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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Remembering Human Rights Abuses in Chile, 1973

Interview Conducted by Culture Section Editor, Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Professor Andres Suarez.

This interview took place on Thursday, November 30th, 2023, during my study abroad experience in Santiago, Chile. Throughout my time studying the political history of Chile, the period of 1970-1988 became of particular interest. During this time, Chile held the first-ever election of a socialist president–Salvador Allende–who was then overthrown by a military coup d’etat directed by Augusto Pinochet during the period of the Red Scare in the United States (U.S.) and the Cold War. The purpose of this interview is to understand and share the history of human rights and political struggle during this period of Chilean history, and how it intersects with the U.S. To explore this topic, I interviewed my professor from Universidad Andres Bello, Mr. Andres Suarez. Mr. Suarez holds a bachelor's in public policy and three master's degrees, including in public policy and applied economics at Fordham University. Currently, he engages as a PhD student in a program dedicated toward competitiveness and sustainability in the business world at a University in Spain. 

*TRIGGER WARNING: The topic of this essay surrounds human rights violations and torture techniques used to suppress the political left during the 1970s and 80s in Chile. 

Q: What is your experience with the military regime of Augusto Pinochet?

A: I was not aware when I was a child. I was living in Santiago but in an area where everything was calm. But little by little when I was a teenager, I started to be more curious. The main questions were what makes countries developed and what’s to do with democracy? I started to question myself and my environment. I was not aware until I entered the university. There, I met people who belonged to the Communist Party, and I thought, “Oh, do they really exist?” I started to question and became the annoying one–the curious one.

In the university, I met people from the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and humanist party. I started to meet public servants, some of whom had been in exile [during the dictatorship]. With a mentor, I learned about how to collect information to prove human rights violations. Then, I was invited to coordinate a course on human rights in Latin America. Through this course, I organized student visits to the places where people were kidnapped, detained and put through physical and psychological abuse. Several of them were “made to disappear” in these places. 

Q: 2023 marks 50 years since the coup d'etat. What is the significance of this coup in 1973?

A: The coup d’etat is quite linked to the modern history of the U.S. It is the result of the Cold War. There are also other countries [in Latin America] that received the support to establish authoritarian military regimes or dictatorships. The first attempt took place in the sixties in Brazil. The U.S. government intervened in the democratic process to start a military government, That lasted until the middle of the 80s. It is said that the events in Brazil allowed [the tortures] to be improved in Chile. 

We have to understand this in the time of the Cold War. Social elitism, socialism, and Marxism were not the same thing. But Marxism and communism had penetrated Cuba. So, for the U.S. it was really problematic that another country could become socialist or communist by a democratic process. And that happened in 1970 in Chile. 

During the [1970] election, there were factions of the left and right. Nobody obtained the majority, so we had three candidates: from the right, the center, and the left. The one from the left was Salvador Allende–the socialist. He won. It was the first time in modern history that socialism arrived at a government by a democratic process. That was pretty remarkable. 

The reforms that he wanted to implement were a part of a group of reforms that had started in the 60s, called the agrarian reform. They were trying to break the traditional agrarian structure which was about larger estates and their rigid authoritarian and paternalistic social hierarchy. Under such a system, few people owned the land. The reform [implied] to divide the estates to allow the poor to get their own land. Before this, people from rural areas were never land owners, so they were kept in a situation of unfair conditions. The second reform in the 60s was the new boost of industrialization. Thirdly, the nationalization of the corporate industry. Fourth, the increase of political and social participation. 

[However,] Allende’s political reforms were so deep that some governments like the U.S. became frightened. President Nixon thought a coup was possible. And that happened on September 11, 1973. The economic impact [or strategy of the coup regime] was [based on] the philosophical impact of the ideas of Milton Friedman, economist from Chicago University, and Freidrich Hayek. These ideas were about having a smaller government to allow the market to run by itself in free markets. 

To combat such fears, the U.S. started to give scholarships to young political leaders in Chile and several other Latin American countries to study economics in the U.S. Later, several of those economists returned to Chile to set the political and economic recommendations during the dictatorship. These economists are called the “Chicago Boys.” There were other Chicago Boys who were not involved in the government because they had political concerns, both with Pinochet and Milton Friedman.

Q: So, to clarify, Milton Friedman, a professor from the U.S.,  was a liberalist? And these ideas were used in the dictatorship obtained by a coup? 

A: Yes. In fact, Milton Friedman came to Chile in 1973 and 1974 to meet Pinochet twice. There are pictures–you can check that.

