In 1973, I was a doctoral student studying in Santiago, Chile, when the military, led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a socialist. The September 11 coup was not a surprise: sectors of the military had carried out a (failed) dry-run the previous June and, in August, conservatives in Congress declared Allende’s Popular Unity government to be unconstitutional. But the utter ferocity in which it unfolded was. The military’s decision to bomb its own presidential palace (La Moneda), the massive roundup of Allende’s supporters who were herded into the National Stadium, the sight of bodies floating down the muddy Mapocho River which cut its way through the center of town, the hundreds of mutilated bodies I witnessed in the National Morgue – all these and more pointed to the brutality that would define the new regime.
This was confirmed with an act that unfolded on September 23, some two weeks after the coup. Photographs of soldiers tossing books onto a bonfire signaled Pinochet’s comfort with an act firmly associated with fascist Germany. It was a clear indication that the impulse driving the military was far from a ”restoration of democracy,” as Allende’s conservative opponents had promised. But my own reaction to the event was more immediate – for among the materials consumed in the fire that afternoon were my own books.
Early that morning, those of us living in the Remodelación San Borja, an apartment block close to the center of Santiago, were awakened by loudspeakers barking orders to remain in our apartments and not try to leave. Looking out my front windows, I could make out the machine gun nests that had been stationed around the complex. My apartment had been searched previously by army soldiers looking for foreigners without proper documentation. This time the search promised to be more thorough, as I could already hear the sounds of soldiers pounding on the doors of the upper-floor apartments. Continue reading