Chile's coup: the perspective of forty years

The military seizure of power in Chile on 11 September 1973 continues to influence the country's politics, and its reverberations around the world were also to last for decades. Alan Angell, a distinguished scholar of Chile, reflects on the legacy of the coup and the reasons for its enduring impact.

Alan Angell
11 September 2013

I was in England at the time of the coup. Like many observers it took me by surprise - I thought that, difficult though the situation was in Chile, somehow a compromise would be worked out, probably with a referendum and with the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government forced to moderate its radical policies. I was wrong. But then, so were many Chileans who also thought that there would be no coup, or that, at worse, there would be a limited and moderate intervention.

This is the first reason for the continuing impact of the coup. It was not expected in a country which had an enviable record of constitutional government. Authoritarian governments in Spain or Greece or Portugal, following the collapse of fragile civilian regimes, were not regarded as fundamental departures from political practices in those countries. But Chile was different - at least that is what many observers believed, and with reason. The reaction was that if such a coup could happen in Chile, then it could happen almost anywhere. The Cuban revolution had become for the world in general a symbol of resistance to imperialist oppression. The Chilean coup became in turn, for the world in general a symbol of brutal military overthrow of progressive regimes.

Symbols are not accurate history. The repressive side of the Cuban revolution was ignored. There were far more brutal coups in Latin America than in Chile. Grasp of the complicated politics of Chile from 1970-73 was very superficial. But that did not matter. At the level of international perception, the Cuban revolution now had its mirror image in the Chilean coup.

A second reason for the profound impact of the coup was that it was, in some ways, the first televised coup. Images from the days following 11 September flooded the screens and newspapers of the world - and four images in particular. The Hunter-Hawker jets bombing La Moneda; the soldiers burning books in the street; that photograph of a grim-faced Augusto Pinochet wearing dark glasses and seated before the standing members of the military junta; the prisoners waiting in fear in the National Stadium. Even in the countries most remote from Chile geographically, socially and culturally, those images brought home in a direct fashion a picture of what was happening in Chile on 11 September and after. And those images from 1973 were joined by another one - the shattered car in which Chile's exiled former foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, met his death in Washington in 1976.

A third factor keeping the coup alive in the international spotlight was the activities of the Chilean exile community. For a decade after the coup, opposition politics were conducted as much abroad as in Chile. Many exiles were politicians with links with sister parties in Europe, other parts of Latin America and elsewhere. Chilean Socialists, Communists, Christian Democrats, and Radicals - all found receptive political homes outside Chile. The exile community was adept in seeking condemnation of the Pinochet government in international organisations such as the United Nations, and in persuading national governments to boycott Chilean trade and to sever links with the Chilean government. International sympathy for the Chilean opposition was widespread and strong - much more so than for the exiles from other military regimes in the southern cone. The international community felt that it understood and could relate to what was happening in Chile, whereas the politics of Argentina, or Brazil or Uruguay were so different from the experience of most developed countries that military coups in those countries evoked little response.

The clash of absolutes

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the Chilean coup on the political consciousness of a wide variety of countries. In the European parliament the country most debated (and condemned) for many years after 1973 was Chile. In Britain, Salvador Allende’s ambassador to that country, Álvaro Bunster, was the first foreigner to address the conference of the Labour Party since La Pasionaria at the time of the Spanish civil war. In Italy, analysis of the coup by the Communist Party and its intellectual leader Enrico Berlinguer led to the "historic compromise" by which the Italian CP joined the government for the first time for many years. In France the Socialist Party debated long and hard how to change its tactics after the Chilean coup. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were among countries welcoming thousands of Chilean refugees.

This reaction was not short-lived. What was striking was how consistent was international condemnation of the Chilean government up to the time of the plebiscite in 1988 - by which time even the United States government had joined the critics. This was important for the opposition and a setback for the government - even if the reasons for the change in US policy had more to do with Nicaraguan politics and the need to oppose dictatorships in general. International coverage of the plebiscite was intense. For a European press that shows only a passing and cursory interest in Latin America, it was remarkable. Naturally  the defeat of Pinochet was a cause for celebration. Later on, the jubilant reaction of European political circles to the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998 is testimony to the enduring impact of the coup of 1973 and the military government on the political consciousness of the international community.

Supporters of the military government will, no doubt, take all this as indicative of a complete misunderstanding of the situation in Chile and will point to the other side of the story of 1973. There was increasing social conflict in both town and countryside. The government had lost control of its own supporters. The economy was in ruins and shortages and a black market made life intolerable for many people. There was genuine fear of a Marxist takeover. Many Chileans supported the coup and not only from the upper classes. But outside Chile only the Richard M Nixon administration in the US listened to the tale they told. However, as Nixon’s emphasis on détente with the Soviet Union and good relations with China evolved, the Chilean brand of anti-communism looked even more old-fashioned. Moreover, the case of the military government was not helped by the crudity of its propaganda, of which the infamous Plan Zeta was amongst the most notorious.

