How I learned about September 11

September 11, 2013

Forty years ago, on September 11, 1973, Chile's military carried out a coup against the elected government of socialist President Salvador Allende. Allende had been elected in 1970 and attempted to carry out a program of democratic reforms, including nationalization of the copper industry. But the struggles of the years that followed pitted the working masses who supported his Popular Unity government against the combined forces of the Chilean bourgeoisie, the country's military and U.S. imperialism.

Orlando Sepúlveda offers a personal account of how he learned about the military's overthrow of the Allende government--and a political critique of the "official story" as it has emerged over the last 40 years.

I REMEMBER those days very vaguely. I recall that suddenly, we couldn't play outside past three in the afternoon at first, then six, then a bit later--and that it took a while for that curfew to get out of the way of our playtime. After all, the sun was setting later every day, and the days were getting warmer. I was four years old.

A lot of strange things happened around that time. I saw at least two shootings in the vicinity of our house. Once, my family got trapped between police and leftists in another shooting in downtown (you still can see the bullets in the buildings). On different occasions, I saw people running and falling, I saw blood, and I saw a body left behind the street. Once, there was a huge commotion across the street, with lots of uniformed people dragging other people and a helicopter flying over our house. I think my dad said that they had come for the "Miristas."

This kept happening for a while, and from my point of view then, it wasn't even strange to me--it just was. As I grew up, I started to make sense of it. When I learned about crime and the law, I put all these memories in that category. But as I kept on learning, hearing the stories from adults and becoming aware of this thing called "politics," things changed.

Workers' organizations march in support of Salvador Allende
Workers' organizations march in support of Salvador Allende

This is about one of the most important episodes in the history of revolutionary change, and you may already know what I'm talking about. If you don't, don't worry, I promise not to keep you in suspense much longer. But I wanted to start here, with my experiences and how I learned slightly different explanations of what happened through the years. Because as the "official story" took shape over the last 40 years, this is an important part of paying tribute to the fallen--to retrace the formation of the official story, to unveil its inaccuracies and to restore its heroes to their rightful place.

I KNOW now that first time our parents yelled at us--kids playing on the corner--to come inside because there was a "toque de queda" (curfew) was September 11, 1973--the day the Chilean bourgeoisie unleashed the military against the people, the day the constitutionally elected president Salvador Allende was ousted, the day the "Chilean Road to Socialism" came abruptly to an end.

Now I know that those early memories are echoes in my experiences of the campaign of terror against the working class that followed the coup d'etât, which resulted in the decimation of a whole generation of Chile's best militants, through assassination, incarceration, torture, rape, exile and/or criminalization; in the rollback of hard-won social gains; and in inauguration of savage neoliberal policies in Chile.

A few years, we moved--from one of the neighborhoods where the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) had a cell in Concepción, to "La Remodelación Paicaví," a new complex of apartment buildings that were homes to families sustained by salaries of liberal professionals, white-collar public employees (like my dad), unionized workers (refinery, steel and education) and military personnel. It was much quieter place, so life was kind of normal for a while.

It was also a place where you could hear--just by walking across the street or to the next building--many different explanations of what had happened in Chile a few years before. For the same reasons, it was a deeply divided place once the struggle for democracy returned to the streets in the early 1980s. I was 12 years old by then, and I was, of course, on the right side of the divide--that is, on the left.

But before that, what I heard about 1973 was mostly what kids would repeat after hearing it from their parents at home. My parents weren't talking about it.

I was about 9 years old when I wrote my first song as I was learning how to play guitar. It was about the genocide of Jews in Hitler's Germany. I showed it to my friend Raúl, who was older than me, and all what I got was: "Why don't you sing about what's going on here?" "What do you mean?" I asked. "What's going on here? Like in Germany?" "Well, almost," he said. This was the first time anybody got me to think about politics.

Raúl's parents are communists. In 1984, he entered college, got arrested in a student protest, was tortured and was sentenced to seven years for who knows what. Eventually, he got out and left the country for Sweden.

