Tanya Harmer: Thirty-Eight Years after Chile’s 9/11

We welcome a guest post from Tanya Harmer, author of Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (October 2011). In the book Harmer explores the period of Allende’s presidency as part of a dynamic inter-American Cold War struggle between Cuba, Chile, the United States, and Brazil to determine Latin America’s future. Allende’s presidency ended in a military coup on 11 September 1973. As the U.S. recognizes and reflects the 10-year anniversary of its own 9/11 horror, Harmer reminds us that the Chilean example demonstrates that the recovery process after a national trauma is slow and long.–ellen

This week, almost four decades ago, Chile was adjusting to a painful new reality. Instead of being democratically governed as it had been for decades, a repressive military junta was suddenly in charge. Thousands were being rounded up, tortured, murdered, and disappeared. The constitution had been suspended and a strict curfew was in place. Salvador Allende, the country’s socialist president, was also dead, having committed suicide as troops stormed the presidential palace on 11 September 1973.

Although nobody could have foreseen it at the time, Chile’s new reality would last seventeen years. A whole generation of Chileans would grow up in exile; Richard Nixon resigned, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush were inaugurated; Britain went to war with Argentina over the Malvinas; a debt crisis hit Latin America and the so-called Washington Consensus was born; Apple Macintosh launched its first computer; Chernobyl’s nuclear plant exploded; there was a revolution in Iran; the mujahedeen fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan for a decade; and the Berlin wall was torn down. All these events happened, and still the dictatorship in Chile continued.

Although it has been over twenty years since democracy returned to Chile, the country is still, today, going through a long process of coming to terms with what happened on 11 September 1973. As the world paused last weekend to mark the first long decade after 9/11 and to analyze its global legacy, it is worth bearing this in mind. Ten years after Chile’s coup, the country had not even begun to heal the wounds of the past, let alone reflect upon them; it was very much still experiencing them.

Only last month, a report on human rights abuses during the dictatorship was published in Chile. The fourth of its kind, this report added 9,800 Chileans to the list of those previously believed to have been tortured between 1973 and 1990. Although this raises the official number of Pinochet’s victims to 41,017, legal teams are also still processing hundreds more cases as campaigners fight for justice.

Meanwhile, student protestors have brought Chile to a standstill in recent months, reminding many of the upheavals of the early 1970s. Barricades have been set up across Santiago’s streets, water cannons are being used against demonstrators, and thousands have taken to beating pots and pans as a sign of protest. Perhaps more poignantly than the similarity of some of methods students are using is what they are protesting about. Nearly four decades after the coup and more than two decades after the large-scale protests against Pinochet’s dictatorship at the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of students have taken to the streets in order to overturn the neoliberal market-driven education policies introduced by the dictatorship that came to power 11 September 1973.

If that wasn’t enough, Salvador Allende’s body was also exhumed earlier this year to determine the causes of his death once and for all. Thirty-eight years on, living with the past’s consequences is an ongoing, arduous, and time-consuming process.

Chileans are also not the only ones to feel the legacies of 11 September 1973. The Cubans who lived in Chile during the Allende years remember it as if it were yesterday. Only last week, one of those who defended the Cuban embassy in Santiago on 11 September 1973 sat down for the first time to write down his memories of the coup. He then circulated them by e-mail to all his friends and contacts, the majority of whom lived through the battles at the Cuban embassy with him. Last year, the son of another one of the Cubans at the embassy in Chile on 11 September published a brand new graphic novel about his father’s experience of the coup. And in 2003 yet another of those who were in Chile on 11 September wrote an eye-opening article in Tricontinental magazine about his experiences.

The point here is that for the Cubans who were posted to Chile in the early 1970s, the Chilean coup was one of most important experiences of their lives. And we are not talking about uneventful lives, either. Many of the Cubans who went to Chile also helped Fidel Castro fight against Batista, organized Che Guevara’s fateful mission to Bolivia, and defended revolutionary gains in Africa or in Nicaragua. Even so, it is Chile, their Chilean friends, and what happened on 11 September 1973 that they remember with the most intensity and mourning when I’ve asked them about their experiences years later.

In many ways this is not surprising. Chile was not the only country to experience a brutal right-wing military dictatorship in the 1970s. The coup on 11 September came after Brazil’s coup in 1964 and before Argentina’s coup in 1976. The Cubans had also experienced successive setbacks before this, perhaps most importantly in Bolivia and Venezuela, where they had supported revolutionary insurgencies in the 1960s.

But to them, and to many across the world, the coup on 11 September 1973 against one of the longest-standing democracies in the region was a turning point in the Cold War battle to determine Latin America’s future. Quite simply, it shut off one of the only remaining revolutionary possibilities in the Southern Cone. Operation Condor was subsequently a direct consequence of the coup, as was the significance that human rights abuses would acquire in international politics in the years that followed. Moreover, the coup destroyed hopes of a peaceful road to socialism and paved the way for the first major neoliberal experiment that would later spread through Latin America in the 1990s.

For Chile, Latin America, and the world beyond, understanding what happened on 11 September 1973—and why—has been a slow process of discovery, debate, and forensic science. The opening of archives, truth commissions, human rights campaigns, and oral histories of those involved have helped historians to get a grip on what happened. And yet there is still much more to learn, both about Chile and about the inter-American Cold War battles that raged in the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, if Chile, or any of the other countries of the Southern Cone that suffered life-changing moments similar to 11 September 1973, are anything to go by, history rarely offers quick, conclusive answers. Considering all that we have learned since 11 September 1973—let alone 11 September 1983—the mind therefore boggles at how much we still have to learn about what happened at the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.

As British news anchor Jon Snow put it in a recent blog post, “Perhaps this is the added value of memorial and remembrance. That we pause not only [to] remember loved ones, but to question where history is leading us and where we are leading history.”

It should also serve to remind us how far history has come and how much effort it has taken to get this far.

Tanya Harmer is lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics and author of Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (October 2011). Read her previous guest post, “Skeletons of Chile’s Past.”