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40 years after Chile's 9/11

Former and current student activists reflect on General Augusto Pinochet's lasting legacy.

Last Modified: 11 Sep 2013 13:43
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Former Chilean president Salvador Allende allegedly killed himself after the military coup [Reuters]

Chile's military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. What followed was one of the most brutal dictatorships in Latin American history.

More than 3,000 were killed or simply disappeared without a trace. Thousands were tortured and a million were exiled. But in the midst of repression, a social movement emerged that fought to bring the dictatorship down.

In 1988, the movement campaigned to vote "No to Pinochet" in a plebiscite that many thought would be a fait accompli. They were wrong. Chile listened and in 1990 democracy began.

Today, 40 years after the US-backed coup, thousands of students plan to take to the streets to mark a day they never lived - but whose legacy has inspired their own political struggle. A new generation has emerged demanding free education and an overhaul of the socioeconomic system set up by the dictatorship. They have walked alongside the student activists who risked their lives then, and who feel betrayed by the system now.

Al Jazeera talks to two former students who risked their lives back then and another who continues the fight about their political demands, a democracy that failed to live up to their expectations, and protest movements worldwide.

Yerko Ljuberic, president of the Student's Federation in 1984

Ljuberic led many protests against the military regime, and was jailed on many occasions. He was part of the Christian Democrat Party and served all governments from 1991 until 2006. He has come full circle and is currently a professor at the university.

"The student movement of today is fighting for real democracy, just like we were back then."  - Yerko Ljuberic

AJ: How did protest movements come to face off against the dictatorship?

YL: The social movements in Chile were the product of a difficult process of re-adaptation. You have to remember that the years just after the military coup were very brutal. But gradually people started finding spaces where the opposition could emerge: factories, slums, universities which built up as social movements in the late 70's. During the 80's the social movements emerged as credible forces against the dictatorship and amongst them were the student groups. It was a long and hard process - many fell victims to state violence, but we grew stronger and stronger.

I was like many young people in Chile who started to realise what was happening, whether it was at school, or what was happening at home. Remember that most Chilean families suffered the effects of the repression in some way or the other. And this meant the politicisation of a whole generation. In my case, my brother and my father went into exile.

AJ: Tell us about the 'No to Pinochet' plebiscite?

YL: The plebiscite was written into the regime's 1980 constitution and the main aim of it was to ensure that Pinochet remained in power for eight more years after 1988. It was originally planned as a mere formality to extend his time in power. But as the vote approached, social movements - especially the students' groups - gathered momentum. And this meant that the opposition was able to count the votes at polling stations throughout the country and managed to prevent fraud. This was a real victory for our movements. We managed to win the 'No to Pinochet' vote and to take the country into democracy.

AJ: What are the disappointments since the transition to democracy?

YL: After the plebiscite, the coalition government took power but ended up marginalising the social movements who had fought against the dictatorship. There was a reason for this. Pinochet still had a lot of support and the new government felt the need to be prudent in the early stages of the transition. This is understandable, but it lasted too long. The main problem was that the coalition government never managed to change the 1980 constitution, drawn up by the dictatorship and widely believed to be illegitimate. The government failed to do this, they failed to make the changes that would have truly democratized the country - and it remains in place. This is one of the major points that the social movements are fighting for today.

AJ: Describe the student movements now and then.

YL: The student movement of today is fighting for real democracy, just like we were back then. But there are some things that make it very different. The fact that this has come about during democracy means people can really go out into the streets as a truly mass movement. There is something creative and carnivalesque about these marches. You get artists and dancers, you have music. These are more lighthearted, more festive occasions. And these are things we could never have experienced during the dictatorship because of all the repression.

AJ: What are the biggest changes in Chile in recent years?

YL: Times have changed probably to a large extent because of technological advances making it easier for these movements to mobilise. They don't need leaders who speak for them, which is what we used to do. This horizontality, this mistrust of the single leader who represents them, is very particular. I've been to many protests and the leaders never speak for more than four minutes because it's understood that they are there to talk about the goals of the masses, and not to start pontificating about their own ideas. I'd go as far as to say that the traditional way of doing politics has lost credibility among the young, and that means that leaders don't really count. This is very interesting and there are parallels elsewhere.

These young people are making us think about how we do politics differently, without the traditional leaders, with new technologies. People now won't delegate their aspirations to a leader. And ultimately, what is happening is that the youth have forced us to realize that we need to starting rethinking representational democracy - a model that we've had for 200 years. It can no longer represent different groups and collectives - it is clearly out of date. I think it's very likely that the future of democracy will involve more direct action, more referendums, more plebiscites. These are the models that are emerging, these are the young people who are building the future. There is no looking back.

Alejandro Zuleta, student political activist during Pinochet years

Zuleta was arrested a short time after the military coup. He was an agronomy student and political activist, and later left the country in exile. He returned to participate in the student movement that campaigned to vote Pinochet out.

"In Chile, there has been no justice or punishment for the guilty." - Alejandro Zuleta

AZ: It's been 40 years since the coup d'etat … those years are still unchanged, as if it was the first day. I was just one of the many defeated in a war we did not promote, a war we did not seek, a war we did not desire.