Before all of that, he told me the CIA had paid some officials in the army to stir sedition among the ranks to stop Allende, because Allende had nationalized the copper mines. He also told me that in Chile, there couldn't have been an armed confrontation with the state because people weren't ready for it, and that if the government had gotten to the 1976 election, our side would have won, and perhaps we would be socialists by now.

His younger sister Vicky disagreed. She said that people should have taken up arms. She died when Raúl was already in Sweden, in a very murky incident that remains unclear, so far as I know, to this day. I prefer to think that something went wrong with her plans rather than that she was just blown up by the National Central of Intelligence. But reports say that she was detained by police a few days before her death.

On the other side, there was Marcos, whose father was a "carabinero" (police officer). He and some other kids from his building would say that "the Marxists wanted to take over the country", that "Castro was sending arms to the communists" and that the military needed "to save the country." He also liked to tie up other kids and beat them, or push a dead mouse into their mouths. Somewhere, perhaps at the dinner table, or listening in on his father's conversations, he may have heard that you could do that to people.

Carlos' father was a Christian Democrat and worked in public office. The Christian Democrats are the party of the modern industrial bourgeoisie in Chile, but because of their Catholic roots, they won the adherence of many people of the middle and working classes.

Carlos would say that his dad said some of the things Allende's Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition wanted were fine, but they were trying to do too much, and that in any case, they broke the law, and the military had to act to save us from chaos, because Allende had lost control of his people. I never really liked Carlos.

In the apartment just above ours lived Juan, whose father was a fairly well-paid union refinery worker. Juan always identified himself as a socialist, and the most I remember of him is how much he defended Allende. He said that Allende was a great democrat who tried his utmost to keep the country from going into civil war, and always looked for a way to make a deal with the moderate opposition to try to avoid a coup. Also that Allende remained loyal to the cause, fighting until the end and not giving up.

WHEN I finally became involved in the fight for democracy against the junta, I kept hearing all these arguments, over and over again, in better developed forms or not. And participating in politics in college, from 1986 until the defeat of the dictator in the 1988 plebiscite, people representing the same political leanings argued with and blamed each other for what happened--or other factors, such as national and international realities, and on and on.

Now as an adult, I know that I grew up with the ghost of the revolution and reality of the counter-revolution as a presence in my everyday life. I still fight for socialism and am very interested in figuring out what happened by studying what people have said and written and reflecting on these experiences and stories. And funnily enough, I see kernels of most of these versions of what happened amalgamated in what today can be described as the official story of Chile between 1970 and 1973.

I'm saddened because this official story forgets about the many of the true revolutionary heroes and sheroes of the journey--even looks on them with contempt--and does not draw any of the lessons that the fallen would have at least expected us to learn.

But I'm also relieved because at least, on the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, it is Salvador Allende, the democrat--and not the gorilla who ousted him and then sat in his rightful place--who emerges as the good guy in this official story.

That official story goes something like this (for a decent, thoughtful and well-meaning example, Spanish readers can read "El legado democrático de Salvador Allende"):

Allende barely won the election to become the president of Chile in 1970 at the head of a center-left coalition that sought important political, economic and social changes, calling for a peaceful road to socialism, without a break with Chile's democratic traditions.

Allende may have been able to avoid the coup had he sought to form a "historic bloc" with progressive forces of the center right on the political spectrum. Unfortunately, different views inside his governing coalition about how to move the revolutionary process forward made this impossible.

On the one hand were those inspired by republican ideas who saw the necessity of maintaining democratic guarantees that already existed in Chilean society. These forces were responsible for the successes of the Allende government in its first year, when it carried out much-needed reforms--most importantly, nationalization of the copper industry.

Earlier concessions by Allende to the Christian Democrats, such as the Statute of Guarantees pledging to maintain the existing state institutions, including the military, proved Allende's willingness to compromise and his skill at making successful deals. Gradualism required careful implementation of reforms. Allende himself warned that the masses shouldn't surpass their leaders, because leaders have the obligation to lead, and not let themselves be led by the masses.

