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11 September, 1973 - The Day Democracy Died in Chile

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Salvador Allende holds a unique place in history, as he was the world's first democratically-elected Marxist leader of any nation. Sadly, President Allende of Chile's election sent a shiver down the spine of the West who were in the middle of a Cold War, whose egos were reeling from the failure to topple communism in Vietnam and who still felt the threat posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis1. Allende was elected to power with 36.2% of the vote in 1970 - his term was to be cut short less than three years later by General Augusto Pinochet. Both Allende and Pinochet were dogmatic men, each believing his cause was the right one and neither left room for compromise - when two men of this disposition clash, tragedy is the only outcome. This entry chronicles the events of the day that democracy died in Chile.

From mid-August 1973 there had been rumblings of a coup brewing in Chile - the economy was suffering due to the withdrawal of foreign investment in the democratically-elected state. At 4am on 11 September, a date that is now synonymous with strikes against democracy, military units stationed throughout Chile reported for action to the leaders of the coup, led by Augusto Pinochet2. By 7am, these troops were being deployed, their aim to wrest the urban centres of Chile from local politicians. The most effective operation was carried out in Concepción, the country's third largest city - the military had cut all the phone lines of governmental personnel and had rounded everyone up and placed them on an island to keep them from communicating what had happened to the rest of the world. Once these key players had been removed, the city slipped into military hands. The whole operation took less than 85 minutes to execute.

Valparaíso, Chile's major port, was taken in stages. The navy had seized the port by 7am but they were unsure at this time whether or not the Chilean army was on their side or not. However, it became clear that all the armed forces were in cahoots and the city and port fell in a matter of hours. While two of the country's largest cities fell, the nation slept, blissfully unaware of the turmoil about to erupt.

The Day Unfolds

At 6.20am, President Allende was alerted to the fact that the navy were trying to capture the port of Valparaíso and on hearing the news, he immediately removed himself to La Moneda, the presidential palace in the heart of the nation's capital, Santiago - surely the next target on the military's list. Allende was given the opportunity to leave the country by plane in an offer made by a military aide-de-camp General von Schowen. Allende declined the offer saying:

Tell General von Schowen that the President of Chile does not flee in a plane. As he knows how a soldier should act, I will know how to fulfil my duty as President of the Republic.

By 8.30am, Radio Agricultura, an anti-Allende broadcast station, relayed the news of the coup to the nation and demanded Allende's resignation. Allende, never one to shirk confrontation, retorted in a broadcast:

I am ready to resist by whatever means, even at the cost of my life, so that this may serve as a lesson to the ignominious history of those who use force not reason.

By the time the broadcast had ended, the police, army and navy had mobilised against the Allende government. One by one, those great voices of democracy, independent radio stations, were switched and were replaced by military justifications for the coup. After his announcement, Allende, for some unknown reason, made a brief appearance on the balcony. What he would have seen was the city's population hurrying home to their families, and preparing themselves for a long siege3.

At 9.30am, Allende made his last address to the nation and the ensuing hours were filled with reports of other towns and cities falling and it was during these hours that first news came in that people were being herded into stadiums and onto islands. During these hours, the staff at La Moneda started to leave the palace to be with their families or to join in the fight against Allende. By mid-morning, the palace was surrounded by tanks and the Chilean President was under siege.

It was at this point that the military started negotiations with the President from the base across the street in the Ministry of Defence, opposite La Moneda. For next few hours, desperate calls and random sniper fire flew between the two buildings. At 11.55am, two Hawker Hunter jets launched 18 rockets at the palace and each one struck home with impressive accuracy (this in the days before smart bombs). Why send in the planes when the tanks would have sufficed? The planes were a clear indication to Allende and the Chilean population that the armed forces were 100% behind the coup - the navy had captured the ports, the army the towns and now the air force was taking La Moneda. The air strikes would have also actively discouraged resistance from the factories whose workers were the staunchest supporters of Allende and his Marxist beliefs. By the time the last rocket had hit, democracy in Chile was teetering on the brink of oblivion.

The Storming of La Moneda

At 1.30pm, a group of people were seen waving the white flag of surrender at a side door of La Moneda. Among them was Patricio Guijón who was to give the most controversial and hotly debated accounts of the last moments of President Allende. He said that as he was leaving the palace:

I saw the President, seated on a sofa, fire a submachine gun that he held between his legs. I saw it, but I did not hear it. I saw his body shudder and the roof of his skull fly off.

The suicide was announced via a photo taken by a press photographer, invited in by the military. Allende's body was subjected to a rudimentary and private autopsy and his cadaver was flown to Viña del Mar and placed in the family tomb. The headstone was desecrated by removing all mention of the Allende family name. Thus the man who had risen to international prominence as the world's first democratically elected Marxist leader was laid to rest in an anonymous grave.

There has been much conjecture as to whether or not Allende was murdered or took his own life. the photos were never published and stories abound of chest and abdomen wounds that would indicate murder - and then there is Guijón's dubious testimony (how could he be close enough to see the skull blow off but not hear the shot?). However President Allende died, one thing remains - by mid-afternoon on 11 September, 1973, Chile had lost its President, Democracy had been dealt a blow that it would take 25 years to recover from and the world was about to witness one of the worst cases of political cleansing.

Nobody knows how many people died during the coup, but it goes without saying that many more died in the ensuing weeks and the military dictatorship that followed. Chilean liberals of all walks of life were rounded up and were either executed or 'disappeared'. One such example is Victor Jara, the celebrated folk singer, who was executed in the very stadium where he had played to great critical acclaim.

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1In recent years, evidence has been disclosed that the USA played a major role in providing military advice and encouraging American businesses to withdraw from Chile. Just how much they were involved we will find out in the years to come.2 Augusto Pinochet became Chief of the Chilean army in August 1973 and it was he who led the coup with three generals (each of the Navy, Air Force, and National Police).3As an aside, the Chilean revolution is unique in the fact that none of the utilities (gas, water, electricity, etc) were shut off.

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