictatorship and have not been brought to justice for their crimes. Speaking of the 37th anniversary of the September 11th coup, Piñera said that Chileans should move beyond the conflicts of the past. “We should not remain trapped in the same fights and divisions.”
Allende warned against the tyranny of forgetting. In his final radio broadcast to the Chilean people, the president condemned the coup plotters, “I say to them that I am certain that the seeds which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.”
Benjamin Dangl is the author of the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, October 2010) and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, covering activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.