But there were also sectors of the governing coalition that were pessimistic about achieving socialism within bourgeois institutions. For them, the important thing was to push ahead. Contrary of what the government pretended, its leadership was overtaken by direct action by the poor and by workers, accelerating the process, particularly in the areas of land appropriation and workers' control of factories.

From the beginning, Allende's government faced aggressive opposition from Chile's right wing and U.S. imperialism, which finally put an abrupt end to his government with a military coup d'etât, since the contradictions inside the revolutionary camp, together with the right's boycott, had pushed the country into chaos and to the brink of civil war.

THE PROBLEM with this official story, though it is well-intentioned, is that it accepts ideas it has in common with the far right regarding the inevitability of the coup, due to the country spinning out of control. It slanders the revolutionary workers who were actually showing the way forward in Chile. And it is a harmful story for anyone who wants to build socialism today.

Dating back to the time of Marx, revolutionary socialists have been arguing that the idea of achieving socialism without a break with the existing political system is an illusion. If there is one thing the Chilean experience should be put forward to prove, it is precisely that.

By the time of the parliamentary elections of March 1973, the right wing was convinced that it had no alternative but counterrevolution. It embarked on a series of obstructionist measures designed to provoke military intervention. Through a parliamentary boycott, it made it impossible for the executive branch to implement even the most necessary of government measures. The gremios boycotted the economy, and the right unleashed the terrorist forces of Patria y Libertad to commit the most heinous act of violence.

From June 29, when a first military coup was carried out and defeated, the right's strategy of overturning the elected government was out in the open, and everybody, on the right and the left, was bracing themselves for the confrontation. Only the Allende government, the Communist Party and sectors of the Socialist Party still had hopes in achieving a historical bloc with the Christian Democrats to avoid a coup. Indeed, the Christian Democrats were already set on a coup. They promoted it and set the stage for it by declaring Allende's government unconstitutional.

From July 2, the military started a campaign of factory and neighborhood raids, 27 in total in all the country, in a search for weapons that were never found. In the process, officers observed workers' preparations for the confrontation and their troops' reactions, and confirmed that they did not have anything to fear in launching a coup.

Loyalist troops were removed and pushed out of service. Some sailors in Talcahuano and Valparaíso who denounced a coup plot were arrested, tortured and accused of sedition. Allende himself condemned the sailors--he never took back his words, even after it was clear what the sailors had done in defense of the government.

Workers also stepped up their preparations for the battle, though their resources were meager. They strengthen their organization and seized factories and land in support of the revolution. They were asking of the compañero president:: "Don't you trust us?" They came out in mass demonstrations in those months to tell him: "Chicho, amigo, el pueblo está contigo." Workers set up defense committees to resist the military, but they were never supplied with the weapons, tools and resources, nor with any political direction by the government or the leaders of working-class organizations.

THE VICTORY of Salvador Allende in 1970 had set in motion not only a process of reforms to be carried out by the government from above, but also a revolutionary process that was independent from government or left parties. It involved real people asserting their interests, from the bottom up. The tragedy is that it was never able to assert its own identity--because it thought its leadership was the compañero presidente.

But Allende, while a genuinely committed democrat, was committed to the wrong "democracy": The false democracy tied to the existing system, rather than the one that needs to be built--democracy from below, involving the working classes, expressed in the cordones industriales, communal commands, peasant organizations, supply and prices committees and more.

Of course, it is easy to be the strategist once the war has ended. But all these arguments were being made on the ground during these years. They were explained in magazines of the time, and their words were listened to. These ideas were growing--but not at a pace to keep up with the day-to-day needs of the revolution. Those who were making it--workers themselves, revolutionary socialists, communist, miristas, mapucista militants--had no unified political direction.

There were thousands of revolutionaries in Chile--the ones who the official story slanders for surpassing the "leadership"--but they were all separated in many different political tents.

I'd like to think--though this lesson will only be tested in theory for now, and in practice only when the time comes--that had these forces all been under the same, specifically revolutionary roof, the Chilean working class would had have risen to victory, or at least avoided the terrible fate of the coup and the years of pain that followed.

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