I just want to give one simple, everyday example. I cut my hand nails every 12 to 15 days and every time I do it I have to look at them, obviously…And every time I see the nail in the middle finger of my right hand, deformed forever, I remember Lieutenant Rivera.

Lieutenant Rivera was just a couple of years older than me, but he had so much more power.  Although he was just a lieutenant at that time, he had all the power. What power he had.

Lieutenant Rivera would crush all my fingers, on both hands, with a metal ruler while sitting in his admiral's desk. Because I, the prisoner of his war, did not provide the answers he wanted to hear, or the way he wanted to hear them. I also remember Lieutenant Rivera every time I see him on the street, any street. Well, obviously it's not the same Lieutenant Rivera, because today he's not the same. He had an accident on a ship. The anchor's chain pulled him and left him so badly mutilated that the Navy transferred him to civilian duties. I see him around quite often. I never found out if he had a soul.

Something very similar happens when I rub my back with a towel…It reminds me of the face of that bloody redhead, with the red moustache and the freckles. He was a heavy smoker and very creative because in the absence of an ashtray, he thought my back was a much better alternative. In his view, apart from putting out his cigarettes, he was giving me an unforgettable punishment. How right he was, and continues to be. Unforgettable.

I recognised him once on the front page of a local newspaper when the police force in Valparaiso gave him awards for being the best and the most violent in the war of the martial arts. 

So, my back not only has the marks of his cigarettes, but as I learned from the newspaper, my body had all the bruises that a champion of martial arts inflicts on his contender: me, in front of him, defenceless, in this supposed conversation - but a monologue in truth.

I have a feeling that the easy life did not last long for redhead, because every time I saw him again he was driving his bosses around. Some fate for an award winner.

In Chile there has been no justice or punishment for the guilty. So I decided to punish them myself, forever, by staying alive. I will never forget, and I will never forgive.

Gabriel Boric, 2011-2012 leader of the Federation of Students

AJ: Forty years have passed since the military coup. What does that date mean for you given that you didn't experience it at the time? 

"Today, there is still violence, there is still repression - both physical and also symbolic and economic." - Gabriel Boric [EPA]

GB: For us, it is extremely significant, because of course it is a key date in our history and because not only does it invite us to think about the defeat, but also about the hope of a project that moves towards equality, which is what the government of Salvador Allende represented. Today we are trying to create a 21st century socialism with social movements and from the leftist movements that are emerging today, which are emerging out of the different movements across the country. 

AJ: The culture of protest during the dictatorship was a fight for democracy. Today there is democracy in Chile. But you are out on the streets - what are you protesting? 

GB: The thing is that from our point of view, one of the main legacies of the dictatorship was the political, economic and social model. So we have the appearance of a democracy in formal terms, one in which people can vote every four years. But it's a democracy that is scared of the people, a democracy that is scared of what the majority wants, which is education, health, pensions and employment. In the last 20 years, every government that's been in power has simply administered and deepened the Pinochet legacy instead of changing it. So the culture of protests that has emerged in the past few years wants a real change, a change of paradigm, not just a social change, but a political one. 

AJ: During the dictatorship, the opposition was confronted by state violence and repression. What challenges are you facing today? 

GB: Today, there is still violence, there is still repression - both physical and also symbolic and economic. Violence is not just about a policeman beating you with a stick. But also when your rights are denied. When you don't have money to get a decent education, its violence when you are scared to get sick because you know that you can't afford the medical bills, when people are scared of getting old because of the miniscule pensions because of the business deals done with their savings. The way that violence manifests itself has diversified. Now it's not just the military but the political system that represses people and has taken advantage of them at the same time. 

AJ: What political activists inspired you during the dictatorship? What have you learnt from them? 

GB: We have learnt so much from them. We feel that we are the inheritors of the social movements that preceded us. Not just during the dictatorship but afterwards. We are well aware that the social protests here were not born out of the student protests, but from way before. We had had a dialogue with our past and with those who were part of the struggle back then - learning from their mistakes and not committing the same mistakes. I think we are looking critically at what was done during the Popular Unity government and dictatorship, but also during the so-called renovation period in which we feel that the ideals for a better world were sold off creating a system which we youth of today do not believe in. That's what we are working towards - we are trying to consolidate ourselves intellectually and politically as well as taking to the streets. 

AJ: What is the legacy of dictatorship?

During the first 15 years of the transition, the political elite opted to leave the people by the wayside in a system of mass consumption where the argument was that if they have access to credit, they had nothing to complain about. So the political struggle emerged out of this situation. Today we think that social movements cannot be contained by the political elite that governs the country. And this explains why there have been social movements across Chile, not just students, but workers too. 

AJ: Does Salvador Allende's legacy still resonate today?

Salvador Allende's message will always have resonance in as much as he talked about the need to build a just and fair society. But we are also very aware that we can't create left-wing heroes or idols. One of the things that has damaged the political left around the world has been the cult of political idols, and this impedes a critical reflection of our own political development. So it's important that the left avoids worshipping saints. We need to look critically at our political history, take the positive from it, but to acknowledge negative elements and leave what is no longer relevant to us today. In short: we cannot live on nostalgia.

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Al Jazeera
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