Activism & Solidarity

The Coup in Chile: 50 Years On

As a daughter of former political prisoners, for me – and for Chileans across the world – this year has a special resonance. It marks the fiftieth anniversary of the coup in Chile. On 11 September 1973, the democratically elected government of Dr Salvador Allende was ousted out by a bloody coup d’etat led by a military junta. Leading a coalition of left-wing parties named Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), Allende had been in power for three years, and wanted to introduce socialism by democratic means. As a result, he was seen as a threat to the elite in Chile and those with foreign interests in the country.

As archival records have shown, the coup was devised and paid for by the CIA, as well as the secret service of the UK and Australia. It led to 17 years of a brutal military regime, headed by General Pinochet. This regime would become one of Latin America’s most notorious dictatorships; characterised by torture, killings, disappearances and the forced exile of thousands of ordinary people.

When the fiftieth anniversary of the coup was approaching, as a refugee from the Chilean regime, it felt natural for me to be involved in setting up Chile 50 Years UK, alongside Isabel Cortes and other first and second generation Chileans in the UK. We wanted to provide a platform for people across the country to publicise the events they would be organising in commemoration.

Logo of Chile Fifty Years UK, designed by Jamie Lang.

Events have taken place from Wales to Scotland, with talks, films, cultural events, exhibitions, plays, and concerts looking at the coup, its aftermath, the resistance of the Chilean people and the tremendous support and solidarity received as thousands had to leave. It’s a story which speaks about the worst in humanity and the best. For us, memory is an act of resistance in itself.

Chile 50 Years UK event in Sheffield, 10 September 2023, from Maria-Vasquez-Aguilar.

As the dictatorship systematically repressed all sectors of society, including the media, academics, song writers, trade unions and political parties, it was able to install a new economic programme in the country in near perfect ‘laboratory’ conditions. Developed by the now infamous ‘Chicago boys’, a group of Chilean economists trained in the University of Chicago under leading neo-liberal thinkers such as Milton Friedman, it involved dismantling the welfare state that Allende had brought in, privatising all industries including the pension system and deregulating the market. This model was taken up by Margaret Thatcher when she came to power in the UK in 1979, and subsequently transported across the world in coups or IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes. When we remember the Chilean coup, we remember how the seeds of the rampant economic inequalities we see in the world today were sown on that fateful day.

Also central to our commemorations are the stories of the ordinary Chileans whose lives were completely changed by the coup. My parents were always open with me and my siblings about the circumstances in which we were forced to leave Chile. Within the exile community many children have similar or worse stories than ours.

From a young age, I knew that my Dad had been picked up by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), Pinochet’s secret police, after having become part of the underground resistance to the regime. A university student at the time of the coup, he was a member of Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) and met my Mum whilst living in clandestine. My parents were arrested together but luckily my Mum, pregnant with me, was released after a week.  She went on to join the thousands of people looking for their loved ones, the majority of them women, who not only struggled to keep the family going but faced the brutality of the regime in their search.

During a time when dead bodies would be found in the street and floating in the local rivers, the authorities told her that my Dad had ‘fled to Sweden with his lover’. In reality, he had been held in the various torture and secret detention centres of the regime including Villa Grimaldi and Rocas Santo Domingo, Cuatro Alamos and Melinka (Puchuncavi).

Some of these camps had originally been built by Allende’s government as affordable holiday camps for workers and their families. Now, they housed death and terror. I learnt to walk in one of these concentration camps, visiting my Dad. Due to international pressure, Pinochet closed some camps in 1976 and, as a result, my Dad was released. However, it soon became clear that life would be impossible in Chile, and my parents would continue to be targeted.

Coup of 11 September 1973, Bombing of La Moneda (presidential palace). From Wikicommons.

As the images of British Hawker Hunter jets bombing the Moneda (Chile’s presidential palace) in 1973 circulated widely, solidarity groups sprung up worldwide. Across the UK, dockers and truckers refused to handle Chilean goods and, in East Kilbride, workers in a Rolls Royce factory refused to fix the engines of the same Hawker Hunter jets that had bombed the Moneda. The brave yet humble and extraordinary actions of these Scottish workers are now immortalised in the film Nae Pasaran.

As a family, we received clothes and letters from such solidarity groups, as well as airplane tickets. The initial two tickets sent by a group in Italy were rejected by my parents as they refused to leave us children behind. Then we received five airplane tickets for the family to travel to England. In June 1978, we joined the thousands of refugees fleeing the horrors of the dictatorship. We have never met who sent us that lifeline, although we are eternally grateful.

Boarding the plane. From Maria Vasquez-Aguilar’s private collection.

Upon arrival in the UK, my parents immediately got involved in the solidarity campaign for Chile, as well as other causes. My siblings and I grew up at political demonstrations and events, ranging from support for Nicaragua to the Miners’ strike of 1984/85 and the anti-apartheid movement. These networks of Chilean refugees and local activists became our new ‘family’, a family that made integration into British society possible. Meeting people who had never been to Chile yet cared enough to come to our events, eat our food, and bring their children for us to play with was an antidote to the racism we also experienced.

The solidarity movement with Chile lasted until 1990, when the Pinochet dictatorship ended. However, these solidarity networks have since been reactivated at different points in time, such as the arrest of Pinochet in 1998 in London, and the commemorations around the 40th anniversary of the coup in 2013.  In my PhD research, I focus on these flashpoints in history. Using oral history, I have captured the political activism of the first generation of Chilean refugees and their non-Chilean supporters, and asked how memories and identities have been transmitted between generations.

Although Pinochet died in 2006, his legacy still casts a long shadow over Chilean life. It was surprising yet understandable when in October 2019, secondary school children led a protest against an increase in travel costs and sparked mass social unrest. Over the next few months, millions came to the streets to call for an end to the neo-liberal economic policies which had continued since the end of the dictatorship. Songs from the time of the Popular Unity government were played and placards held reading “we are the grandchildren of those you couldn’t kill” and “neo-liberalism was born in Chile, and it will die in Chile”. Underpinning the various calls was the need to change the constitution that had remained intact since the time of Pinochet.

The state responded with the systematic violation of human rights. Thousands were arrested, with hundreds of mainly young people losing their sight in targeted attacks with rubber bullets and tear cannisters. The more repressive the policing, the larger the demonstrations grew. In response to the 2019 unrest, I and two other second generation Chilean women (Isabel Cortes and Carole Concha Bell) set up Chile Solidarity Network.

Though the Covid-19 pandemic brought an end to these protests, they did lead to a new government headed by Gabriel Boric, a leading figure from the student demonstrations of 2011 and his broad left party – Frente Amplio. We are yet to see if this new government delivers on the social demands in the streets when Chile awoke. However, it has announced for the 50th anniversary a commission to look into the whereabouts of the over 1000 people disappeared by Pinochet’s regime. Sadly, we are yet to see concrete action on the prisoners and human rights abuses of the 2019 unrest; it appears that despite four international human rights reports, impunity still reigns in Chile.

The 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile is an opportunity to remember how, after the immediate horrors of the dictatorship ended, its legacy continues to impact generations to come. It reminds us of why people need to seek refuge, and why the reception they receive in the host country affects not only those arriving but also their children and the diaspora as a whole.

The struggle of the Chilean people over the last 50 years started long before 11 September 1973 and it will continue long after 11 September 2023, because as Allende said as the Presidential palace was being bombed on that fateful day – it is the people that make history.

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