Category Archives: South America

Chilean Ghosts : The Other 9/11

by Roberto

Until that dreadful morning in 2001, September 11th was significant as the
date of another, equally terrible event.  The military coup led by General
Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew the government of Salvador Allende,
began on September 11th, 1973, and plunged Chile into the darkest period
of its history.  As with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, I will
always remember exactly where I was, and the sickening feeling of
disbelief which I experienced.

I had just begun my first semester at UT Austin, and was in a classroom a
few minutes before 8 a.m., waiting for our Intro to Geography class to
begin.  A student seated a little in front of me was glancing thru The
Daily Texan, the UT student newspaper.  Over her shoulder I read the
headline: Chilean Coup D’Etat – President Allende Dead.

This was of course long before the Internet and I, along with some others,
had to wait until the evening news before I could learn more than what was
skimpily provided in that day’s newspapers.  Even then, standing in a
packed room at the Catholic Student Center, there was little enough in the
way of concrete information and that erratic trickle would go into total
blackout shortly after.  It has taken years for the reality of those first
days, weeks, and months of the Pinochet dictatorship to come to light, and
even longer for the grim facts to sink in.

I first heard the name Salvador Allende in 1963.  My dad was the American
Consul General in the northern Chilean city of Antofagasta (‘large town’
might be more apt, but it seemed a city to me  at six years old big is
big).  Antofagasta is on the Pacific coast, edged in by the great and
ancient Atacama desert.  The posting was then considered what the State
Department calls a ‘hardship post’, not through any danger of disease, or
marauding bandits, or primitive living conditions, but, as my dad was fond
of saying, because ‘the place is as isolated as the dark side of the

The diplomatic community was patchily represented in Antofagasta, unlike
in Santiago the capital, where every nation and its dog had an embassy, or
even Valparaiso, a deep-water port which was vital from a trading point of
view.  By contrast, Antofagasta was a frontier town, and although it was
the largest population center relative to the extremely important copper
mines in the northern swath of the desert, and was also the headquarters
of the Army’s Division del Norte, then, coincidentally, commanded by one
Augusto Pinochet, our lovely town had not a lot to recommend itself on the
world-theater.  Besides my dad, there was a British legation, along with
the consular representatives of Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Belgium.
Yugoslavia was also represented in the person of an ‘honorary consul’, who
ran a woman’s dress store and occasionally dropped by our house for a game
of chess.  Incidentally, the term ‘honorary consul’ is universally
considered a more high-falutin’ way of saying that the honoree is someone
who has gone native.  In other words, Yugoslavia’s official representative
had married a Chilean woman, had settled down with a home and a business
and had no earthly intention of returning to Europe.

On the particular day when I first learned about Salvador Allende, my dad
was driving me and my two older sisters out to a site in the Atacama
desert where an astronomical satellite station had been established a few
years earlier.  It was a tiny site, manned by three young Americans from
NASA and occasional colleagues from the Chilean Meteorological Institute,
with visitors from Japan and Australia, among others.
There is a stunning number of stars visible in the skies of the Southern
Hemisphere, far more than are visible in the Northern half, and in the
dead of a cloudless night, out in the flat lunar landscape of the Atacama,
the sky would have been an ocean of brilliance.
My dad was taking the NASA guys a number of care packages, mainly American
snack foods, cigarettes, beer, and, according to my oldest sister, who’d
peeked, several copies of Playboy magazine.  I can’t imagine that Playboy
would have been for sale in any of the local bookstores, nor in the many
kiosks which sold cigarettes, candy, and calendars of the Catholic holy
days.  Had the magazines been sent from Santiago by top-secret diplomatic
pouch?  It’s funny to think so.

My family lived in a house directly behind the Consulate building, two
blocks from the ocean, and so the drive clear across town seemed fairly
long, but exciting since it was something we’d never done before.  Maybe
my dad was trying to keep us from getting bored but as we climbed into the
car he devised a game for us to play as we drove along.  He assigned each
of us the name of one of the three Chilean presidential candidates who
were campaigning in the upcoming election.  My oldest sister called dibs
on Eduardo Frei, leader of the Christian Democrats and considered a
centrist-moderate on the US-model; I was assigned Miguel Lopanzo, a
conservative candidate whose name was regularly and affectionately
mispronounced as ‘Lapanza’, ‘panza’ being slang for stomach or gut,
which fit the man, who was something of a barrel; my other sister got the name
of the candidate for both the Socialist Party and the Worker’s Union
Alliance, Salvador Allende.

