Chile's September 11

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

The coup against the socialist government of President Allende on September 11, 1973, and its brutal aftermath still divides Chile, with attempts at `reconciliation' being countered with strong demands for justice.

THANKS to the Western media, September 11 has now become synonymous with the global war against terrorism. This year too, attention was exclusively concentrated on the ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The United States government, however, does not want to be reminded of certain events that took place in its backyard on the same date 30 years ago. Chilean President Salvadore Allende, the first democratically elected socialist leader in Latin America, was overthrown in a bloody coup by sections of the Chilean armed forces on September 11, 1973. The coup was financed and organised by American intelligence agencies in tandem with the Right-wing sections of Chilean society. One of the most important symbols of Chilean sovereignty, the La Moneda Presidential Palace, was attacked by Chilean Air Force planes. Allende, chose to die defending the presidential palace, on the night of September 11, rather than surrender. The AK-47, with which he fought valiantly to defend democracy, had been presented to him by Fidel Castro, Cuban President.

For Chileans, the bombing of La Moneda was equivalent to bombing the White House, the Kremlin or the Buckingham Palace.

Documents released in the U.S. have now revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had funnelled in millions of dollars to the counter-revolutionaries to carry out their terrorist acts against the government. The then U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had famously said that Chile should not be allowed to "go Marxist" just because its people were "irresponsible".

Chile under Allende had begun to embark cautiously on a socialist path. The Allende government had announced its intention to implement land and economic reforms. The monopoly of U.S. multinationals over key resources was challenged. If the democratic revolution had been allowed to succeed, it would have had a tremendous impact over the rest of Latin America, which, in those days, was largely dominated by authoritarian and corrupt regimes backed by Washington.

The destruction of the presidential palace was an ominous beginning for Chileans. General Augusto Pinochet, who was handpicked by the Nixon administration to run the country, was about to open the most brutal chapter in Chilean history.

The CIA provided the Chilean secret police under Pinochet with the names of "leftist subversives" and even American sympathisers of the Allende government based in the country. Many of those identified by the CIA joined the ranks of thousands of the "missing". More than 4,000 Chileans were killed by the notorious secret police Dina. Another 70,000 were tortured. Hundreds of thousands were exiled. The U.S. Embassy in the Chilean capital, Santiago, was aware of the goings on. The main football stadium in the capital was turned into a temporary concentration camp and torture centre. Hundreds of people were shot dead with machine guns in the stadium itself.

Pinochet went on to rule for 17 years by enacting draconian laws. In the 1970s, the Chilean government and the military dictatorships in Argentina and Bolivia cooperated with the CIA in "Operation Condor" - a dirty war which involved thousands of cases of torture and disappearance. Political opponents were targeted for assassination in third countries. Among the most famous of cases was that of Orlando Lettelier, Chile's Ambassador to Washington during the Allende years. Lettelier was assassinated in a car bomb explosion on a busy Washington street in 1976. The guilty have not yet been brought to book. It is alleged that the CIA had a role in the elimination of Lettelier.

The Chilean people want full accountability for the Pinochet years. Despite the formal return to democracy in 1990, only a few of those responsible for the atrocities have been brought to justice. The controversial amnesty law passed by Pinochet in 1988, covering the period 1974-78, continues to be on the statutes. Even the 40 Chilean military officials who have been convicted so far have got off lightly because of the loopholes put in place in the laws by the military dictatorship before the transition to democracy. Chile's electoral laws, a legacy of the dictatorship, have seen to it that Right-wing parties have a decisive say in politics. Every constituency elects two members to Parliament, making it easy for Right-wing candidates to sneak into Parliament on the strength of minority votes.

IT was the "house arrest" of Pinochet in London in 1998 that gave a fillip to the movement to bring those responsible for September 11, 1973 to justice. Most of the establishment parties had entered into an unwritten agreement with the military not to rock the boat. Unfortunately, even the Socialist Party, which was once headed by Allende, has become part of the establishment bandwagon. The Socialists, who have returned to power at the head of a Centre-Left coalition, have had to make a lot of compromises to do so. Allende's progressive ideology has been replaced by adherence to globalism. The party has, in fact, continued with the free market economic policies initiated by the Pinochet regime. The richest 10 per cent of Chileans monopolise 50.3 per cent of the country's national income. The poorest 10 per cent account for barely 3.7 per cent.

Until last year, President Ricardo Lagos, who himself was a prisoner under Pinochet, was urging the people to forget the past and forgive the oppressors. Chilean courts ruled last year that Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial. Only the Left, headed by Chile's Communist Party, has been organising demonstrations to commemorate the events of September 11, 1973. Last year, Socialist Party activists in fact clashed with the Communists and other leftists outside the cemetery where Allende and many of those killed in the Pinochet coup are buried. Chileans were incensed when the news leaked out that the Pinochet government had secretly removed bodies from mass graves and dumped them in the sea in the late 1970s. On September 11, 2002, Lagos had condemned the demonstrators for burning an American flag, calling it an "insensitive" action. Lagos visited the U.S. Embassy and declared that the two countries "are united on this date by tragedy and sadness". In a further show of solidarity with Washington, Chile has sided with the Bush administration in condemning Cuba's human rights record. Ironically, Lagos was a political refugee in Cuba for many years during the Pinochet days. Opinion polls have shown that more than 50 per cent of Chileans want an honest accounting of the horrific events of the 1970s.

However, in August President Lagos changed his stance. Neighbouring Peru and Argentina had decided to prosecute actively officials involved in the atrocities of the 1970s. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported in late August that between 1980 and 2000, political violence had resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 60,000 civilians, most of them in the hands of the security forces. In Argentina, the new President, Nestor Kirchner, has overturned laws enacted by previous governments giving immunity to military rulers who were responsible for the death of more than 10,000 people between 1976 and 1983.

Lagos has also, belatedly, unveiled a set of proposals called "There is no Tomorrow without a Yesterday". He said that the proposals were aimed at unearthing what happened during the dictatorship. The President has finally acknowledged that some sort of a public atonement has to be made for the victims and guilt has to be apportioned. His proposals include amnesty for low-ranking members of the military who will provide information regarding atrocities and compensation for the relatives of those killed by the military and those tortured. Significantly, a "Truth Commission" will also be set up. "More than half of the Chileans alive today had not been born in 1973, but we all know that in order to advance toward the future, we must start from the lessons of yesterday," Lagos observed on the occasion of the anniversary.

But if Lagos is really serious about prosecuting those involved in the atrocities committed during the Pinochet regime, his government could start filing charges against officials who have already been identified as torturers and killers. As many of the bodies of those who have disappeared have not been found, those responsible for their abduction can still be prosecuted. The Chilean courts have ruled that such persons are not covered by the general amnesty proclaimed during the last days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Chilean prosecutors have called on people like Kissinger to give evidence. Kissinger has refused to oblige them. Kissinger is also not taking any chances these days while embarking on his frequent money-making jaunts to foreign climes. He travels abroad only after seeking legal advice. Obviously, Kissinger does not want to have the kind of experience Pinochet had in London. The only prominent Chilean official who served under Pinochet to be convicted and sentenced until now is Manuel Contreras, the head of Dina.

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