9/11/2001 wasn’t the first 9/11 that changed everything. Five thousand miles South and twenty-eight years earlier, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet ousted Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup that left the President dead and instigated an almost 17 year military rule in which thousands of Chileans were the tortured and ‘disappeared.’
This week Chileans and Latin Americans all over the world are reminded of the fateful event with its 40th anniversary.
During his presidency, Allende strived to implement “the Chilean way to socialism” through a series of political reforms. They included nationalisation of Chile’s lucrative copper industry and public services as well as programs tackling the restructuring of land ownership; measures which were considered a threat by long-standing powerful interest groups and economic elites.
Though many Chileans still see Pinochet as a hero who saved his country from communism, many more are reminded of the thousands of victims of torture and murder and the idea of a country that could have been, had it been left to decide its own destiny. For it is now well documented how heavily involved the US was in destabilising the country, funding strikes, infiltrating meetings, placing agent provocateurs, generally helping to create the chaos that brought Chile to its knees on the eve of the coup. As Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State at the time, said: “Chile cannot be allowed to go Marxist simply because of the irresponsibility of its people.
The rest is history. In the following years, Chile became the setting of the first implementation of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the shock doctrine’: the physical shock of a coup and widespread political repression was accompanied with the implementation of neoliberal Chicago-style economic policies; widespread privatisation, which later found their way to the United Kingdom through Margaret Thatcher, Pinochet’s friend.
And yet, history is never definitive. Medgar Evers, an African-American civil rights activist once proclaimed: ‘you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.’ Despite political repression, ideas are passed down from generation to generation and that is how struggles for freedom continue and prevail. These two stories are a living testimony of this:
“ I was a politically active university student and still a teenager, was staying at my girlfriend’s house the day the coup happened. This was a time of major social change in the West, if you think about the Beatles and the hippie movement for example.” he tells me over coffee in North London.
“For me, two events in particular played a vital role in my decision to get involved in politics: the Vietnam War and the Cuban Revolution. Both made me aware that in Latin America, which had been subject of US intervention throughout the 20th century, our struggle for change and social justice would always encounter opposition from very powerful forces. I was an admirer of Che Guevara: he showed the possibility that Latin America could take control of its own destiny.
“On the 11th of September 1973 we realised that something odd was going on when army checkpoints appeared on a bridge connecting the suburbs to central Santiago. The picture became clearer as we came closer to the centre, where crowds of people were cheering and honking the horns of their cars in celebration.
“In response to the coup my medical faculty student union began organising groups of volunteers to go to poor shantytowns that were likely to suffer most in the event of a civil war. I volunteered and it was there that I was arrested. They entered the house where we were in the middle of the night and ordered all the students to lie on the floor. They started shooting even though we were completely unarmed. They could have just detained us. But they shot me because they could.
“They took me to the national football stadium, which had been transformed into a mass detention centre immediately after the coup. About 20,000 people went through the stadium, mostly people who sympathised with Allende, but also others with no political connections. We were thrown into the players’ locker rooms. It was very crammed and then in turn we would be taken off for interrogation. I think I got off relatively lightly. I was badly beaten up, but they didn’t use electricity on me as they did on others.
"I remember seeing the son of the general secretary of the Communist Party, a young man called Luis Alberto Corvalán, being dragged unconscious across the pitch, he was very severely tortured, and survived but died young a few years later in exile. Some didn’t survive, but most of the killing was done after this initial ‘stadium’ period of mass arrest. The stadium experience was meant as a warning. All my friends who continued to resist the dictatorship are dead.
“After about a month at the Stadium I was taken to a prison. When I was released from prison in 1974 my parents pleaded with me to leave the country. They feared I’d be detained a second time, which would mean certain death. I felt a strong duty to stay and fight because if we, the privileged and somewhat more protected middle class, left the country and what kind of example would we give to our compañeros who were poor and being killed without any hesitation from the authorities.
