Don’t Forget the Other 9/11

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 11 2013 3:05 PM

The Other 9/11

Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, Chile experienced its own Sept. 11 tragedy. Forty years later, Chileans are still divided over the legacy of that day.

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Chile is still profoundly divided over the Pinochet era: While a majority of Chileans look back on the repressive rule with bitterness, a significant minority believes Pinochet’s rule was necessary to end the stunning poverty that eclipsed the nation during Allende’s rule. President Richard Nixon, worried that more countries would follow Chile’s example and elect socialists, had placed sanctions on the country, quietly ordering the CIA to “make the economy scream.” Forty years later, Chile is the second strongest economy in South America after Brazil.

For years after Pinochet was peacefully removed from power in 1990, Chileans seemed eager to forget the past and move on. But the nation seems to be shedding its reticence about its past. Earlier this year, leaders of one of Santiago’s wealthiest neighborhoods voted to change the name of its principal boulevard from Avenida 11 de Septiembre—a name bestowed by the dictatorship in 1980—back to its original name. In recent weeks, every nightly news station has been showing footage from the coup. Across the country there have been plays, documentaries, book readings, and art exhibits about the coup—as well as a flood of new political graffiti and murals in a city that is already covered in them.

Public figures are also speaking up: Last week, Chile’s National Association of Judges made an unprecedented apology for abandoning its role as a protector of basic rights during Pinochet’s rule, asking for the forgiveness of both the victims “and of Chilean society.” Chile’s current president, right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera has made a call for anyone with information on “the disappeared” to come forward.

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The divide over Chile’s past is bizarrely underscored by the unlikely personal history of the two leading candidates in this year’s presidential race: former president Michelle Bachelet, a socialist, and the right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei. The two middle-aged women were childhood playmates in the 1960s, when their fathers were military pilots at the same air force base. The men each rose to the rank of general, but during the 1973 coup Bachelet's father stayed loyal to Allende, while Gen. Matthei allied with Pinochet. Gen. Bachelet was arrested after the coup and was tortured to death in a military school operated by Gen. Matthei.

Decades later, the generals’ daughters find themselves running against each other for president. Though the women claim they retain no animosity toward each other, many Chileans consider the women’s entwined history to be a reflection of the country’s past. The dynamic is tense: On Monday, Matthei paid her respects at the government’s official commemoration, which Bachelet refused to attend, saying she couldn’t stomach memorializing the coup in a room “full of passive accomplices.”Reyes Manriquez noted that it is not usually the families of the victims that cause trouble for the police; often, it is young people who have no direct memory of the dictatorship.

“The families have lived through enough violence,” she said.

Katie Worth is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile. You can follow her on Twitter at @katieworth.