• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

50 Years Since Chile’s Military Coup: Reflection, Remembrance and Reckoning With the Past

ByChiara Gardner

Oct 6, 2023
photograph of a memorial statue

Fifty years ago, on September 11, 1973, Chile underwent a radical transformation that forever altered its history. For those unfamiliar with this pivotal event, let’s journey back in time. 

Chile was led by Salvador Allende, a democratically elected socialist president, who pursued an ambitious agenda, seeking to nationalise the copper industry, implement land redistribution, and extend state control over key sectors, including strategic industries and banks. These initiatives sparked a mixture of hope and controversy amongst Chileans.  

However, opposition grew among businessmen, conservative politicians, certain trade groups, and the United States, concerned about communism’s spread in Latin America. This unrest set the stage for the coup. 

On that fateful September day, the Chilean military, under General Augusto Pinochet, launched a violent coup against President Allende’s government. The skies were pierced by airstrikes, and the iconic La Moneda presidential palace faced shelling. 

Despite Allende’s valiant resistance, he met a tragic end in the palace. Pinochet assumed control, marking the end of democracy. His rule ushered in two decades of authoritarianism, marked by grave human rights abuses, censorship, and the suppression of political opposition.  

Fast forward five decades, and Chileans still reckon with the consequences of that day, a stark reminder of democracy’s fragility and the enduring impact of political polarization. This year’s 50th anniversary of the coup highlights persistent divisions over Pinochet’s legacy, as he passed away without facing convictions for crimes during his 17-year rule.   

As Chile marked the 50th anniversary of the coup, it was a time for reflection, remembrance, and reckoning with a dark chapter in its history. The events leading up to this significant milestone were marked by poignant ceremonies and activities that illustrated the nation’s commitment to preserving the memory of the past. 

On September 8th, “Dialogues for Memory and Democracy” began, enabling civil society and organisations to discuss democracy’s past, present, and future. These dialogues were held nationwide through Government Regional Secretariats (Seremis). 

On September 9th, the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity, in partnership with Santiago Metro, launched the “50 Years, 50 Women” photo exhibition at Metro Plaza de Armas. It honoured women who ardently advocated for democracy’s restoration and human rights defence during both the dictatorship and the transition period. 

On September 10th, the “Walk of a Democrat” monument debuted at Morandé 80. Simultaneously, a “Never Again+” pilgrimage of women encircled La Moneda Palace, commemorating victims of the Pinochet dictatorship. 

On September 11th, On this historic day, international leaders, former heads of state, and foreign dignitaries were welcomed at the event. A commemorative event took place in the Patio de los Cañones, attended by the families and associates of President Salvador Allende such as his daughter senator and author Isabella Allende who gave a speech. At noon, the “For Democracy, Today and Always” gathering was led by President Gabriel Boric, where he invited all to pledge their commitment to democracy.  Throughout the day, authorities from every ministry read aloud the names of public officials who were executed or disappeared during the dictatorship. 

However, these commemorations revealed a deeply divided Chilean society. President Boric’s calls for all political forces to unite under the “Santiago Commitment” declaration for democracy went unanswered by the right-wing, underscoring the persistent political polarisation. 

Moreover, the 50th anniversary of the Golpe de Estado was marked by incidents and police repression during a march near the Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago. The march was primarily led by the relatives of individuals who suffered detention, disappearance, and torture during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Their aim was to remember and honour the memory of their loved ones while demanding justice and truth regarding the atrocities committed during that dark period. This event was marked by confrontations between masked young protesters and the police, resulting in moments of heightened tension, the use of tear gas, and the intervention of water cannon vehicles.  

Despite the divisions, the commemorations were emotionally charged. At exactly 11:52 AM, the moment when La Moneda Palace was attacked 50 years ago, a minute of silence was observed.  

From the perspective of an international student on a year-long exchange in Santiago, Chile, the anniversary of the coup proved to be an emotionally charged and thought-provoking experience. My student accommodation was conveniently located just two blocks away from La Moneda, the parliamentary heart of the city and the epicentre of the commemorative ceremonies and protests that unfolded. 

The atmosphere in Santiago underwent a notable shift starting on Friday preceding the anniversary. The cityscape transformed with the installation of barricades and structural obstructions, a prelude to anticipated large-scale protests over the weekend. This heightened my apprehension, particularly given the prevailing public sentiment revealed by recent polls, which indicated dissatisfaction with the current government. Chileans, I had learned, are fervent demonstrators of their grievances. 

Compounding this unease, my university took the unprecedented step of suspending classes on the 11th and 12th of September, encouraging students to engage in the commemorations. Locals, as well as my Chilean classmates and accommodation advisors, cautioned against venturing out onto the streets during Monday and Tuesday afternoon, amid concerns that the manifestations might escalate into more turbulent scenes. 

I did have a peak at La Moneda on Sunday when the Women’s March unfolded, a profoundly moving experience characterised by the sight of countless women standing together in unwavering solidarity. Dressed in sombre black attire, holding candles, their expressions were more marked by sorrow than jubilation. Yet, even by that point, the glass barriers protecting the parliament had already fallen victim to the aggression of earlier protesters that morning. 

Surprisingly, Monday proved to be a far more tranquil day. I ventured out after the official ceremonies led by the President had concluded. Overwhelmed by a sense of sadness, I observed numerous families and especially older individuals, their tears mirroring the enduring pain of those who had lost loved ones during the dictatorship, many of whom still grapple with unanswered questions. 

Reflecting on the days leading up to the 11th and the aftermath, the streets of Santiago resounded with the voices of people from all walks of life. This experience underscored the lasting trauma that a dictatorship inflicts, even three decades after its end. It also provided profound insight into the Chilean disposition – outspoken and unwavering in their commitment to holding the government accountable when they deem it necessary. 

As the 50th anniversary of Chile’s 1973 coup concludes, my time in Santiago during this historic moment was eye-opening. The city transformed in anticipation of large-scale protests, highlighting Chileans’ fervent expression of grievances. The Women’s March was a moving experience, symbolising enduring sorrow. Fallen barriers around La Moneda reminded us of lingering tension. Surprisingly, Monday felt more tranquil after official ceremonies. 

This experience emphasised Chile’s resilience and commitment to accountability, even decades after the dictatorship. I now carry the lessons of this commemoration, knowing that Chile’s pursuit of justice and democracy continues unabated. 

Images via Chiara Gardner