"Then my wife disappeared in December 1974. I was forced to go into hiding in the Venezuelan embassy and then was granted asylum in the UK. My wife was still in a concentration camp and very badly tortured. She got it worse than me. Many of the women got the worst of the torture. These were terrible methods of torture, used in Vietnam by the US, by the French in Algeria, which involved rape, electricity, dogs, loud rock music, many of the torture techniques the US still use in places like Abu Graib. We campaigned for her release from the UK and when she was eventually released 6 months later, she came joined me in the UK..Our campaign in the UK was definitely instrumental in her release, as well as the fact that we were not high ranking members of a left wing party.
"It takes time to recover, but we have managed to overcome what happened to us over time. One musn’t underestimate how much the solidarity movement in the UK helped us. It was a big part of the healing process. We found a lot of support here. It was incredibly important for both people inside Chile and for those who came out.
"After dedicating most of my life in England to an academic career as a neuroscientist, I have returned to activism together with my children. With my son Pablo we founded Alborada Films, an independent production company focusing on documentaries on Latin America and we are about to release a film about the student movement in Chile today.
"Despite the transition to democracy little has changed in Chile in terms of the neoliberal economic model put in place by the Pinochet dictatorship. It has taken a long time for students to break the wall of silence about what has happened to Chile and the fact that it has one of the worst rates in inequality in Latin America. Education is one of tenets of neoliberal system in Chile. In most countries of the OECD, to which Chile belongs, 70% of education costs are covered by the state. In Chile the government covers only 16% of costs of education. It is very important to support the student movement today but also understand the causes of protest and in order to do that we have to go back and look at Chile’s history to the heritage and the economic model put into place under the dictatorship.
“I can't remember the first time I was aware of what happened to my parents. I just knew at one point that my mother was held in one of Chile’s most notorious concentration camps, and my father in the national stadium. I didn’t know all the details. But after Pinochet’s arrest in London they gave a lot of interviews for the media and that is when I really became aware of the details.
“I grew between political meetings and marches, rooted in the Chilean exile community in London. But also other I remember going to Anti-Apartheid protests, and ones against Margaret Thatcher. Politics played a big role at home. It was everywhere, at parties I was taken to, at dinner table discussions.
“I remember wanting to be an economist since I was seven years old. But it was clear that I did not want to end up working for Merryll Lynch. I guess this was also reflected in my decision of studying at SOAS, which is probably one of the only place in the UK where you can study Marxist political economy at undergraduate level.
"Now I make documentaries. The involvement with journalism really began in 2005, when I was living in Venezuela. One of the things I worked on there was researching the Venezuela part of John Pilger’s documentary The War on Democracy. I also worked as a fixer, supplying stories to for example the BBC and Canadian TV. It was these experiences that made me realise that I was really interested in visual story telling. So in late 2008, about a year after returning from Venezuela I decided that wanted to tell a story about what I had experienced in Venezuela, in large part out of frustration at the distorted coverage by the media of events in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.
"Obviously my parents politics have informed the way I have grown up. Their experience taught me to question official narratives in general and in particular those that profess to be concerned about human rights and democracy by western governments including British.
"The beliefs my parents have given me make sense to me. I think it comes down to ethics and ideals. I share my parents’ values about the roots of inequality and injustice. They have taught me that if you believe in something it is worth defending and fighting for.
"My father and I have collaborated on documentaries on Venezuela and Colombia and we are also doing one on Chile’s student movement. I think people in this country can learn a lot from what is happening in Chile at the moment. In this country, Thatcher’s supporters are pretty much still in power and implementing the same neoliberal economic measures she admired her friend Pinochet for. We should not forget the brutality with which neoliberal capitalism was imposed on Chile under Pinochet, using state terrorism. But people in Chile are continuing to resist the model. It’s now the students’ turn to take center stage.
For more information on Pablo and Roberto Navarrete’s film of Chilean Students, sketches of which will be shown this weekend and full version in November, see http://www.alborada.net/chilestudents.film