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Remembering Chile's 9/11: Salvador Allende, the United States-Backed Coup, and the Unimaginable Terror That Followed

By Petr Navovy | Pajiba Storytellers | September 16, 2016 |

By Petr Navovy | Pajiba Storytellers | September 16, 2016 |

It is September 11, 1973 in the Chilean capital, Santiago, and the city is under almost complete military control. Only the presidential palace at its heart, La Moneda, remains out of the army’s hands. Inside La Moneda, Dr Salvador Allende, leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, doctor, and the first Marxist to become an openly elected leader of a South American country. La Moneda suffers a continuous martial assault, with heavier artillery arriving all the time, and though all hope is lost Allende refuses to surrender, citing his constitutional duty to remain in office as the nation’s elected leader and refusing to back down in the face of barbarism. Knowing that this is most likely his last stand, Allende gives a farewell speech:

Surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the antennas of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación.

Given these facts, the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I’m not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for the loyalty of the people with my life. And 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.

I address you, above all, the modest woman of our land, the countrywoman who believed in us, the mother who knew our concern for children. I address professionals of Chile, patriotic professionals who continued working against the sedition that was supported by professional associations, classist associations that also defended the advantages of capitalist society. I address the youth, those who sang and gave us their joy and their spirit of struggle. I address the man of Chile, the worker, the farmer, the intellectual, those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has been already present for many hours — in terrorist attacks, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railroad tracks, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to act. They were committed. History will judge them.

Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to his country.

The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Not long after, army troops given cover by air support and artillery fire manage to storm the building. Salvador Allende would not leave the building alive.


La Moneda palace under attack

This then, was Chile’s own 9/11. Its shockwaves would be felt deeply by all of Latin America for decades to come, and its immediate aftermath would be one of unfathomable terror.

Dr Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1969, had been, in essence, a European-style social democrat. Appointed leader of a dramatically unequal society still suffering the legacy of colonialism and junta/Caudillismo-style rule, he undertook reform programs to build on the undoing some of that legacy’s harm that the governments of the previous few decades had begun. Minor redistribution of wealth; agrarian reform; nationalisation of copper and other industries; and a promise that the country would be able to develop along its own, self-defined path were some of the key touchstones of his presidency. One of his hallmark policies spoke loudly of his roots as a physician: a free milk program for half a million poor, malnourished children. His presidency made great strides in shaking off the yoke of oppressive history.

But Salvador Allende and his policies, beloved by so many at home, also had his share of enemies.

It is at this point in the story where the shadow of an eagle crosses our path.


As anyone even glancingly familiar with the history of Latin America could probably guess, the United States did not look favourably upon the presidency of Salvador Allende. Even before being elected in 1969 Allende was in the crosshairs of US, as the Church Committee found much later after the fact that during the presidential campaigns of 1964, the United States had spent more money per capita on the Chilean elections ensuring that Allende would not emerge the victor than was spent by both Johnson and Goldwater on their campaigns on home soil.

Allende’s victory five years later would send Washington into overdrive. Chile’s democratically elected government could not stand as an example to others. There is nothing more harmful than an excess of democracy. It would have to fall. The CIA and the Washington Ad Hoc Committee on Chile drafted a plan to light the way forward: suspend aid, use bribery and other means to turn the military against the civilian government, take advantage of the inevitable turmoil to depose Allende, overturn his policies and return to the privatisation and free trade deals that mark business as usual. The plan was delivered to President Nixon and moved ahead. There were two broad wings of the plan: the ‘soft line’ and the ‘hard line’. ‘Hard line’ meant military coup. In a conversation with CIA Director Richard Helms at the time, President Nixon described the ‘soft line’ as ‘making the economy scream.’ The United States ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry — by all accounts classified as a typical Kennedy-type liberal — described the soft line thus: ‘do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.’

Eventually the ‘hard line’ prevailed, and the military, navy, and national police force, led in part by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew Allende’s government, ending in the siege at La Moneda, and they assumed immediate control. Allende’s Popular Unity government fell, and a junta was established. The United States recognised its legitimacy with astute haste.

