The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics

October 2, 2013


What is it about events in Chile now four decades past that continue to provide us with metaphors for understanding current events, even as many of those understandings are in fundamental disagreement with one another? A July 21 New York Times article on the Bridgeport, Connecticut, school system, for example, reported on the deep divisions the superintendent of schools had created in the town. “We thought we had a good guy,” a parent leader complained, “But at each and every turn, he has ignored the…voices of the people of Bridgeport;” bloggers soon began to compare him “to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.” Observing a very different situation, editors at the Wall Street Journal cheered in a July 4 editorial as the army deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, deriding the president’s “narrow” election a year before. “Egyptians would be lucky,” they wrote, “if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.”


As a graduate student living in Santiago in 1972 and 1973, I had become fully absorbed into the dramatic events playing out in Chile. Like many young foreigners, I had come to see, and perhaps take part in, the historic experiment touched off by the election of Salvador Allende and his leftist Popular Unity coalition. For all the tumult and tensions of those years, we were privileged witnesses to a rare possibility, a dream, that the people, united, could change their world for the better. Sadly, when I awoke early on the morning of September 11, 1973 and looked out my apartment’s windows in downtown Santiago to see the traffic flooding out of the city, I knew that the long-predicted military coup had come. The dream would be deferred, we knew, but there probably wasn’t one among us who could have foreseen the thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of identified cases of torture that the military intervention would leave in its wake. Nor could we have guessed that the newly installed Army chief, General Augusto Pinochet, would impose his rule so thoroughly over a 17-year long period that he could brag, in 1981, “Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don’t know about it.”1 We never imagined that the economic, as well as political, architecture erected by the dictatorship would continue to shape all post-dictatorial governments in Chile, as well as inspiring similar models in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere.

Events in Chile from 40 years ago have continued to resonate in the United States, as reflected in the disputed estimations of Pinochet evident in the opening paragraph. That events in Chile continue to haunt the United States much more so than those of other countries where the U.S. hand has been equally heavy and the consequences equally grim, is one of the features that underscore this history. Our goal in this issue is not to relive the hopes of the days prior to the coup or to re-experience the times of terror following it, both of which have generated considerable academic and popular literatures, but to understand the impact that these events have made on how we now experience neoliberal constraints and practice progressive politics; we hope to trace what is different because of those events.




The United States and Chile have been linked since the 19th century when prospectors and whalers sailed from Valparaíso to San Francisco and Nantucket, respectively. In the 20th century, John Kennedy’s advisors saw in Chile’s relatively democratic history a chance to showcase how U.S. aid dollars could create a model of non-Communist development to put up against the Cuban Revolution. And when the Chilean people weren’t taken in by the Alliance for Progress but instead cast their ballots in 1970 for the Socialist candidate, Salvador Allende, President Nixon “decided that an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States.”2 Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, set about undermining the Popular Unity government (via the so-called “Track II” approach) inspired by equal measures of Cold War fervor, a historic contempt for the Latin American “back yard,” and a chilling cynicism evident in the suggestions that Washington’s actual purpose in overthrowing Allende was to send a message to others, particularly in Europe, that one shouldn’t partner up with the Communists. When Allende’s end came, it was, as one scholar observed, a case of “assisted suicide.” If the United States didn’t literally send in the Marines, it was because they weren’t needed.

Washington provided Pinochet with the economic aid and political cover he needed to consolidate his rule. By 1975, this assured, he threw his lot in with the radical economic model offered up by the “Chicago Boys,” a group of monetarist economists trained at the Catholic University in Santiago and the University of Chicago, who were given the green light to turn the country into their own social science laboratory. Working without fear of labor resistance, popular backlash, legislative constraints, or media scrutiny, the economists precipitously removed the state from the economy, slashed the social safety net, opened Chile to international competition, and encouraged market relations to replace social solidarity in every sphere. The result was that a country historically known for its progressive social policies and active union movement soon lacked both. “In this societal desert,” Guillermo O’Donnell concludes, “huge social costs were incurred, and although with various changes and accidents, the neoliberal program was mostly implemented.”3

