They call it the “other 9/11” – the events of 11 September 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet led a bloody military coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s elected democracy. In the process, Pinochet’s men massacred some 30,000 trade unionists, communists and socialists. In the subsequent 17 equally terrible years of the general’s regime (1973-1990), thousands more were illegally detained, tortured, disappeared or killed.
Chile 40 Years On is a network of Chileans (and friends of Chile) across Britain, who volunteered their time and effort to create a number of events to “commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Chilean human and social tragedy brought about by Pinochet’s dictatorship.” They gathered peacefully outside the Chilean Embassy in St James’ Park couple of weeks back, on the 11th of September, calling it the “Memory and Justice Picket”; there were songs and flowers aplenty as the names of over 3,000 men and women who disappeared and/or were politically executed men were read out.
Pinochet died in 2006 without being tried for any of the crimes he had committed. Thatcher’s Britain had sheltered Pinochet from prosecution, a sensitive topic in the country. She had backed Pinochet’s politics (“it was General Pinochet who brought democracy to Chile”), just as the General had backed her during the 1982 Falklands War. It was a mutual admiration society. Thatcher should have been around for this event, for its photo exhibition. It featured Julio Etchart, the photographer, who has followed the dictatorship closely through his lens (julioetchart.com). Chile 40 Years On arranged documentary screenings on Allende, readings and discussions on Pablo Neruda (by his biographer Adam Feinstein), and a wonderful tribute to the singer-songwriter Victor Jara. Jara, singer, songwriter and activist, had been anathema to the General’s men. Like many others, Jara was rounded up by the General’s men, and the day after the coup was tortured to death in the infamous Chile Stadium. The army first broke Jara’s hands, and then asked him to play his guitar with those hands.
Pablo Neruda died on September 23, exactly 12 days after Allende. A friend, asked by me what Chile brings to his mind, had instantly replied, “Allende. Neruda.” September is indeed the month to remember not just them but also the thousands – mostly unknown – who were victims of one of the more brutal dictatorships of the last century.