Did this international response have any effect on the internal developments in Chile? I think it did. It contributed to the polarisation of Chile into two camps - and helped to sustain a polarisation of Chilean politics that persisted well into the period after the return to democracy. Widespread international condemnation of Chile forced the military regime into a more defensive and hardline posture than might have been otherwise the case. If the world would not accept the reasons for the coup of 1973 then so much the worse for the world - Chile would choose its own path, would develop its own institutions, implement its own policies and ignore the rest of world as far as it could. And those who opposed the military government were not only wrong but were seen as allies of international conspiracy against Chile and hence traitors to the country. This attitude, encouraged by Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and by the financial support from the US banks, attracted by the economic reforms of the government, was some solace against the otherwise almost universal condemnation.

On the other side, the support given by the international community to the opposition in exile reinforced its belief that it had won the moral argument, that no compromise with the regime was possible or necessary, and that if the struggle would be long and hard then it would also eventually be victorious. The defining issue in this confrontation became that of human rights. The fact that the Catholic church through the Vicariate of Solidarity (incidentally an institution without parallel in any other authoritarian regime) supported the human-rights cause reinforced the opposition in choosing this issue with which to confront the government.

The clash between government and opposition in exile became one of moral absolutes. And in that kind of debate no one is really neutral - you either defend the government or you condemn it. That dichotomy created a division that split Chilean society almost into two halves. The way that the military regime ended helped to sustain that division. It is without precedent that a military ruler after such a long period of almost absolute power should request in a free and fair plebiscite an extension of his mandate for another eight years, lose the plebiscite though gain a remarkably high vote, and then accept the result and organise elections to choose a civilian president. It is true that Pinochet had not wanted the plebiscite in the first place, that the way it was organised had more to do with the ruling of the constitutional tribunal than the intentions of the regime, and that strong pressure to accept the result came from the other members of the junta. But in time Pinochet’s supporters saw the result not as a defeat but as a kind of triumph. They were the true democrats now.

What marked Chilean politics after 1990 until the arrest of Pinochet was the absence of debate between the two sides over the coup, its causes and consequences. Of course there was debate over many issues - constitutional reform, social policies, macroeconomic policies - but not over the coup. Witness the brusque dismissal of the Rettig report by the armed forces, its political allies, and even the supreme court. They were right and were justified, and the government was wrong - full stop.

The split society

Chile is not alone in finding it difficult to come to terms with its past. It took Germans many years before they were prepared to examine the Nazi phenomenon in all its stark inhumanity: Japan still refuses to acknowledge some of the gross abuses committed during the second world war. Or what of Spain - add to the half million or so killed during the civil war and then the astonishing but accepted estimate of a further of a quarter of a million killed by the Franco regime in the aftermath of the war, and it seems incredible that no trials have taken place, nor is there any demand for them, nor even for a commission to establish the truth. Indeed it can be argued - as I have in a chapter of a forthcoming book - that the Chilean government (along with South Africa) has gone further in clarifying the past and in seeking justice for abuses than any other government.

What was ignored in the reaction to the coup was the fact - unpalatable as it may have been - that it had widespread support, even amongst sectors of the poor. It is not uncommon for a military coup to enjoy initial support as the population wearies of the uncertainties and turmoil of a weak civilian government; Argentina in 1976 is an obvious example. What is very rare, however, is that this support persists over a long period of time and persists even after the return to a democratic regime. The Pinochet regime was unusual in many ways. The economic and social reforms followed an ideological agenda; the government constructed an institutionality in which it really believed; it accepted rejection in a plebiscite and followed the rules; and it even negotiated important constitutional changes with the opposition before it handed over power.

Oddly enough, these characteristics deepened rather than muted the polarisation of Chile. Because the military government was not simply a crude and corrupt elite content to plunder the economy, it created a mass of loyal support bound to it by ideological sympathy. The most obvious manifestation of this is the formation and growth of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). This again is remarkable. The only two new, successful and innovative political parties in Latin America are the UDI and the Workers' Party (PT) in Brazil - one born in support of a military regime and one in opposition to it. And interestingly enough, both have achieved success by moving to the centre - in the case of the PT, moving away from its sectarian and radical past, and, in the case of the UDI, distancing itself from the Pinochet regime.

Legacy, memory, future

This then is the legacy of the coup - it created two opposed worlds, in one of which the coup was the symbol of the salvation of Chile, and in the other, the tragedy of Chile. The "Si"’ and the "No" in the plebiscite of 1988 were much more than a simple response to the question of Pinochet as president for another eight years. They symbolised support for one of two contrasting views of history; in a way it posed a question about whether the coup of 1973 was justified or not. Even if right and left have converged in many ways - over economic policy for example - the dichotomy over the coup persisted.

But for how much longer? Does the memory of the coup really matter today? In some ways obviously less so as memories fade, as politics has become more a matter of routine and less a matter of confrontation, as economic policies have produced a remarkable record of success (with, it is true, major problems), as the issue of civil-military relations has moved to a smoother course. Yet while the human-rights issue persists, while trials of military officers continue, while more evidence accumulates, the memory of the coup remains alive in contemporary Chile. And - if a foreign observer may say so - it is to the credit of Chile that there is a real attempt to face up to the past, to enter, at last, into dialogue between the two camps, to secure justice, to try to understand what happened and why. Forgetting the past is one option and many countries have chosen to do so. Facing up to the past and trying to seek understanding, justice and reconciliation is infinitely more painful but profoundly important for establishing a just and democratic order.


This article was first published in El Mercurio (Santiago) on 24 August 2013, and is published with kind permission

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