As Ximena de la Barra writes in this issue, describing what she terms Chile’s schizophrenia, “Not only were we the privileged students of the model; we were teachers of other unwary countries who wanted to be as we were said to be.” Pinochet’s neoliberal experiments were watched with rapt interest in the United States and Great Britain, among other places, and it wasn’t long before a few chickens were coming home to roost. Chile privatized its social security system in 1980 under the direction of Pinochet’s Secretary of Labor and Social Security, José Piñera (Catholic University, Harvard University; brother of Chile’s current President). Piñera also played a key role in privatizing Chile’s health care system. It was the very same Piñera, as co-chair of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Project on Social Security Choice, who convinced President George W. Bush to move toward privatizing social security in the United States.4 While this proved politically impossible for Bush, many neoliberal policies first implemented in Chile and later applied to the United States since the Reagan presidency have produced distressingly similar outcomes in both countries. In terms of income inequality (as measured by Gini coefficients), Chile ranks 36th and last (i.e., most unequal) among all OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries; the United States is 33rd.5 In both countries, the pressure to privatize K-12 schooling is rapidly advancing, and both are suffering through a similar crisis in higher education. College degrees have become essential in both countries for a student’s future economic success, and, as tuitions have mounted, many are forced to absorb impossible levels of debt. If there is a difference it is that in Chile, as the articles by Joshua Frens-String and Peter D’Amato in this issue highlight, the student response—drawing from its own long history and its relation with Chile’s Left parties—has been well organized, massive, and creative. As the student movement and its leaders push the center-left Concertación alliance from both inside and outside the coalition to take increasingly progressive stands, many commentators are beginning to speculate on whether they can weaken neoliberalism’s hegemonic grip on Chilean economics.




But for all its destructiveness, the Chilean coup also proved to be generative for the progressive movement in a number of ways. Three deserve particular attention. In the first place, events in Chile sparked a broad international debate on Allende’s “peaceful road to socialism” and why it failed, the implications of its collapse, and what new approaches should be implemented if we are to resolve the crisis and uphold the dignity of the working and popular classes. Articles in this issue by Raúl Zibechi and Patricia Richards explore a series of political developments that have reverberated through Chilean communities at home and in exile since Allende’s overthrow. Zibechi explores the way that feminism, active non-violence, and environmentalism, among other developments, have shaped his thinking. Richards, one of a number of scholars and activists to examine the often tenuous links between socialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s and indigenous peoples and organizations, examines the legacy of relations between the Mapuche and leftist Chileans. She argues that until the Chilean (winka) left can fully accept broad Mapuche epistemologies and their consequent political approaches, the two will likely remain at arm’s length.

In the second place, events in Chile were critical to the development of new practices of international solidarity and in their theorization. Previous movements had sprung up in the United States to support the Cuban Revolution (Fair Play for Cuba, the Venceremos Brigade) or to oppose Brazil’s military dictatorship (Friends of Brazil). But events in Chile, particularly after the coup, gave rise to the development of one of the most significant solidarity movements in this country’s history. The Chile solidarity movement worked along a series of parallel paths, developing specific human rights approaches designed to protect individuals in Chile, directly confronting any public relations campaigns the Chilean military attempted in the United States, and linking U.S. policy in Chile with progressive politics at home. The solidarity movement generated two national organizations (Non-Intervention in Chile (NICH) and the National Coordinating Center in Solidarity with Chile), as many as three dozen local solidarity groups from Boston to Seattle, and a number of organizations devoted to specific issues (women, political prisoners, academics, etc.). It was one of a few progressive solidarity movements to generate significant trade union support, particularly among port workers, and to spread beyond a core of supporters in the student-led anti-war movement of the time. As one Detroit-based activist wrote in a letter, which could have been written yesterday but was penned 40 years ago, “We in Detroit…live in ‘death city’—more abandoned houses, more murders, more heroin...and more infant mortality—than many other places in the world. I believe that our struggle is the Chilean struggle…”6

The Chilean coup was a key catalyst for the development of new non-state actors devoted to human rights work (Amnesty International, for example), as well as pushing existing NGOs to work more concertedly on human rights issues (e.g., the International Commission of Jurists, the Ford Foundation, the World Council of Churches, the Bertrand Russell Tribunal II). Events in Chile encouraged the United Nations Human Rights Commission to reorganize its work to allow for country-specific interventions. And while academics and activists have only recently begun to focus on the local roots of solidarity, the Chile solidarity movement directly influenced the rise of Central American solidarity organizations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tamara Spira’s article in this issue examines how the Chilean coup influenced transnational organizing around issues of race and gender as well as highlighting the role that culture—poetry in this case—took on as a vital bridge between progressive communities in the United States and Chile.

A full discussion of why events in Chile played such a catalyzing role in the development of solidarity work in the United States is beyond the scope of this introduction. But, among other factors, we can call attention to those that are specifically tied to Chile itself, particularly its democratic past and the dramatic transformation from an elected government to a brutal military dictatorship: the role of the United States (where congressional hearings, investigative reporting, and the work of NACLA and others quickly highlighted Washington’s role in destabilizing Allende and sustaining Pinochet); a dynamic, well-informed set of actors who could speak cogently on events in Chile (including a significant number of U.S. citizens who returned from Chile after the coup and a growing exile community that counted among its numbers some remarkably effective spokespeople such as Ariel Dorfman and, until his assassination in 1976, Orlando Letelier); the well publicized murders of two U.S. citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, by the Chilean military; and the nature of the specific political moment: the coup occurred less than four months after the Watergate hearings opened, at the height of anti-war mobilizations, and with a (relatively) liberal Congress in Washington.

