It was the first September 11th, 38 years ago. Much of the world was possessed by red fever; commies were hiding in your basement. Chile was politically sliced right down the middle, as it remains today. Bullets and bombs were shot and dropped on the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of government in Santiago, by its very own army. Tear gas canisters were lobbed indoors, searing the eyeballs of anyone inside. By the afternoon, a brutal 17-year dictatorship was launched, funded in part by the U.S. Over 3,000 people were disappeared, killed and tortured for their political affiliations or ideologies.
On this first September 11th, General Augosto Pinochet launched a coup d’etat against the tenuous Socialist Democracy of President Salvador Allende. One week prior to national independence day, the rebel army aimed to force the president from La Moneda and cede his democratically elected authority to the turncoat general. Allende’s life ended that day. Officially ruled a suicide, an autopsy was never done. His body was flown that day under military guard to Viña del Mar, a seaside town near the capital.
As the story goes, Allende initially refused to step down. Two of his daughters, his aides and many supporters had stayed with him while fires erupted all around them. By early afternoon he decided to exit La Moneda under a white flag, taking the others with him. As the group was preparing to leave, they noticed the President was not with them. At this point the story becomes uncertain. The traditional tale is that he committed suicide by aiming an AK-47 at his face and taking fire. There is some controversy over exactly who witnessed the suicide, as many people chose to keep silent as a survival tactic during the dictatorship.
In 2008, Dr. Luis Ravanal wrote an article published in El Periodista wherein he stated that Allende’s wounds were not consistent with the described suicide. His family recently requested that his remains be exhumed and analyzed to determine if he was in fact murdered or not. The exhumation will happen toward the end of May. Although there hasn’t been much clamoring for re-writing the accepted history, having a definitive answer will be beneficial, even if the results become highly politicized. The nation has been going through a grieving/growing process, and truth catalyzes such a cycle. The practice of bearing witness and sharing memories also can help heal the national psyche.
The Chilean mindset can be characterized as cautious. People are careful of what they say and who they show themselves to. This may have been standard before the coup, but it’s unlikely as the youngest generation is clearly diverging from that mold. This is the generation born after the end of Pinochet rule in 1990. They exude a freedom of expression and confidence that their parents possibly question as suspect behavior. The exhumation will be a chance for them to think about the time before they were born. Keeping such a history in mind can even more profoundly promote the liberty and democracy reborn in this country, and inspire their generation to make it take greater root.