Chile 50 years on: hope, struggle and solidarity
50 years ago today the democratically elected government in Chile was overthrown by a military coup. Dr Anna Grimaldi talks about the dictatorship that followed and the lessons for the world.
Today marks fifty years since the Chilean military coup that deposed the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. Backed and equipped by the US, the Chilean military would wage a state-led campaign of fear and terror that lasted seventeen years, resulting in the death and torture of thousands of citizens and forcing hundreds of thousands more into exile. To this day, the dictatorship casts a shadow over the country’s politics and social life. Relatives and families of victims continue to fight for justice in a context where the country’s constitution has still not been changed since the dictatorship.
Understanding how and why the dictatorship came about and lasted as long as it did is crucial to making sense of current political events. How did one of the continent’s most developed nations succumb to such violent authoritarianism? How did the military get away with mass killings, disappearances and torture? Why did such a large proportion of the population continue to support the regime until the end? As a British-born historian of Cold War Latin America, the relevance of these questions could not be more obvious. The Chilean case offers a valuable list of warning signs: the curtailment of rights to protest, unionise and strike, the hallucination of a dangerous internal enemy, the impunity of economic crimes and the slow but steady journey towards mass unemployment, financial crisis and extreme inequality; the list goes on, suggesting that perhaps a regime of this kind no longer needs the military to advance its agenda.
If the commemorative events of this year have taught me anything, it’s that remembering the regime is about more than violence, protest and loss. For many Chileans, remembering the hope, resilience and solidarity that preceded the regime and continued in times of hardship is just as important. The coup’s breach of democratic and constitutional procedures was intended to instil widespread fear and panic; to silence voices of dissent and crush the spirits of those fighting for social justice. In this sense, remembering and celebrating hope and struggle is a form of resistance itself, one which brings to life the fight for social justice that was cut short by the regime: the redistribution of wealth, employment, education and healthcare, and the promotion of culture and the arts as vehicles for political change.
Last year, a group of students at the University of Leeds began a project to learn more about 1973 by engaging with members of the Chilean exile community in wider Yorkshire. The project unearthed many important connections between Leeds and Chile, including the University of Leeds itself. In 1976, in what is now the student union, exile Gilberto Hernández reproduced a famous Santiago mural that had been destroyed by the Chilean regime. Students staged a month-long exhibition of political artworks and music, which you can see on the project’s website (thinkinginsidethebox.com), as well as a series of public-facing workshops to inspire others in the practice of political poster-making. A fascinating contribution to the project from Elisa Martinez Relano, titled Why Chile? traces further the formation and evolution of solidarity networks in Leeds, including a concert that took place in the mid-1980s.
Spending time with members of the Chilean exile community this year has been an incredible experience. Through the creation of ‘Chile 50 years’ (chile50years.uk), exiles and their allies have organised multiple events both within the community and in collaboration with academics and activists. While the student exhibition was up, we invited exile Carlos Arendondo to talk about his experience and play the music that marked his journey. Just a few weeks ago, Leeds hosted bordando la memoria, an event based on the tradition of creating arpilleras, hand-made tapestry piece depicting collective and individual memories. Last week, in anticipation of the 11th September, the day of the coup, a commemoration rally took place in Sheffield. Leeds students were invited to run another of their poster-making workshops, this time with the third generation of exiles – the grandchildren of former prisoners and exiles of the regime. The rally unveiled the true value of remembering the coup: live bands, homemade empanadas, storytelling and traditional song were a homage; a restaging of the embodied acts of resistance of those taken by the regime. As commemorations came to a close, the famous lyrics of Quilapayun filled the square in front of Sheffiled City Hall: el pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido – the people, united, will never be defeated.
Dr Anna Grimaldi is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations. Her research looks at the formation of transnational networks of solidarity with the Global South. Anna is particularly interested in how Latin America contributed to this phenomenon during the second half of the 20th century through exile solidarity and human rights advocacy.