Finally, the election and overthrow of Salvador Allende were instrumental events in the search to uncover and publish official documentation detailing U.S. activities abroad—as well as domestically. As Peter Kornbluh, Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive put it in a telephone interview, investigative work of Washington’s activities abroad “took a quantum leap forward” because of events in Chile. It was characteristic for scholars (not to mention activists) to have to wait 25 years or longer after an event before reading a highly scrubbed official version of what had occurred. Schlesinger and Kinser’s Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala was published in 1982, 28 years after the CIA overthrew the progressive Arbenz government in Guatemala. Nick Cullather’s “secret CIA history” of the Guatemalan coup only appeared in 1999. While we would have to wait until the same year to get the first substantial tranche of government documents on Chile, because of some critically timed investigative reporting and a liberal Congress, the public was able to access at least some government secrets on a much closer to real time basis.

Jack Anderson first published an account of the International Telephone and Telegraph’s (ITT) attempts to encourage the CIA to overthrow Allende in his syndicated column in the Washington Post on March 21 and 22, 1972. NACLA came out with a special edition on “The Secret Memos of the ITT” in April 1972 and a report on Washington’s invisible economic blockade in January 1973. That year, the Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, held hearings on the ITT leaks. His committee brought previously secret documents alleging a U.S. role in attempting to overthrow a friendly government to the public while Allende was still in office (the report was published on June 21, 1973). And when the military did overthrow Allende, reporters were more prepared to look for Washington’s hand than they had been in previous coups.

On September 8, 1974, almost one year after the coup, the New York Times published Seymour Hersh’s front-page story of the CIA’s “Track II” campaign against Allende. The story, as Kornbluh observed, “set off a major political scandal [that] in turn, led to the first major congressional inquiry into abuses of executive branch power, the misconduct of the intelligence community and the presidential use of clandestine warfare as a foreign policy weapon.” Henry Kissinger would later concede in his memoir, Years of Renewal, that the Hersh articles “had the effect of a burning match in a gasoline depot.”7

The congressional inquiry Kornbluh refers to is that of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also chaired by Senator Church, which began its hearings in 1975 and resulted in seven volumes of testimony and documentation, including a report on “Covert Actions.” As noted, however, researchers would have to wait until 1999 to get the first substantial set of government documents detailing U.S. policy in Chile before and after the coup, and those were released only after years of demands from the National Security Archive, an organization founded in 1985 to check government secrecy, and as a product of the pressures raised by Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the attempts by Wikileaks, Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden and others to make public what the U.S. government is doing in real time, rather than waiting decades for a sanitized version, traces its lineage at least partially back to the events of “the other September 11.” The events that unfolded in Chile four decades ago remind us that democracy demands access to information and an informed and active citizenry, and that if we wait for Washington to give us what is already ours, we will remain in the dark.

For those of us whose lives were disrupted and refashioned by that September 11th, for “los que sobrevivimos” (those of us who survived), in Raúl Zibechi’s words, the tug of memory is both constant and complex. Clara Han’s article in this issue persuasively demonstrates the “presentness” of the past as she considers how Allende’s memory has been mobilized in the población of La Pincoya. We care deeply not only about how we remember those events, fearing time’s inevitable disintegrating effects, but also how those events are to be remembered, as the contrasting images of Pinochet which opened this introduction make clear. We have come to appreciate how the battle over memory is a struggle over meaning, and that our ability to construct meaning about the past is deeply rooted in access to information and how we then make sense of it. Ultimately, however, our glance back to that moment, 40 years ago, is not about the past but the future; it is what Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi meant when he observed that the antonym of “forgetting” was not “remembering,” but “justice.”



1. “General Pinochet’s Dance with Justice,” last modified September 8, 2006,

2. CIA Memorandum, “Genesis of Project FUBELT, September 16, 1970,” reproduced in Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File (NY: New Press, 2003), 37.

3. Guillermo O’Donnell, “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries,” World Development 21 (1993): 1366.

4. Barbara T. Dryfuss, “The Siren of Santiago,” Mother Jones (March/April 2005),

5. World Bank Development Indicators in “Wealth Distribution and Income Inequality by Country,” by Valentina Pasquali, Global Finance:

6. Lynda Ann Ewan, Roll No. 26, Frame No. 0038, Files No. 137, NACLA Archive.

7. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 219.



Steven S. Volk teaches Latin American history at Oberlin College. He began to volunteer with NACLA in 1969, was on staff between 1973-1984, and has remained on the Board since then.



Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2013 issue: "Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics"



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