Chile and History: The Meanings of 1973

September 25, 2007

It is probably inevitable that historical watersheds are transformed into slo- gans of tremendous symbolic power. Nixon encountered his "Waterloo" at the Watergate. Europe's response to the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia spurs talk of "Munich." We watched in fear lest Central America become another "Vietnam." As with any slo- gan, these are massive oversimplifications. But they also lull us into a false belief that we agree on what a "Munich" or a "Vietnam" really is.

"Chile" has made the same ascent to symbolism as these other encounters-a rare feat for an event which occurred in Latin America. Twenty years ago, on September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, backed by politicians of the rightwing National Party and the centrist Christian Democratic Party, and with the full encouragement and support of the Nixon Administration, overthrew the Popular Unity government headed by Salvador Allende. Allende was killed in the coup-as were thousands of others, both during the coup itself and in the years that followed.The country endured 17 years of military rule before the restoration of a civilian government in March, 1990.

Perhaps "Chile" was allowed to reach the exalted levels of symbolic significance because the politics of the country so resembled those of countries in the North (or "West" as it was called then). Riding on Chile's narrow shoulders was nothing less than a world historical test of whether the transition to socialism could be achieved through democratic, peaceful methods. If it could be done in Chile, then it could be done in Italy or France or....

The crucial experiment would test whether a classically dependent country-50% of Chile's export earnings in 1965 came from copper mines owned by three U.S. firms-could break free of U.S. control without either incurring the wrath of the United States or sink- ing further into economic distress. For many of the poor and working people of Chile, the challenge was whether the people themselves-the people who lived in the shantytowns, who rented small plots of land, who labored in the factories, who slept on the steps of small stores for lack of a bed to call their own-would be allowed to speak. The answer to all of these challenges was a shrill and arrogant "nol", and Chile became "Chile," a symbol.

Like "Vietnam" or "Munich," "Chile"-the symbol-both oversimplified a complex historical event and masked a debate about its political meaning. Was "Chile" about the failure of the Left or the cunning of the Right? The success of the democratic system in Chile or its breakdown? The desire of the United States to protect Latin America from dictatorial forces or its Steven Volk, chair of NACLA's Board of Directors, served on the staff from 1973 to 1984. He is a professor of political science at Oberlin College. willingness to sacrifice self- determination at the altar of "national security"?

For many years after, opposition to Chile's military dictatorship was, for many of us, a central focus of our political work. We worked to challenge U.S. support for the Pinochet dictatorship and to provide aid and solidarity for those in Chile who were resisting it. But we also toiled in the vineyards of symbolism. If we could not control the events which led to the brutal military intervention on September 11, we had to give "Chile" the meaning it deserved. But why? How critical is it to fight a battle over the symbolic meaning attributed to historical events now long past? Tremendously so! Our culture is formed around countless symbols which, in shorthand form, recount or invent our history as a nation. This is how most of us learn the moral tales of our past: what was good and what bad; who won and who lost. It is the aim of the dominant culture to provide a certain unity to these symbolic lessons, instilling in them, for example, a sense of patriotism, patriarchy and individualism.

But it is our task to challenge those meanings where they are false, and to speak truth to power.

As the Southern Cone dictatorships disintegrated in the latter half of the 1980s, a series of investigations into military abuses were undertaken which adopted as their own the post-holocaust axiom: nunca mrs. Never again would any sector of society be allowed to act with such callous disregard for human rights and human life; never again would the military be allowed to flout legal and moral standards; never again would people be frightened into silence as their neighbors were hustled into Ford Falcons for one-way trips to unimaginable nightmares.

Co-opting the "never again" theme, General Pinochet argued in 1991 that "it is necessary that never again does anyone propose to initiate in Chile an experieither ment of the nature and scope of the Popular Unity. In such circumstances," he went on to threaten, "it will be impossible to prevent" the military from intervening yet again in the political process.' General Pinochet and his supporters understand clearly that their task is to conwho vince us that "Chile" was not about electrodes and dis- appearances, but the danger of "exotic" ideologies.

"Chile" has come to represent nothing less than our hope that a people, through democratic and peaceful means, can take control of their own destiny; that a country, trapped in a legacy of asymmetrical relations with stronger powers, can assert its own dignity; that truly great powers will recognize that they have nothing to fear from countries that are simply nourishing their own independence; and that one day, in the final words of Salvador Allende, "the glorious boulevards again will be opened" to a worthy people who deserve and can build a better society. 1. Quoted in Maria Irene Soto, "El pronunciamiento de las Fuerzas Armadas," Hoy, No. 715 (April 1-7, 1991), p. 8.


Read the rest of NACLA's Sept/Oct 1993 issue: "Peril And Promise: The New Democracy in Latin America."

Tags: Chile, coup, memory, democratization, civil society

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