Richard Nixon and his adversary Leonid Brezhnev. Chile lost in the translation?
Chileans have their own 9/11. For many Chileans, September 11, 1973 will be the date that forever will live in infamy. Theirs happened 38 years ago, a full 28 years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States that shook the world to its core and today overshadows anything that happened on that day, including on Chilean soil. But to Chileans, their own 9/11 is one huge sad chapter in their history, and one that continues to cause much pain almost 40 years after.
On September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup. Dozens of people were killed that day, but thousands died in the days, months and years that followed. The dictatorship proved more harmful and certainly more deadly to Chilean society than anything Allende’s duly elected government had done. Growing dissatisfaction at home with Allende’s socialist policies, lagging economic conditions, and cozy relationship with communist Cuba led to the coup. But external forces as well played a key role in Allende’s overthrow and the installation of the military dictatorship. In the midst of a Cold War and an arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States worried that the Soviets would gain yet another foothold in Latin America.
U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agencyto step up operations in Chile to hasten the removal of Allende, who as part of his socialist agenda had nationalized companies – including the mining industry – partly or wholly in the hands of American and other foreign interests. American companies, such as ITT Corp., also spent millions trying to derail Allende.
ITT was a majority owner of the Chilean telephone company and openly worried that Allende would nationalize it as well. That would mean millions in losses for the U.S.-based corporate giant. So internal and external forces worked hand in hand to topple Allende. And so a ruthless dictatorship came to be. The human rights violations are immeasurable.
Every year, Chileans observe the somber anniversary with calls for justice for the men and women collectively known as los desaparecidos – the vanished. Over the course of the 17-year dictatorship, thousands of these individuals were executed, murdered, tortured and made to disappear. They were often picked up at their homes or place of work and never seen or heard from again. Some were buried in unmarked graves in the desert.
In Calama, where I currently live here in Chile, I was walking in the center of town when I came across a display and a group of women known as the Women of Calama. These are women whose husbands, sons, fathers were executed by the military regime or made to disappear. One of the women, a black and white photo of her father pinned to her chest, took the time to tell me about the display and the reason for it.
She said that on October 19, 1973, just over a month into the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 26 men from Calama were rounded up – her father included – and were never heard from again. Some were executed while the whereabouts of others was never again known. The Women of Calama each year call for justice for the individuals whose lives were cut short by the military dictatorship led by Pinochet. Annually in the center of Calama they display the photos of the men and items that tell their stories, such as family photographs, documents and news articles.
On the day I saw the moving display, hundreds of Chileans gathered around to see it. Children learn about the events of 1973 and beyond in Chilean schools, she said, so there’s little chance of Chile’s youths not knowing that part of their country’s history. Still, the Women of Calama dust off the displays each year in October as a way to remember those killed.
The woman told me that the wheels of justice move extremely slowly in Chile and many who took part in the murders and torture of innocents are yet to be brought to justice. She said some of the accused are old and make all sorts of claims of senility to avoid prosecution.
Some say Chileans don’t like Americans for the United States’ part in bringing the dictatorship to power. I can’t say that I blame them, if that’s indeed the case. But in my three months in Chile, I have not seen any evidence of that. If anything, I’ve been shown nothing but kindness once Chileans learn I’m American.
Certainly, the United States wanted Allende gone. But Chileans also wanted his ouster. Those two forces obviously didn’t know that a military dictatorship that would go around conducting assassinations even beyond its borders would assume control. Herein lies the lesson for the United States and others backing the overthrow of longtime leaders in places such as the Arab world : Be careful what you wish for.
I have to hand it to Chileans. Well, at least the Chileans in the northern town of Calama. They know how to make anti-government protest and random acts of civil disobedience entertaining. I’ve never had so much fun at a demonstration.
Not that I’ve participated in many protests to know the dynamics, the mechanics and what is to be expected. I have to think back to my college years to recall a demonstration I took part in. It was against a proposal to replace the free-wheeling, free-choice Liberal Artsprogram with a mandatory core set of academic subjects. So instead of entering college and choosing which subjects you wanted to take toward your major, a freshman would be required to take a series of courses in math, science, English and a sprinkling of other subjects before he or she could fully concentrate on subjects in whatever major he or she had settled on.
Minority students saw that as a backdoor strategic move to scrap ethnic studies, such as Black Studies and Puerto Rican studies. Demonstrations decades before had led to the establishment of those departments and students weren’t about to let them go without a fight. I still remember the chant of hundreds of students in front of the administration building: “Core curriculum we say no! Ethnic studies won’t go!!” We lost that battle. All the college administration had to do is wait. Soon, the vocal opponents would have graduated and moved on to real life issues, such as jobs, marriage, kids, a mortgage.
After college I was not allowed to participate in protests or even so much as sign a petition no matter how worthy the cause. I was a journalist and journalists give up certain rights and freedoms other citizens have. Journalists have opinions, certainly, but they must keep them in check if they want to keep their jobs. Of course, journalists who are paid to give their opinion, well that’s a different story.
So this protest thing was sort of foreign to me. As a reporter I had covered my share of demonstrations, but they ranged from peaceful gatherings to the odd guy in a monkey suit chained to a bike rack in front of a federal courthouse.
Music and protest
In Calama, it was all about music. This protest to force the central government in Santiago to give Calama 5 percent of the revenues generated by the copper mines in the region was more like a folk and rock concert than anything else. In between pronouncements and denouncements of the administration of President Sebastián Piñera, bands took the stage and rocked the crowd. The headliners, the Chilean band Sol y Lluvia, had the flag-waving, mostly young audience jumping up and down in unison and singing along. Sol y Lluvia formed in the 1980s and became popular for their brand of music that mixes modern and traditional instruments, but also because of their strong opposition to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. I really enjoyed this band. And so did the rest of the audience on hand.
Besides the bands, there were cheerleaders doing acrobatic stunts, men and women in strange costumes, jugglers on stilts, flag dancers, loud vuvuzelas left over from World Cup Soccer, and an assortment of other acts that pleased the audience. This was the most excitement I had seen in Calama in the nearly two months I’ve been here.
Freed mayor speaks
Now, I refer to the amassed crowd as an audience rather than protesters because the event evolved into a street festival. Sure, there were some tense moments, but few and far between. At Chuquicamata, the largest open-pit mine in the world, Calama Mayor Esteban Velásquez and several others were arrested and put in jail for several hours after they blocked the entrance to the mine to stop vehicles from entering and exiting in a failed effort to shutdown mining operations. According to eyewitnesses, several of the demonstrators who showed up at the mine around 4 a.m., were forcibly removed by riot police brought in from the town of Iquique, about five hours drive north. The mayor and the others were freed after boisterous demonstrators turned up at the police station to demand their release. Other demonstrators claimed they and others were beaten by riot police at the mine.
Also at the Calama Shopping Mall, which chose to ignore the citywide work stoppage, demonstrators blocked access and refuse to allow potential shoppers to enter. Mall security and police worked out an agreement with the demonstrators to allow the mall to stay open until noon. The protesters agreed and promptly at noon were back at the mall chanting and turning away people who were trying to do some shopping.
Several demonstrators at the mall tried to get me to join them and I pointed out that I was not Chilean and the penalty for foreigners participating in demonstrations in Chileis automatic deportation. The women said they would protest my deportation. Funny.