The Day Chile and the Rest of Latin America Remember as Their 9/11

Homage to Salvador Allende. Credit: Oscar Ordenes/flickr, NC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Homage to Salvador Allende. Credit: Oscar Ordenes/flickr, NC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are two 9/11’s: one that we all know of and a second, older and neglected aerial assault that took place on Santiago, Chile, when Air Force jets bombed the La Moneda presidential palace and replaced an elected president with a military dictatorship that lasted close to two decades.

The September 11 attack of 1973 ended with the death of Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first elected Socialist president. Three years earlier, Allende, a talented athlete in his youth and a trained doctor, had narrowly won the presidential elections after three unsuccessful attempts at the head of the Popular Unity coalition that included Socialists of many hues, Communists and breakaway Christian Democrats.

The United States had no intention of tolerating a Socialist government in the Western hemisphere. It tried to stall the Chilean Congress from ratifying Allende as president. When that didn’t work, it actively aided elements within the armed forces to assassinate the army commander-in-chief Rene Schneider, a staunch constitutionalist, in October 1970. The murder rallied the Chilean people behind Allende and Congress ratified him as president.  A miffed U.S. ambassador in Santiago informed Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser to President Richard Nixon, “Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.” That was Nixon’s strategy as well. If a military ouster was not immediately possible, “make the economy scream”, he told the CIA chief of the time, Richard Helms.

Washington was hedging its bets on an economic collapse but the Chilean economy grew in 1971 and, with it, earnings and prosperity for the working and middle classes. Inflation went down and the new government undertook a whirlwind programme of economic and social reforms. Copper mines and banks were nationalised. Thousands of homes were built and state spending increased sharply in public health, education and pensions. In the brief period that the government was allowed to function, it took giant strides in tackling malnutrition, illiteracy and women’s health, in expanding popular culture and effecting land reforms.

The economic boom began fading by 1972 as copper prices fell. The multinational companies that produced most of Chile’s consumer goods held back on production to defeat price controls while Washington made sure that the government was unable to secure foreign investment. The Soviet Union largely ignored Allende’s requests for funds. Inflation rose sharply and a CIA-funded strike by truck owners dealt a crippling blow to the floundering economy. Small businessmen and middle class professionals started their own strikes, hoping to bring the government down. The nation’s largest daily, El Mercurio, launched a no-holds barred campaign against Allende with covert U.S. support.

Undated photograph of Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro. Credit: Jorge Barahona/Flickr CC 2.0

Undated photograph of Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro. Credit: Jorge Barahona/Flickr CC 2.0

The US and the Chilean opposition were confident of securing a two-thirds majority in the March 1973 parliamentary elections that would allow them to get rid of the president. Instead, the Popular Unity coalition vote share went up by 7%. Washington and the Chilean elite realised that Allende could not be defeated by electoral means; the stage was set for a military coup. The opposition used its majority in the Congress to stall the working of the government. There were large street demonstrations organised by upper class women —“the jolly ladies of the bourgeoisie”, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez described them — private university students and far-Right groups. Food and medicine disappeared from the shelves.

A tank regiment tried to storm the presidential palace in August but was repelled by the palace guards. Augusto Pinochet was appointed Army chief, the President being under the illusion that he was on his side. Working together with US intelligence and military officials, the Chilean armed forces began a systematic purge of all officers who were against a military takeover. On the morning of September 11, the Navy mutinied in the port city of Valparaiso. Within an hour, the uprising spread to Santiago, with the military closing down most radio and television stations and declaring themselves in charge.

The president was isolated and unaware of his total loss of control. He thought Pinochet had been taken prisoner; in fact, he was directing the attack on the palace. Allende was offered an aircraft to take him out of the country but he refused, which was just as well because recorded radio intercepts reveal Pinochet giving the order that the aircraft would have to be brought down.

Before the palace was bombed at 11 a.m. Allende still had time for one last speech. Facing imminent death, he said in a crackling radio broadcast that when “the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you”, he would like to be remembered as “a man of dignity who was loyal to his country” and that “sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society”.

Allende and a small group resisted the military till almost the very end, the President finally killing himself in his office with the AK-47 that Fidel Castro had gifted him at the start of his presidency.

The military coup heralded a wave of arbitrary killings, detentions and torture of tens of thousands of Chileans. Military death squads, known as caravans of death, scoured the country for anyone associated with the Allende regime. Thousands ended up in unmarked mass graves, many in the inhospitable Atacama desert, where family members still search for their remains. Concentration camps and torture centres were set up in military installations, football stadiums like the one which hosted the recent Copa America and even on the Navy ship La Esmeralda which, as the country’s goodwill ambassador on the high seas, dropped anchor at Kochi (2008) and Mumbai (2012).

Among those to die from a heart attack brought on by torture was the father of the current Chilean President, Michele Bachelet, an Air Force General, at a military academy headed by his closest friend whose daughter, Evelyn, was the presidential candidate for the Right at the last elections. The two girls were childhood friends at the same military base and their fathers shared a passion for classical music.

Pinochet’s military dictatorship served as the staging ground for a neo-liberal reordering of the Chilean economy just at the time Reagan and Thatcher were evangelising the doctrine as an antidote to failed Communism. The result has been a deeply unequal society where poverty has been pushed to the margins and concealed from the outsiders by the glitter of its city centres.

Four decades might seem like a long time to drag things out of the past, but people across Latin America commemorate the date as living history, not the least because the Chilean template is still being used to destabilise every progressive government in the region – whether that of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina or Brazil.

It is their 9/11, their moment of terror unfolding from the skies.