September 11 is a date that will forever be burned in the collective consciousness of the USA. But it is a day of monumental importance to Chileans, too.
On September 11, 1973, Chile experienced a violent coup d’état that resulted in the death of the Socialist president Salvador Allende. It marked the beginning of the 17-year rule of Augusto Pinochet, making Chile the final South American country to fall to dictatorship.
According to the BBC, during Pinochet’s rule approximately 30,000 Chileans suspected of Communist sympathies were tortured, and more than 3,000 killed. Many are still referred to as desaparecidos, or disappeared, because their bodies have yet to be recovered.
It was a time of hardship that continues to define and divide the country. Through conversations with my host family, Chilean friends, and professors, I learned opinions on the topic vary widely: Some Chileans view the coup as a necessary process to remove the “Marxist cancer,” others see it as a gross violation of human rights, and many prefer to forget the past and focus on the present and future.
Being in Valparaíso on the 40th anniversary of the coup d’etat was a novel experience on a variety of levels. I got a feel for the activist spirit in the community, saw firsthand the lasting effects of a dictatorship, and remembered my role as an informal US ambassador.
Valparaíso is strongly tied to the coup; it is the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. It is also a university town home to over 80,000 students. Given the city’s mix of historical ties and large population of mobilized students, professors, and citizens, September 11 was inevitably filled with activities of remembrance ranging from marches to concerts to memorial services.
I only attended one event due to time constraints and security concerns, but it was unforgettable nonetheless. Approximately 150 people gathered in centrally-located Plaza Independencia to celebrate a memorial service for Salvador Allende. A mix of students, adults, and children accompanying their parents filled the plaza with an earnest energy. Presenters read poetry, played music, shared memories, and called for the truth about the desaparecidos. Loudspeakers played Allende’s last recorded speech, followed by a moment of silence. To conclude the memorial, a group of Allende’s original supporters led a chant of solidarity: “Supporters of Salvador Allende! Present for now and for always!” The activist spirit was electric.
The heartfelt speeches of the memorial service demonstrated that there is still much pain related to Pinochet’s 17-year rule. September 11 is always filled with memorials and reflection, but also violence. Some angry citizens, particularly rebellious youth, commit delinquency.
Burning of buses, looting, cut power lines, and attacks against the police are common and result in numerous arrests and conflicts with police. Because of this, my study abroad program (CIEE) cancelled class that day. They, along with my host family, advised that we stay in our homes to avoid any potential conflict.
Forty years later, the effects of the coup are still very much present—especially on 9/11.
My consciousness of my foreigner status was especially heightened that day. I could not feel the same sentiments as those Chileans who lived through the Pinochet regime; I could only learn the history and try to empathize.
This was particularly important given that I am an American citizen. The CIA backed the coup d’etat during the Cold War because President Nixon’s government feared another country falling to communism. Through power tactics and large amounts of cash, the US intervened and effectively changed the course of Chilean history; today, many Chileans with whom I’ve spoken still resent the US government’s actions. With this in mind, I found it important to demonstrate concern and sensitivity for the past. I cannot change what occurred, but I can try to form relationships that leave a positive impression of US citizens.
As a post-millennial American, September 11 has long held great significance. But my time in Chile has made it even more poignant.