Today, many Chileans—and many sympathizers from around the world—will commemorate and mourn the anniversary of the 1973 military coup. The coup ended the three years of the Unidad Popular (the socialist-led “People’s Unity” government, or UP) and forty years of civilian rule and electoral government in Chile. The day of the coup ended with La Moneda, the presidential palace, a burned and bullet-riddled ruin, and with the country’s freely elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The military dictatorship that came to power on Sept. 11, 1973, would become notorious worldwide for the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of political opponents. Its apologists would, meanwhile, turn a blind eye to its atrocities, and laud the results of its neoliberal economic policies as an “economic miracle.”
It has certainly been important and necessary to dredge up this painful history. The military dictatorship, as Patricia Constable and Arturo Valenzuela put it in their 1991 book A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet, had “made spies of the unscrupulous, sycophants of the ambitious, and conformists of the majority.” The experience of dictatorship left many traumatized by violence, many more cowed into submission—not only by the fear that they themselves might be tortured or “disappeared” if they spoke up, but by the idea that dreaming of a new society was a form of hubris, which would only lead to disaster. Despite eruptions of protest during the period of the dictatorship, especially in the early and mid 1980s, Chileans have really only gradually overcome this trauma and regained the ability to protest without triggering fears of another coup. Confronting this history, breaking the silence about the past, naming the guilty parties, demanding justice—all played a role in making protest possible again.
There are other things, however, to commemorate about Chile in the early 1970s, most especially the promise of a democratic socialism that was truly democratic and truly socialist—something fundamentally different from both the reformed capitalism of western European social democracy and the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Soviet bloc. The UP in Chile, the May 1968 protests in Paris, and the Prague Spring of 1968 all, in their way, rekindled hope for a new brand of humanistic and liberatory socialism. In remembering the demise of the UP (not just the government, but that era of Chilean history), we ought not to forget its positive legacies.