Chile: The coup and I
The coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, was a tremendous shock — not because it was unexpected, which it wasn’t, but because it was so much more violent and murderous than we, or at least I, had imagined, in a country long known for its civility, its culture, and its rational and orderly manner of settling disputes.
It was also a monstrous crime, not only by the treasonous armed forces commanders in Chile, assaulting the government that they had sworn to protect, but, shamefully, by the political and economic powers of my home country, the United States. It was then very obvious, and today since the release of more documents it is even more clear and with more detail, of how that bloody coup was instigated, encouraged and supported by the US Government — with close direction from President Nixon and Henry Kissinger —and the US corporations most heavily invested in Chile.
I was then 32, teaching sociology at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, focused especially on processes of social change in Latin America. I had been a community organizer in working-class neighborhoods of Venezuela and, later, in Puerto Rican and Mexican sections of Chicago and as a faculty member, was active in the organizations of “Latino” students. I and they had been following the increasingky tense politics of Chile very closely. Thus when the coup occurred, we wanted to find some way to come to the aid of its victims. What could we do?
Thus I became one of the organizers and participants in the Chicago Commission of Inquiry Into the Status of Human Rights in Chile. We were a very mixed group, including two former labor union presidents, a Chicago alderwoman, a Catholic priest and political science professor, and the father of one of the two young Americans murdered by the military in the first days of the coup, Frank Teruggi. We spent about a week in the country in February 1974, mostly in Santiago but also in the copper-mining center further south, observing and questioning officials in the army and police, and the U.S. Embassy, but more importantly prisoners held in the Estadio Chile, and, on one memorable night, some important figures of the deposed government who had found refuge in the Swedish embassay.
Upon our return to the States, we did what we could to make Americans aware of the terrible tortures, murders and suppression of liberties instigated and paid for by the US Government. In my case, this included much public speaking and a long, fully documented article for the American Teacher, the newspaper of my union, the American Federation of Teachers, commissioned by the very progressive editor of that paper, Dave Elsila. But when the top leaders saw its harsh critique of US Government culpability, the article — already edited and typeset — was cut. For the story of this editorial battle, and more detail about our Chicago Commission of Inquiry and what we accomplished, see this article by Greg Godels.
I think we did manage to save a few lives, by helping trade union activists and others to escape from Chile, many to Sweden but even some few to the United States. Our mission was a gesture, not a solution. But it was something and we hope we did modify American opinion about the presumed menace of democracy in other countries, where the interests of American big business are at stake.
See also my earlier blog post, on our visit to Unidad Popular activists in the Swedish embassy.