Harsh measures were initiated almost immediately. All political activity was suspended. Leftist movements and any other perceived threats were swiftly and mercilessly shut down. The democractic socialist policies that Allende had initiated or continued were reversed. Political opponents, perceived or actual, were rounded up into stadiums. Torture, mass murder, and intimidation became the name of the game under the supreme power of Pinochet’s US-supported junta. Chile, having been seen as a beacon of relative democracy and stability in Latin America, burned in the fires of fascist savagery. Institutionalised programs of terror, brutality, and physical, sexual and psychological torture prevailed for years. 30,000 people were tortured, 2,300 executed, another 1,300 missing. 200,000 people suffered exile, and an unknown amount, numbering in the tens of thousands, were interned or otherwise passed through secret government centers. One program initiated by Pinochet was the so-called ‘Caravan of Death’ — a helicopter-based army unit that roamed the country, torturing and executing any political opponents.

In a recorded conversation following Salvador Allende’s overthrow, Henry Kissinger complained that the United States was not given enough credit for its role in the overthrow of a dangerous ‘communist’ government. President Nixon replied: ‘Well, we didn’t - as you know - our hand doesn’t show on this one.’

Pinochet’s murderous reign was to last for decades. There were to be other, less-directly lethal policies. In the very nascent stages of his rule, Pinochet, emboldened and instructed by the notorious ‘Chicago Boys’ — free-market economists and ideologues from the University of Chicago who had trained under Milton Friedman and his ilk — would institute a vast swathe of neoliberal reforms. Using the momentum and distraction of the shock of the coup, as well as a 500-page, CIA-delivered manual called ‘BRICK’, Pinochet’s regime would provide one of the template examples of what Naomi Klein has termed ‘The Shock Doctrine’:

Shock doctrine from Foreign Office on Vimeo.

Privatisation, cuts to social spending, vast transferal of power and wealth. The suffering would be unquantifiable. Through crashes and slowdowns the dogma was never allowed to be questioned.

Pinochet would eventually resign from his 17-year rule in 1990, though he would continue to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until 1998, at which point he went into retirement and became a senator-for-life. Later that year an international arrest warrant for numerous human rights abuses would be issued during his visit to London, but he was eventually released on grounds of ill-health. Finally, in 2004, a Chilen Judge would rule that the former General was medically fit to stand trial. Pinochet was placed under house arrest. He died so three years later, 300 criminal charges against him still pending.

During these trials and tribulations, as before, Augusto Pinochet could always count on one staunch friend and supporter.


During her time in office, Margaret Thatcher would repeatedly call Pinochet a ‘true friend’. She would invite him to her home for tea, and later personally lobby against his prosecution for war crimes. She would say to him: ‘I’m also very much aware that it is you who brought democracy to Chile, you set up a constitution suitable for democracy, you put it into effect, elections were held, and then, in accordance with the result, you stepped down.’

Margaret Thatcher, though the most vocal of Pinochet’s supporters, did not stand alone. The United States, under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, adopted a far more subtle strategy of tacit approval through U.N. abstentions, as well as its considerable sway in other supranational organisations like the World Bank. Even when the world gazed aghast and disbelieving at the blood on Pinochet’s hands, the United States couldn’t turn their back on him. After all, he was building a world they had helped him envision.

In 2011 President Barack Obama would visit Chile. He would stand upon the steps of the same La Moneda palace inside which President Salvador Allende’s blood was shed, and he would declare it the place where Chile, ‘lost its democracy decades ago.’ He would be asked by a reporter: ‘In Chile … there are some open wounds of the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Political leaders, leaders of the world, of human rights … have said that many of those wounds have to do with the United States … Is the U.S. willing to collaborate with those judicial investigations? Is the United States willing to ask for forgiveness for what it did in those very difficult years in the ’70s in Chile?’ President Obama would only respond by referring to the ‘extremely rocky’ history between the two nations, and by saying that he could not speak to all the policies of the past. He would say that we should not be ‘trapped by our history.’

September 11, 1973 is a date forever seared into the history of Latin America. The rivers of blood that would follow that dark day would stain more than Chile. The paralysing terror that would be woven into the country’s institutions, the subjugation of humanity itself, and the complicity of Western nations in all this means that we are bound by duty to never forget it.

One of those who lost their life in aftermath of September 11th was singer Victor Jara. As well as a singer Jara was also a teacher, a poet, theater director, and political activist. Shortly after Pinochet swept into power Jara was arrested, tortured, and executed, his body dumped into a shanty town. Ana Tijoux, a French-Chilean singer and daughter of Chilean parents living in exile in France during Pinochet’s dictatorship, has covered one of Jara’s songs. In Chile, a country still living with the enduring legacy of decades of neoliberal dictatorship, the memory of the darkness of those days will never fade.


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music