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.

Santiago, Chile
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the coup d'etat in Chile that ushered in a 17-year dictatorship under Pinochet. Demonstrators hold up images of their relatives during a rally in Santiago Sept. 11, 2013.

Photo by Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

As Americans remember Sept. 11, 2001 with video montages, scattered candlelight vigils, and an avalanche of #neverforget Facebook and Twitter posts, Chileans are remembering a different 9/11—Sept. 11, 1973, the day a CIA-backed military coup ousted a democratically elected president with a right-wing strongman.

Tensions in the South American country have been rising for weeks in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the morning in 1973 that Chile’s military, with the secret support of the United States, flew fighter jets over Santiago and bombed its own presidential palace. Within hours, Chilean President Salvador Allende—Latin America’s first popularly elected socialist president—was dead. He was replaced by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed, tortured, and exiled tens of thousands of Chileans. For the next 17 years, Chileans lived under an economically prosperous dictatorship that showed little regard for human rights.

Each year, peaceful demonstrations commemorating the coup devolve into violent riots. Last year, the protests resulted in the death of a police officer and the injury of 20 more; some 255 protesters were arrested. This year’s demonstrations were widely anticipated to be the largest ever—and possibly the most violent—because of the 40th-anniversary milestone, new revelations about the old regime, and the lead-up to a remarkably dramatic presidential election in November.

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As of early Wednesday morning, one bus had been bombed, five cars had been torched, 10 neighborhoods had been barricaded, and 13 arrests had been made. Seven high schools were closed for the day because their students had occupied them in honor of the anniversary. Shortly after noon, news station Radio BioBio reported that hooded protesters and police had begun clashing at a university in Valparaiso, and police had responded with tear gas and water cannons. Students were told to leave the university.

As of this writing, it is less action than the government feared—they had anticipated violence in as many as 224 locations. “We hope we can keep having a calm day,” said Chile’s Interior Minister Andres Chadwick in a press conference. “The state police are redoubling their force.”

Santiago felt quieter than usual early on Wednesday; traffic was lighter and fewer pedestrians choked the normally hectic downtown streets. Many workplaces encouraged their employees to stay home for the day. The U.S. Embassy asked American citizens to avoid the demonstrations, and a crime-tracking organization released a map that pinpointed the areas most likely to have clashes. One cabbie said he was calling it a day after he’d heard that five vehicles had been attacked. Another said he was heading home because there were so few fares. 

Hundreds of people gathered throughout the day at the General Cemetery, where Allende is buried, along with hundreds of nameless victims of the regime. Others gathered at the National Congress, located in Valparaiso, or on university campuses. Families of the coup’s victims were planning an evening march to the Estadio Nacional, which served as an ad hoc death camp immediately after the coup. It was there that folk hero and musician Victor Jara had his hands chopped off, and was later killed.

One memorial took place at 11:50 a.m. in front of the presidential palace, 40 years to the minute after Chilean air force jets opened fire on the building. Hundreds of people gathered at the rebuilt palace in front of a statue of Allende, singing folk songs, chanting, and laying bouquets of red carnations at the feet of the former leader’s likeness.

Among them was Faviola Reyes Manriquez, who said her brother was assassinated by the regime in 1982. Her family still wants justice for his death.

“They tell us to be quiet about it, they tell us to turn the page, but if it’s your family, that’s impossible,” she said. “This year there is much more discussion of our past. As a nation we are just starting to open up—a very delayed opening.”