As instructed by my dad, we were each to keep count of every poster,
banner, and campaign sign which we saw on our trip across town.  Much to
my oldest sister’s delight, Frei took an early lead as we drove through
the downtown district, but Lopanzo began to catch up in the suburbs.  My
other sister was disappointed but as we drove towards the outskirts of
Antofagasta, through the working class district and on into the poor
neighborhoods, crowded with tiny structures of corrugated tin and
cardboard and tires, the posters for both Frei and Lopanzo disappeared
completely and there was nothing to be seen but the name of Salvador
Allende.  Across a number of facades and power lines one could also see
wordless and imageless red sheets, which, had we asked, could have been
added to my sister’s tally as signs of support.

As we went on into the desert my dad and my sisters had a general
discussion about politics, most of which was far over my crewcut head.  I
do remember my dad telling us that all over the world, poor people didn’t
get much help from their governments, and that was why they relied on the
Church and also why they often looked to the Socialists and even the
Communists for hope.

I knew my parents had voted for John Kennedy and they had taken us to see
him speak at an open-air auditorium in Caracas, Venezuela, during the
goodwill tour of Latin America shortly after he was elected.  Beyond that,
I was a truly empty vessel, with a child’s unwavering allegiance to Texas
(where my dad was from and where my aunts and uncles and grandmother lived),
to Poland (where my mom had been born), to England (because I was in the 2nd
grade at the Antofagasta British School and we sang ‘God Save The Queen’
each morning before class), and to Chile (because that’s where we lived and
where our cats and stuff stayed).

On a deeper level my dad’s personal politics were very much out of the
classic Kennedy mold.  Quite liberal on the social issues of the day:
civil rights for Blacks in the American South; strong labor unions,
hopefully corruption-free; a deep and mocking distrust of Big Business.
He could be especially sarcastic about the advertising industry (and not
just the American version) and would comment rhetorically about radio or
TV commercials: ‘What exactly are they trying to sell me?  Happiness and
good looks or a washing machine?  Eternal youth or Coca-Cola?”  But his
true love and interest was in the world of international affairs.  and
there he was a prime example of the Cold Warrior wing of the Democratic
Party.  He believed that it was the moral duty of the United States to
fight Communism throughout the unaligned Third World.  In later years he
and I would have long and unresolved arguments about the monstrous nature
of many of the regimes the US supported, simply because they toed the line
of ‘better dead than Red’.  By the same token, he was extremely conscious
of the American tendency to cross the line from patriotism into fascism,
and was moved by the wistfulness of some of his older colleagues who had
lived through the Red Scare years of the early 50s, shortly before he
himself joined the Foreign Service.  These older officers had witnessed
the hounding out of many brilliant fellow civil servants from the State
Department, including some of the most astute scholars of both the Soviet
Union and China.  This anti-intellectual streak which had always been a
boasted-upon hallmark of the Republican Party was something which
profoundly disgusted him.  He was as familiar with the writings of Marx
and Lenin and Fanon and Guevara as some atheists are with the Bible.  How
else does one learn to know one’s enemy?

Allende lost the election of 1964 to Eduardo Frei but won in 1970.  His
was not the first socialist government to be democratically elected in
Latin America (if one counts the Mexican government under Lazaro Cardenas
in the late 1930s), nor was Allende’s regime the first to be overthrown
with US-supported brutality.  That dubious distinction goes to Dr. Jacobo
Arbenz, president of Guatemala until his ouster in 1954, in an action that
had less to do with Guatemala than with the CIA’s desire to test various
theories of media deception, crowd control, and infrastructure sabotage.
In a perversely similar pattern, disciples of free-market fanatic Milton
Friedman, the so-called ‘Chicago Boys’, would descend on Chile at the
invitation of General Pinochet and the military dictatorship, in order to
use the prostrate and cowed population of Chile as their own little
laboratory, testing out the more radical aspects of a capitalist ‘shock’
economy, without the annoying distraction of having to listen to the
unhappy voices of the many who fell to the margins or through the cracks
into poverty.

Until that September day in 1973, Chileans had proudly held up their
history as a civilized alternative to what happened in neighboring
countries.  A military coup was something that one expected from
Argentina, or Peru, or Bolivia.  But in Chile?  It was unthinkable.

And so, on each September 11th, from now until the day I die, I will
remember two tragedies.  The one that was televised for all the astonished
world to see and the one that happened at the other end of our shared
hemisphere, when one country which I love betrayed another, smaller and
humbler country, which I also love.


Documentary on Chile

Tonight on P.O.V., the documentary The Judge and the General will be on PBS.  Elizabeth Farnsworth, a long time News Hour reporter, is one of the films producers and she was on tonight to preview it.  It airs at 10 p.m. here in Houston.  I’m going to tape it while I watch it and will try to write a bit about it tomorrow. 

If you have HDTV, it is also showing the next two nights on KUHT’s second channel.