Military dictator Pinochet meets American economist Milton Friedman.

The U.S. also provided economic support for political propaganda in El Mercurio newspaper. El Mercurio was the most important newspaper in Chile. And they received money from the U.S. government for political propaganda during the early 70s. 

Q: How else was the U.S. involved in the coup? 

A: Latin American officers–military officers–used to be trained in torture techniques in the School of the Americas. [During] those years the School of the Americas had their headquarters in Panama, and it was run by the U.S. government. In this school, people were trained about the different methods to [run] physical and psychological abuse. Today, the current name of this is the Western Hemisphere Institute for security cooperation. Today it’s  in Georgia, but during those years, it was in Panama and it was founded in 1946. They trained all the military officers who were going to apply physical torture to political targets [during the military regime in Chile].

Q: What were some of the acts that the dictatorship committed against Chileans?

A: They wanted to eliminate certain political movements–or the revolutionary left movement. People were kidnapped. Usually, these were activists: college students involved in political activities. The students, leaders, and government personnel associated with the left were kidnapped, tortured, and “made to disappear.” We have almost 3,000 people that disappeared. We do not know where they all are.

They had torture houses. Like Grimaldi. People were brought there. They were divided into men and women. They were electrically shocked. [They were put in] isolation and through psychological attacks. For example, mimicking the act of shooting someone so they thought they were going to be killed but weren’t. Then for example they are put in a small wooden box made one meter tall and they put 1, 2, 3, 4 people in there for days and days. And they were blind-folded. 

There were several ways for the electric bed. The process is very humiliating because people were forced to get naked for the electric shocks to be applied on the body. You were at the same time blind-folded. You can see these electric beds at el Museo de la Memoria in Chile. 

There was also a place to eliminate every single red communist woman. It was known as a place to detain women and, for example, put in a rat into the vagina, as a kind of torture toward women. 

Another way to torture a person was to pin a person from the ceiling, and they put water with a hose in the mouth and they filled the body with water until the person didn’t resist anymore. 

Another way to psychological abuse was to put people in little boxes. You had to kneel and then enter into these boxes and remain there for days. These boxes were meant as places for rabbits. 

People died. [When they did,] they were sent in trucks meant for frozen meat. [Their] bodies were put in a little airport near Villa Grimaldi. Those bodies were put into the ocean attached to rails so that they would sink. 

Q: Was this going on in other countries or just Chile? 

A: There was also political cooperation between the dictatorships: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, to look for those who were against these authoritarian regimes. Some of them were well-known people who were pro-democracy. That’s the case of Orlando Letelier, former Counselor of Allende. He was assassinated in Washington D.C. He and another American citizen died because his car was bombed–and that was executed by an American citizen who was here in Chile who was not part of the American government. 

There are other relevant leaders that were killed, for example, in Buenos Aires, and that was commissioned by the Chilean dictatorship. 

Then, the new Constitution that was voted in 1980 was going to change the political environment for the 80s and was going to happen with the end of the regime in March 1989. 

Q: How did the dictatorship end? 

A: We had a constitution [since] 1925. During the 80s, the people who were close to the government–lawyers mainly–redacted a new Constitution. This new Constitution was voted on, so it was mandatory for the Chilean people to vote for or against in 1980. The Constitution stated that in 1988, we are going to run a plebiscite, deciding whether Pinochet would stay for eight years (yes) or to hold elections in the next year (no). The “No” won–the fifth of October of 1988. For that, to prepare the political environment, the minister of interior decided to bring the political leaders who were in exile back to the country. He realized that the international intellectuals and political leaders were not going to accept any resolution of the plebiscite if it was not a politically diverse decision. In 1985, several people returned. Mr. Pinochet disagreed with this policy and put this Minister, Sergio Jarpa, out of the government. But with those that were able to get back into the country–that allowed for diversity to prepare the opposition for the “No.” [Although] because of the political Constitution of 1980, Pinochet had the right to remain as Senator in the parliament. 

Q: How can we prevent political human rights abuses from happening again?

Being aware. Always. Memorial sites for human rights. Remember what happened. 

When you forget to remember, you forget the facts, and you repeat the things again. 

The horrific thing is that this was designed–taught in the School of the Americas–how to torture. It was applied by people who prepared and planned to kidnap, torture, and make people to disappear–executing them. And we cannot repeat that again. We have to be aware. We have to learn. We have the obligation to learn history. This is not the fault of the U.S. This is not the fault of the Chilean government, of the Argentinian government, of the people of these countries: it is of all of humanity. 


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