Remembering ‘the other’ 9/11 | Morning Star


Remembering ‘the other’ 9/11 | Morning Star

9/11 — we are all familiar with the New York Twin Towers catastrophe. But how many people nowadays know about an earlier 9/11 in another country — one financed and backed by the US government itself?

The September 11 1973 military coup d’etat in Chile has gone down in history as one of the world’s most savage, and the overthrow of the progressive, constitutional government of Dr Salvador Allende represented for many of us on the left an end to the possibility of achieving socialism by constitutional means. 

It is a testament to the immense solidarity Chilean refugees were given all over the world and the tireless activity of Chileans themselves in exile that so many events commemorating September 11 1973 are being held today. 

The Chile Solidarity Campaign worked tirelessly with trades unionists, academics and individuals to bring the terror to the world’s attention and try to save as many victims as possible.

Allende’s Popular Unity government had not come out of the blue. Backed by the Communist and Socialist parties, Allende had been standing in presidential elections since 1958. And in September 1970, he was finally elected, on a pro-working people programme, with 36.6 per cent of the vote.

In the previous 1964 presidential election, the CIA had financed and backed the Christian Democrat candidate, Eduardo Frei, as the best possibility to stem the tide of socialist opinion in Chile.  

He had been elected with a big majority of 56.09 per cent, but in his six years had squandered that support by his timid agrarian reform and his “Chileanisation” of Chile’s main resource — copper — a fraudulent deal that suited the US copper industry owners very well, leaving their huge profits intact.

The US did everything they could to try and prevent Allende’s election result from being ratified by Congress. But it was ratified, in accordance with Chile’s constitution, following the doctrine laid down by the armed forces chief of staff, Rene Schneider, who had been a firm constitutionalist before his untimely death. Schneider’s shock assassination in October 1970 sounded the death knell for a constitutionalist armed forces.

The Popular Unity government soon carried out its pledge for full nationalisation of the US-owned copper companies, a measure that was so popular that it passed unanimously in congress, even the right-wing National Party voting in favour. Land reform to expropriate the big ranches (latifundios) and give them to the landless peasants began.

US president Richard Nixon immediately ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” (his words) to unseat Chile’s socialist president.   

In April 1971’s municipal elections, Allende’s Popular Unity alliance won 50.4 per cent, which clearly showed the Chilean right and the US government that his popularity was increasing.  

And even after all the economic and political chaos that the right-wing forces managed to unleash on the country over the next three years — economic sabotage, hiding and hoarding essential goods, organising the lorry-owners to prevent distribution of goods and foodstuffs up and down that long, narrow country, formation of shady fascist-type groups like Patria y Libertad — Allende’s showing in the next electoral contest, the March 1973 parliamentary elections, was 43.2 per cent.

However, by 1972, the right and the Christian Democrats formed strong opposition in the congress and were able to create a situation of chaos and increasing ungovernability.  

Despite the heroic efforts of Popular Unity, through organising food distribution centres for the population, requisitioning of transport to combat the lorry-owners’ subversive “strike” and working with the peasants on the newly taken-over latifundios to increase production with cheap credits and other incentives, the right, backed and financed from the United States (as subsequent declassified US documents prove beyond doubt) chose the “nuclear option” — a military coup that cost an estimated 4,000 lives, 37,000 arrested, imprisoned and tortured.

It is difficult to convey the shock the coup caused around the world. Only months before Allende had received a rapturous reception at the UN general assembly, when he accused imperialism of strangling Chile’s economy and hindering the sale of Chilean copper on international markets. Now he was dead, the presidential palace bombed by British-supplied Hawker Hunter aircraft.

The savagery of so many deaths and forced disappearances of people whose only “crime” was to have been supporters of the legal, constitutional government caused condemnation around the world.

I was in Chile that September 11 1973, in the southern city of Chillan where I was teaching at the university. I drove to my 8am class about six blocks from our house, past soldiers at the Intendencia (the governor’s seat in that province) only to find my department closed and no-one about.  

I drove back home, and listened in horror as the radio broadcast martial music and military edicts — long lists of local Popular Unity officials and activists, among whom was my husband’s name, who were ordered to present themselves at the local regiment. State terrorism had begun that day and was to last for the next 17 years.

