For much of the world, the date of Sept.11 will forever be inextricably linked to images of hijacked airliners impaling the Twin Towers of New York in a scene of almost unfathomable horror and destruction.
But for the people of Chile, Sept. 11 also conjures memories of a national cataclysm, one whose consequences were equally, if not more devastating for its thousands of victims.
On Sept. 11, 1973, shells rained down on the presidential compound in Chile’s capital, Santiago.
A few hours later, Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was dead and General Augusto Pinochet’s nearly two decades of iron fisted, fascist rule had begun.
From now until the end of November, a broad coalition of local groups is putting on a series of cultural and educational events to commemorate this fateful day in Chilean history.
“This military coup, for all Chileans, was a very traumatic experience. Chile, at that time, was an exceptional case in Latin America of a rather stable, liberal democracy, since at least the 1930s. So the coup was breaking with a long tradition, and it was very, very violent,” explains Sergio Martinez, one of the spokespersons for the coalition.
Martinez knows what he is talking about. Thirty years ago, Martinez was a young Allende supporter and fledgling philosophy professor living in Chile.
In the months and years following the coup, as many as 3,000 (or more) Chilean dissidents were rounded up, tortured and murdered. The exact number will probably never be known, as the bodies of many of the victims were never found. These missing became known as “The Disappeared.”
For six months Martinez, a committed and politically active socialist, lay low and avoided arrest. Then, one day, soldiers came looking for him at work. As luck would have it, he wasn’t there and, after being tipped off, he immediately fled the country on a pre-arranged flight.
He escaped to Argentina, then a centre of Chilean resistance. However, it wasn’t long before the dark shadow of fascism caught up to him in when, in 1976, he was once again forced to flee, this time to Canada, after a fascist dictatorship took power there.
Martinez has been living in Canada for most of the past 27 years, and teaches at Centennial College in Montreal. He expresses his sympathy and condolences to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their families, but he can’t help but note some irony in the fact that these two historic events share an anniversary.
The victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, were mostly American but, in 1973, it was the American government, under U.S. President Richard Nixon, that orchestrated the coup that launched Pinochet’s reign of terror.
The Nixon administration’s point man on Chile was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who once summed up his contempt for the people of Chile by saying they were too “irresponsible” to choose their own government, has been directly implicated in the assassination of Chilean General (and constitutional loyalist) Rene Schneider. Schneider’s murder paved the way for Pinochet’s power grab.
In a bitterly ironic twist, Kissinger, one of those chiefly responsible for Pinochet’s rise to power, was President George W. Bush’s original nominee to head the investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Kissinger declined the nomination rather than disclose the names of his firm’s (Kissinger & Associates) clients – rumoured to include the governments of Saudi Arabia and China, amongst others. Judges in several countries currently want to question Kissinger about his actions relating to Chile.
As for Pinochet himself, he was briefly detained in England in 1998 after a warrant for his arrest was issued by a Spanish judge. The judge wanted to indict Pinochet for crimes against humanity for the killing of Spanish citizens during Pinochet’s rule. Pinochet, then 82-year-old, was eventually released after Tony Blair’s government deemed that he was unfit to stand trial, a decision excoriated by human rights groups and Pinochet’s victims.
Even today, 13 years after Pinochet left power under a transition to a civilian government, the rifts in Chilean society entrenched during Pinochet’s rule haven’t fully healed. This past Sept. 11, for the first time, there was an official government ceremony inside the presidential palace to honour Allende. But it also saw violent protests in the streets of Santiago.
“Some of the economic measures the government has put in place have helped make Chile’s economy more viable.
On the other hand, government policies have not solved some very pressing problems for the population; the inequality in terms of income, for example, is a big problem for many people,” said Martinez.
There are an estimated 10,000 Quebecers of Chilean descent living in the Montreal area.
Through the end of November the coalition will be sponsoring a number of events open to the public.
On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Patricia Silva Soto, president of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared (Agrupaci