The Death of Chile

Augusto Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet; drawing by David Levine

It will take years to assess all the changes that President Allende was able to make before he died, midway through his six-year term. That he had done much for Chile is beyond question. His predecessor, Eduardo Frei, only began substantial reforms after the first half of his presidency. What will now happen to these changes is still an open question. It is likely that in the repression which we are now witnessing they may be washed away.

Before I describe the benefits and some of the costs of the Allende years, I must discuss the nature and policies of the ruling military junta and the golpe that it staged on the eleventh of September. We had heard that Chile’s armed forces were institutionally loyal; that they had accepted their place in the life of the nation and were vigorous supporters of civilian supremacy and the rule of the constitution. This was certainly true since the civil war of 1891 in which the president, José Manuel Balmaceda, was overthrown. That struggle, in which segments of the armed forces were pitted against each other, cost the nation 10,000 lives out of what was then a population of under two million. The landed aristocracy and the nitrate barons were temporarily successful against an apostle of middle-class reforms, but their victory was short-lived since the middle class was able to win representation in national life through electoral means. During the following decades (and then only in the depression years following World War I) the military rarely acted. When it did, it did so with self-restraint. Now the violence, the systematic terror, and the well-planned barbarism of the military have astonished students of Chilean history and sociology and made obsolete the data and assumptions with which they were working.

The full force of the repression is hard to appreciate because statistics are concealed as military secrets and few foreign reporters are able to reconstruct them. It is only clear that the killings, beatings, and arrests go on as if Chile needs a new atrocity every day to remind it that it is now under the jackboot. We hear mainly of dramatic examples: Victor Jara, the Pete Seeger of Chile, was coolly killed in the National Stadium because his protest songs angered the military mind. The universities, once among Latin America’s greatest, have been taken over by the military, their principle of autonomy now a joke, their dissident faculties and students pruned according to master lists compiled by a variety of vengeance squads. The social sciences are proscribed as morally poisonous and will be replaced by such “safe” disciplines as science and technology.

For the moment the nation is entirely in the hands of the military. People are summarily dismissed from jobs because of their alleged political beliefs. Peremptory searches of neighborhoods are made at will and their inhabitants are marched off to secret destinations. Those…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.