Fifty years ago today, Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Chile:
U.S. officials were especially concerned about Salvador Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist and a member of Chile's Socialist Party who ran for president multiple times and was a leading contender in the 1964 election. He had pledged to nationalize the mostly U.S.-owned copper companies, a large industry in Chile.
The U.S. spent massively on anti-communist propaganda and support for Allende's opponent in 1964. The influence proved effective: Allende lost.
But Allende ran again in 1970. Richard Nixon was now the U.S. president and Henry Kissinger his assistant for national security affairs. They perceived Allende as a threat to U.S. interests and as a friend of the Soviet Union. (Allende's campaign did receive $350,000 from Cuba, according to CIA estimates, and at least $400,000 from Moscow, according to one book on the history of the KGB's foreign operations.) Kissinger was especially concerned about the example it would set for Western European countries to have a socialist freely elected.
It's important to note that Chile was politically polarized. Allende took office having only won just over a third of votes. The Congress was deadlocked.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 1973, the military launched a coup and took control of the country. Military jets bombed the presidential palace. Allende killed himself after giving a final defiant address to the country.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the army chief once thought to be loyal to Chile's constitution, soon emerged as the country's new leader. The military junta began a ruthless campaign against communists and socialists.
"There's a state of siege declared. Political parties are outlawed. Universities are shut down. And a process of widespread arrest of political opponents begins to take place," Siavelis says.
People are tortured and killed in detention centers across Chile, including Estadio Nacional, the national stadium. Victims included the popular folk singer Victor Jara.
Ariel Dorfman, a cultural adviser in Allende's cabinet, remembers watching his democracy die, and worries about ours:
Not only did General Pinochet end our dreams; he ushered in an era of brutal human rights violations. During his military rule, from 1973 to 1990, more than 40,000 people were subjected to physical and psychological torture. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans — political opponents, independent critics or innocent civilians suspected of having links to them — were jailed, murdered, persecuted or exiled. More than a thousand men and women are still among the desaparecidos, the disappeared, with no funerals and no graves.
Today, when around 70 percent of the population had not even been born at the time of the military takeover, it is critical for people both in Chile and the rest of the world to remember the dire consequences of resorting to violence to resolve our dilemmas and indulging in division rather than striving for solidarity, dialogue and compassion.
Perhaps many young Chileans will shrug and think of this as just another political feud that has little impact on the long list of troubles they face today: crime and migration into the country; an economic and climate crisis; inadequate health care, education and pensions; a revolt by Indigenous communities in the south of the country. But we need to find a way to forge a shared understanding of our past so we can start creating a shared vision of Chile for the many tomorrows that await us.
Meanwhile, here in the US, the Wisconsin Republican Party appears intent on making that state a "laboratory for autocracy" immune to the majority will of Wisconsin voters. Democracy really is the worst form of government—except for all the others. We're in danger of understanding that a lot better than we really want to in the US.