We escaped death, though Ricardo was detained a few nights later, herded at gunpoint into an open-back lorry. 

Our house was raided the following morning, when I found out that Ricardo had been sent, together with other well-known local leaders in a group the military called “the big fish” because it included three former intendentes of that province, to a notorious island detention centre — Isla Quiriquina — where detainees were hosed down with freezing cold jets of sea water at dawn and forced to sleep on a cold bare gymnasium floor, hundreds of prisoners packed together.

My fellow Englishwoman, the dancer Joan Jara, who lived in Santiago, was not so lucky. She is the widow of the famous singer songwriter, Victor Jara, hated by the right for his immensely popular combative songs.  

He was arrested, held in the Chile Stadium (which now bears his name in tribute) and his body, riddled with bullets, later found at a roadside, his hands brutally broken by his military captors.

Now, 50 years later, the wheels of the Chilean justice system grind very slowly, but the killers of Victor Jara have just lost their appeal against prison sentences of between eight and 25 years.  

They are all old men now, of course. One ex-general shot himself last week on hearing that the Supreme Court had confirmed rejection of their appeal.  

The other seven will join the 150 other coup-implicated military already serving sentences for their role in the coup.  

Joan Jara, now in her nineties and living in Chile with her family, has waited far too long for justice for Victor’s cruel torture and death. 

What is the situation in Chile now? Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 there have been a series of governments comprising various alignments of the centre-left, none of which have challenged the neoliberal economy imposed on Chile after the US-backed coup.  

Readers who have seen the excellent documentary Chicago Boys will know how US right-wing economist Milton Friedman was given free rein by the traitor-General Pinochet to privatise every possible part of the Chilean economy.

Pensions, state education, all industry and agriculture, banks — everything has been privatised and the people ripped off. 

The rich have got richer, and the poor and middle class have become impoverished and indebted.

Most professionals work well into their eighties, as they cannot afford to live on the privatised pensions which they were coerced into taking out.

But in 2006, secondary school students known as “penguinos” (a reference to to their black and white uniforms) came out in protest against the privatised state education system. Nearly 800,000 students went on strike demanding free travel passes and free education for all. 

Some concessions were granted, the movement died down and the kids went back to school. But the spark had been lit, and in October 2019, during the right-wing government of Sebastian Pinera, a wave of huge mass demonstrations began in all the major cities up and down the country, initially sparked by a metro fare increase. Angry passengers jumped the ticket barriers and set fire to metro stations. 

The people had had enough of worsening living standards and came out in their millions to demand an end to the private pension companies, against unemployment, poverty wages and glaring inequality — huge new tower blocks and gleaming shopping malls, yet people selling a few wares on the pavements to eke out a living.

Pinera called a state of emergency and sent the army on to the streets. Thirty demonstrators were killed and 2,500 wounded, several losing their sight.

As a result of this unprecedented social uprising, congress agreed to hold a national referendum to rewrite the existing anti-democratic Pinochet constitution.  

In October 2020 78.28 per cent of Chileans voted to have a new constitution and elected a representative assembly (convencion) to draft a new constitution.

In December 2021, left-wing former student leader Gabriel Boric won the presidency with 55.86 per cent. In September 2022 a national plebiscite was held to approve the constitution the assembly had drafted.

As this draft was rejected by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, another nationwide vote was held to elect a committee charged with coming up with a different draft constitution. 

In that vote, the far-right Republican Party topped the poll with 35 per cent, which gives it 22 seats on the 50-strong constitutional rewrite committee — a majority, together with other conservatives (11 seats).  

The left-wing coalition backed by President Boric only elected 17 committee members.

The reasons for the left’s collapse are varied, among them a strong right-wing media, disillusion with President Boric being unable to enact his progressive programme due to an opposition-dominated congress, the use of racism against the indigenous Mapuche people in the south and a general disenchantment with traditional political parties.

With a right-wing majority now on the constitution-drafting committee, it is not looking good for a progressive constitution to emerge.  

The resurgent right, under its Bolsonaro-type leader Jose Antonio Kast, is a dangerous development for the still numerous Chilean left.

Kate will be taking part in a Chile panel at Marx House at 7pm, September 14. Her book Chile in my Heart (Bannister Publications, 2013) tells the story of the Popular Unity years.

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