Forty years have passed since Chile’s coup d’etat in 1973 and the memory of the moment is still alive. And not only the memory of the historic event itself, but the diverse and specific circumstances that surrounded it. Proof of this are the numerous commemorations taking place around the world and of course in Chile itself, not to mention the fact that the political, social and economic conditions that brought Salvador Allende’s People’s Unity coalition to power are basically unchanged and will have another opportunity to be addressed in Chile’s upcoming presidential elections.
The coup represented a breakdown in Chilean institutional life. It brought death and torture and subjected the population to nearly two decades of dictatorship. It resulted in the exile of many Chileans and made emblematic figures out of the most prominent protagonists of the aborted historic experiment, such as Salvador Allende, Miguel Enríquez, Pablo Neruda and Víctor Jara. It is impossible to talk about the coup in Chile without reference to the political context that brought it about. And this means not only the breakdown of formal institutional democracy, which until then had been a tradition that had largely characterized Chilean history. Indeed, theocratic dictatorships can also be established by popular vote, and in many cases the various forms of Fascism of the last century enjoyed broad public support. But the coup in Chile was also basically a blow against the attempt to achieve a fair and equitable society with equality of opportunity (what has traditionally been called a socialist society), which has been pursued by various movements and abortive experiments that have largely shaped the recent historical profile of Latin America.
In its day, the government of Salvador Allende, who sought to establish socialism on the basis of popular support at the polls and within a constitutional framework, was considered an eccentricity, something without precedent, although there had been previous attempts. The Popular Unity government – whose name was taken from popular European anti-Fascist fronts and whose antecedent had been the FRAP (People’s Action Front) in previous elections – seemed to open up the possibility of democratic change of the system on a continent plagued with dictatorships and failed revolutionary attempts by rural and urban guerrilla movements. But the coup d’etat in Chile seemed to support the argument of those who argued that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”. Nevertheless, the defeat or dismantling of armed movements in Latin America and the rise in recent decades of a variety of progressive governments, some with socialist aims, elected at the polls and endorsed by constitutions, has turned the figure of Allende into a precursor.
The legacy of the dictatorship was ambivalent. It left as an inheritance a so-called economic miracle, a neoliberal project firmly entrenched in and protected by a constitution drafted under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This fact is directly related to and probably a concomitant cause behind Chile’s status as one of the countries with the biggest income inequality, the most expensive education and the most deplorable record on environmental matters. But the coup also meant the country saw a massive exile that shattered Chilean society and deprived it of much of its political and cultural elite, much of which was traditionally associated with the left and had been active at institutional levels and in the social mobilization that led to and accompanied Allende’s election in 1970. The coup had the effect of establishing Chilean communities in numerous countries and giving rise to a Chilean-in-exile culture (also with its political component), while also raising Chile’s profile on the international scene, with well-known figures such as Roberto Bolaño, Raúl Ruiz and Isabel Allende. The Chilean presence has made itself felt in the countries of both the South and the North. In developed nations like Canada, this presence tends to be seen within a Latin American context, a fact exemplified by these words of Eduardo Embry, a Chilean poet who lives in the United Kingdom: “… if only someone would take into account the titanic efforts of our communities to integrate into a hostile environment, with a different language and customs, questioning the role that Latin American ethnic minorities have played in different cultural spaces…”, and he continues, “here in London, the Latin American press has played a very important role, as have the different cultural institutes directed by Latin Americans, promoters of human rights campaigns, against the dictatorship, against the torture and the crimes, etc., the artists and writers in London have played a worthy role.”
Apart from its varied cultural contributions in Canada, the political aspect of the Chilean presence in the country has been expressed mainly in Quebec, whose francophone culture has more points of contact with the Chilean, due to the historical influence of Europe – and especially France – in Chilean ideas and culture, as is typical throughout Latin America. The former Bloc Quebecois MP Osvaldo Núñez has been one of the most important promoters of voting rights for Chileans living abroad. In Canada, among the cultural contributions made it is worth noting – by way of example and limited to literature or, more specifically, poetry – the publication in Chile a few years ago of an anthology that brings together a large number of Chilean-Canadian poets, compiled by two Chilean authors based in Canada, and an anthology of Chilean poetry published in Chile at the end of last year, the first volume of which is dedicated to the generation of the diaspora (of the 1960s) and includes four poets who lived or now live in Canada, along with others living in Sweden, the United States, Mexico and France.
The impact on Chile of the phenomenon resulting from exile – the retorno, whereby many Chileans went back home after living and completing their education in the countries of the diaspora, has been significant at all levels of life in the country. The reintegration of the “retornados” has not been easy and it would seem that there is still a certain initial perception in the country that tends to identify the Chilean diaspora as “outsiders”, who escaped the repression of the dictatorship and found new opportunities in other lands. But it is undeniable that there are certain shared interests and channels of communication between many Chileans and their diaspora. Chileans living abroad still don’t have the right to vote and many of them share a desire for greater recognition, participation and inclusion in the different aspects of society and culture inside the country, on which the global dispersal of Chileans and their reintegration upon returning has, incidentally, had a significant effect.
Although it is obvious that Chile is not the same country it was forty years ago, both the memory and the basic social and economic contradictions covered up by the coup are still the background of daily life and events in the country. Thus, it is not merely the bitter memory of the coup that is commemorated this week, but its clear contemporary relevance, and it is not recalled merely with grieving but also with hope that perhaps, sooner rather than later, and without another bloodbath, the country might reinitiate the process of systemic change towards a just society begun all those years ago by the People’s Unity government.
Translated by Martin Boyd
Writer, poet and translator Jorge Etcheverry was born in Santiago, Chile in 1945. He arrived in Canada in 1975, where he completed a doctorate in literature at the University of Montreal. His poetry has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies and he is recognized as one of the most prominent figures in Hispanic Canadian literature. This Friday, September 13, he will be participating in a special event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup organized by the El Dorado Cultural Workshop and the Hispanic Cultural Network in Ottawa.