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Chile marks its own 9/11 on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 coup

Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunters bomb La Moneda, the presidential palace, on Sept. 11, 1973, a day that is  remembered as el once -- the eleventh -- and that still reverberates through the country's body politic. (Colección Museo Histórico Nación/AFP/Getty.)


Across the United States, and in much of the world, they call it “9/11,” and it marks that terrible day 12 years ago when four airplanes plunged from a clear blue late-summer sky.

But, in Chile, they call it el once – pronounced el own-say – a phrase that means “the eleventh,” as in Sept. 11, 1973.

That was the date of the bloody coup that overthrew the government and ended the life of socialist president Salvador Allende, while launching that strangely elongated South American land on 17 years of sometimes brutal military dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Forty years have now passed since that grim September day, but the shock waves of the coup continue to shudder through Chile’s still deeply divided body politic.

 Recent public opinion polls suggest that most Chileans regard Pinochet – who died in 2006 – as a “dictator” who presided over a bad or very bad period in the nation’s history. But a committed minority of about 10 per cent continue to revere the gruff-voiced general as a “hero” of the land.

Plenty of ill will continues to fester on both sides, and there is likely to be at least some violence – on el once, there usually is –  when at least some Chileans take to the streets on Wednesday to mourn or celebrate the coup.

Those who admire Pinochet say the coup was necessary in a country that, they say, was fast spiraling toward chaos under Allende’s rule, beset by labour unrest, mass street protests, sabotage, and shortages of consumer staples. They also say that Chile’s current economic strength is mainly the result of the tough-love, neo-liberal economic measures championed by U.S. economist Milton Friedman and implemented by Pinochet.

For their part, the dictator’s detractors insist the country was far from ungovernable in the weeks leading up to the coup and attribute much of Chile’s instability at the time to clandestine provocations by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. They either minimize or deny the benefits of Pinochet’s right-wing economic policies.

What no one denies is that the coup and its aftermath resulted in the murder or disappearance of 3,216 Chileans (according to the most recent count) and the imprisonment and, in many cases, the torture of 38,254 more.

Earlier this month, an organization of Chilean judges –  the National Association of Magistrates of the Judiciary – issued a remarkable apology, seeking forgiveness for its comportment during the dictatorship, which stretched from 1973 till 1990.

The judges acknowledged they had failed in their “duty to protect victims of state abuse,” a failure they said was especially egregious among Supreme Court judges. In all, Chilean magistrates rejected some 5,000 petitions presented by people seeking help in locating friends or family members who went missing during the years of the dictatorship. In most cases, the judges simply declared they could not proceed because they had no knowledge of the events in question.

Even outgoing Chilean president Sebastián Piñera – a conservative billionaire – has recently criticized both the courts and the Chilean news media for their complicity in the worst deeds committed during those 17 years of tyranny. On the other hand, he also described the 1973 coup as “the predictable outcome” of Allende’s “repeated violations of the rule of law” – an interpretation unlikely to please the left.

In a statement issued a day before this year’s anniversary of the coup, Amnesty International called for the repeal of a 1978 Chilean law that continues to protect murderers and torturers from prosecution. The plea was backed by a petition bearing more than 25,000 signatures.

Amnesty's demand might very well be answered if presidential elections on Nov. 17 unfold as expected.

Former president Michelle Bachelet is again running for her country’s top political post. Just the other day, she called for a full investigation of human-rights abuses committed during Pinochet’s rule, a statement that has special resonance coming from the daughter of Gen. Alberto Bachelet, a senior military officer who opposed the 1973 coup and who was later arrested and tortured. He eventually died in detention. His wife and daughter were both arrested and tortured as well, before they were allowed to flee the country.

Bachelet’s right-wing opponent in November’s vote is another general’s daughter – Evelyn Matthei – whose father, Gen. Fernando Matthei, held senior positions in the military government and was a Pinochet loyalist to the end.

And so the shock waves from el once continue to shudder through Chile, even 40 years on.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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Shouldn't Kissinger be indited for war crimes for being involved in the overthrow of a duly elected government?

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