Dedicated to Steven Volk, a witness and a voice of conscience
As the US observes today the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Chile pauses for the 40th anniversary of another mournful moment: the military coup of September 11, 1973. One was the opening act of the scary historical times we are still living in. The other was yet another episode of two major components of Latin American political history: politicized militaries and the impact of the larger international political environment.
Much has been written and even filmed about the run-up to the coup, but I will not delve into the full story here. It will suffice to say that political polarization run amok was the ultimate cause of the events that inaugurated one of the most repressive military governments in Latin American history, of which American journalist Charles Horman was one of its victims. Yet this coup cannot be understood without paying attention to how Latin American militaries behaved back then: The belief of being insulated from standing norms that goes back to the fueros of colonial times and the self-ascribed mission of being a moderating and even reforming force in the face of excessive politicking are perhaps the most descriptive elements of that mindset. In other words, Latin American militaries annointed themselves as the saviors of the Fatherland — from itself, if necessary. More specifically, the Chilean military dictatorship is an example of what the late Guillermo O’Donnell termed bureaucratic authoritarianism, in which the military as a whole deposed civilian governments at will to effect changes meant to restrict future political behavior. The bureaucratic part entailed streamlined policymaking, especially in economic matters. The authoritarian part, of course, meant the elimination with extreme prejudice of “political subversives”.
Which brings us to the other aspect that needs to be brought in to understand 9/11/73: the political environment outside of Chile, marked by the Cold War. In those days, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were busy courting favor with China and negotiating arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union, but none of them lost sight of one thing: Latin America had to remain within the American sphere of political influence and not shift to the Soviet’s. In realist terms, it was necessary to forcibly establish that for the sake of avoiding existential threats to the country; part of that approach was to support (or at least acquiesce to) bureaucratic authoritarian regimes like Chile’s, until the change in the political winds during the 1980s mandated a reassessment. It was not just that the Cuban Revolution and its sympathies with the Soviet Union were seen as a threat to American interests in Latin America, but that Allende, a Socialist who was also very friendly with Cuba, won fair and square in 1970 — in a democratic election (!!). The rest is history, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
9/11/73 might have happened 40 years ago today, but most Chileans believe that the wounds are as fresh as when they were inflicted that day. There is no question about the facts of what happened before, during, and after the coup, but also no consensus on how to interpret them — not just between the Chilean left and right, but within. The lid covering the human rights abuses committed by the military dictatorship has been blown off for good, but not every case has been closed, including Charles Horman’s. Chile made its transition to democracy in 1989, but some of the political institutions imposed by the dictatorship still remain and key issues such as electoral apathy, demands for democratic deepening, and the student demonstrations of 2011-2012 may pose the question of what kind of democracy has Chile transitioned to. In this sea of contradictions, something is beyond doubt: Those who do not work tirelessly to redress the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.