I Watched a Democracy Die. I Don’t Want to Do It Again


Chilean workers marching in support of Allende in 1964. Photograph Source: James N. Wallace – Public Domain

For 50 years, I have been mourning the death of President Salvador Allende of Chile, who was overthrown in a coup the morning of Sept. 11, 1973. For 50 years, I have mourned his death and the many deaths that followed: the execution and disappearance of my friends and so many more unknown women and men whom I marched with through the streets of Santiago in defense of Mr. Allende and his unprecedented attempt to build a socialist society without bloodshed.

I can pinpoint the moment I realized that our peaceful revolution had failed. It was early on the morning of the coup in the nation’s capital, when I heard the announcement that a junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet was now in control of Chile. Later that night, huddling in a safe house, already being hunted by Chile’s new rulers, I listened to a radio broadcast that Mr. Allende had been found dead at La Moneda, the presidential palace and seat of government, after the armed forces bombed it and assaulted it with tanks and troops.

My first reaction was dread. Dread of what could happen to me, to my family and friends, dread at what was about to happen to my country. And then I was overcome by a sorrow that has never quite lifted from my heart. We had been given a unique, luminous chance to change history — a left-wing, democratically elected government in Latin America that was set to be an inspiration to the world. And then we had blown it.

Not only did General Pinochet end our dreams; he ushered in an era of brutal human rights violations. During his military rule, from 1973 to 1990, more than 40,000 people were subjected to physical and psychological torture. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans — political opponents, independent critics or innocent civilians suspected of having links to them — were jailed, murdered, persecuted or exiled. More than a thousand men and women are still among the desaparecidos, the disappeared, with no funerals and no graves.

How our nation remembers, 50 years later, the historical trauma of our common past could not be more important than it is now, when the temptation of authoritarian rule is once again on the rise among Chileans, as it is, of course, across the world. Many conservatives in Chile today argue that the 1973 coup was a necessary correction. Behind their justification lurks a dangerous nostalgia for a strongman who supposedly will deal with the problems of our time by imposing order, crushing dissent and restoring some sort of mythical national identity.

Today, when around 70 percent of the population had not even been born at the time of the military takeover, it is critical for people both in Chile and the rest of the world to remember the dire consequences of resorting to violence to resolve our dilemmas and indulging in division rather than striving for solidarity, dialogue and compassion.

Fifty years ago, as soon as I heard the name Augusto Pinochet, I knew we were doomed. Mr. Allende had trusted General Pinochet, the head of the Chilean Army, as the one officer we could count on to support the Constitution and stop any putsch. I spoke to the general briefly just a week earlier. I was working at La Moneda as the media and cultural adviser to Mr. Allende’s chief of staff. I often answered the phones, and I happened to pick up when General Pinochet called, saying in his gruff, nasal voice that would soon bark out the orders to destroy the democracy he had sworn to uphold.

Chile had entranced me ever since I arrived in the country as a 12-year-old, born in Argentina and raised in the United States. As I grew older, what became central to my love for the country was the thrill of living in a nation with a longstanding democracy and a national liberation movement born of the struggles of generations of workers and intellectuals, with the charismatic figure of Mr. Allende leading the way to a future that did not rely on the exploitation of the many by the few.

That wasn’t just a dream. When our leader won the national elections in 1970, his coalition of left-wing parties put in effect a series of policies that began to release Chile from its reliance on foreign corporations and the local oligarchy. It is hard to describe the joy, both personal and collective, that accompanied this certainty that ordinary people were the protagonists of history, that we did not have to accept the world as we had found it.

But what was a radiant opportunity for us had felt like a threat to a number of our compatriots who saw our revolution as an arrogant assault on their deepest identities and traditions. This was especially true for those who considered their property and privileges as part of a natural and eternal order. These longstanding owners of Chile’s wealth, with the support of President Richard Nixon’s White House and the C.I.A., conspired to sabotage Mr. Allende’s government.

There was no mourning among the rich and powerful that night of Sept. 11. They were celebrating that Chile had been saved from what they feared would become another Cuba, a totalitarian state that would erase them from the country they claimed as their fief. The abyss that opened that day between the victims and the beneficiaries of the coup persists, many years after democracy was restored in 1990.

There has been some progress since then in creating a national consensus that the atrocities of the dictatorship must never again — nunca más — be tolerated. But today Chile’s radical right and more than a third of Chileans have expressed approval of the Pinochet regime.

No consensus, therefore, has been reached about the coup itself, despite the efforts of Chile’s current president, Gabriel Boric. Mr. Boric, who is just 37 and an admirer of Mr. Allende, tried to have all political parties sign a joint statement that declared that under no circumstances can a military takeover ever be justified. Last week, the right-wing parties declined to sign the statement.

The right-wing leader José Antonio Kast, a sort of Trump of the Andes who is favored to win the presidency in 2025, is an outspoken supporter of the dictator’s legacy. He refuses, like an alarming number of his devotees, to condemn what happened on Sept. 11, 1973. They insist on the thesis that, regrettable as the resulting abuses may have been, the armed forces had no alternative but to rise up in order to save Chile from socialism.

Perhaps many young Chileans will shrug and think of this as just another political feud that has little impact on the long list of troubles they face today: crime and migration into the country; an economic and climate crisis; inadequate health careeducation and pensions; a revolt by Indigenous communities in the south of the country. But we need to find a way to forge a shared understanding of our past so we can start creating a shared vision of Chile for the many tomorrows that await us.

At this time of confusion and polarization, what sort of guidance can I, a Chilean who lived through this history, offer the younger generations as they grapple with how to remember this day? How can we encourage them to continue to work toward a future when it will be possible for all Chileans — or almost all — to fervently say, “Nunca más”?

I offer one word: seguimos. We go on.

We go on. We do not flag. We will not be discouraged.

It is one of Mr. Boric’s favorite words. It’s also an attitude that Mr. Allende immortalized in his last speech from La Moneda as he prepared to die. He told the people of Chile that soon “the calm metal of my voice will not reach you. It does not matter. You will continue to hear me. I will always be beside you.”

Seguimos, so that Chile, despite all it has suffered, perhaps because of what it has suffered, can persevere on the road toward justice and dignity for all. And seguimos, so young Chileans today do not spend the rest of their lives in mourning, lamenting what might have been.

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