9/11: The Day Everything Changed, in Chile
By ARIEL DORFMAN
Published: September 7, 2013
IF I am alive today, if 40 years later I am able to tell the story of the Chilean coup of Sept. 11, 1973, it is thanks to the blind generosity of my friend Claudio Jimeno.
I remember him now as I saw him then, when I said goodbye without knowing it was goodbye, not knowing he would soon be dead and I would survive, neither of us knowing that the military would kill him instead of me.
Claudio and I met in 1960 as freshmen at the Universidad de Chile, where his toothy grin and shock of black hair had earned him the nickname of Conejo (rabbit), which was to follow him till the day he died. He was dating Chabela Chadwick, a chemistry student, and when I started going out with Angélica, who would later become my wife, the four of us would join our enthusiastic classmates for dances and beach picnics and, especially, for protest rallies. For what most united Claudio and me and our girlfriends, beyond sharing heartaches and doubts and hopes, was a fierce thirst for social justice in a continent of frustrating poverty and misdevelopment.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Chileans, Claudio and I were fervent supporters of the Socialist Salvador Allende, who — at a time when guerrilla warfare was raging across Latin America — believed that a nonviolent revolution in our country was possible and proclaimed that we could create a more just and sovereign society through peaceful and democratic means. Our dream seemed to become reality when, 10 years later, Allende won the 1970 presidential election.
Dreams and reality, however, do not go hand in hand that easily.
By mid-1973, Allende’s government was under siege and was threatened with the increasing likelihood of a coup. When Fernando Flores, a member of the president’s staff, asked me to serve as his cultural and press adviser, I did not hesitate. One of my most urgent responsibilities was to sleep once every four nights at La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, keeping watch so that I could communicate any emergency immediately to Allende. The other nights rotated among three other advisers, one of whom was Claudio Jimeno.
When I discovered I was slated to spend the night of Monday, Sept. 10, at La Moneda, it was the most natural thing in the world to exchange shifts with my old buddy. Claudio offered to take my turn and give me his stint on Sunday, the 9th, so that I could show my 6-year-old son, Rodrigo, the gallery displaying the portraits of the presidents of Chile and allow him, before his mother came to pick him up, to experience the palace as night fell, the magic of a thousand lights coming on.
Claudio’s kindness did not surprise me. In those perilous times, we watched our kids playing without being sure we’d see them again the next day, so each hour with them was priceless. Claudio looked forward to some quiet time at home with Chabela and their two children that Sunday.
And thus it was that Claudio Jimeno would be the one to answer the phone at dawn on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1973, and learn that a military coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet was in progress. And it would be Claudio who called Allende, and Claudio who fought by his side at La Moneda. It was Claudio who was taken prisoner and then tortured and then became one of Chile’s first desaparecidos, never to be seen again. I woke up that morning next to my beloved Angélica and tried to but could not make it to La Moneda, and now four decades later, I find myself here, commemorating my friend and what was lost and what was learned, recalling, because Claudio cannot, how we kept hope alive in the dark. Here I am, unable to visit Claudio Jimeno’s grave because, to this day, his executioners refuse to reveal where they buried his shattered body.
My friend’s fate prefigured what was in store for Chile.
Ahead of us were decades of repression and dread, of sorrow and struggle. Even when we managed to finally defeat the dictatorship, our transition to a full democracy was severely constricted. Pinochet’s sinister Constitution, approved in fraudulent elections in 1980, is even now the supreme law of the land, making urgent reforms exceptionally difficult to carry out.
But that Sept. 11, 1973, tragic as it was for so many Chileans, had consequences far beyond our remote shores. The failure of the Chilean revolution had significant repercussions in Europe, where it led to a fundamental reorientation of the left in several countries (notably, Spain, France and Italy) and to certainty that in order to generate radical transformations in society, a broad consensus was needed, rather than a razor-thin electoral majority.
In the United States, the (not entirely) covert intervention of the C.I.A. in Allende’s downfall was one of several factors that paved the way for Congressional investigations that established laws that limited the extent to which the executive branch could interfere in the affairs of foreign governments. This opened a discussion that is more than relevant today, as it is clear that American presidents continue to believe that it is their right to meddle, intrude and spy wherever they believe the interests and security of their country are in peril — in other words, anywhere and everywhere.
More crucially, however, the most lasting legacy of Chile’s Sept. 11 were the economic policies implemented by Pinochet. My country became, in effect, a laboratory for a neoliberal experiment, a land of unrestrained greed where extreme denationalization of public resources and suppression of workers’ rights were imposed on an unwilling populace. Many of these merciless policies were later deployed by leaders across the globe.
Though it led to a scandalous disparity in income distribution and created conditions congenial to our latest planetary financial crises, the Chilean free-market model retains its appeal. Pinochet’s drastic privatization of Chile’s pension plans is, for instance, constantly trotted out as an example of how to “solve” the “problem” of Social Security. And a recent unsigned editorial in The Wall Street Journal suggested that “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.”
Fortunately, Chile did not just export the nastiest experiences stemming from the military takeover. It also has served as a model for how an unarmed people can, through sustained nonviolence and civil disobedience, conquer fear and bring down a dictatorship. The thrilling democracy and resistance movements that have sprung up on every continent during the last few years prove that the future does not have to be heartless, that the Chilean Sept. 11 was not the end of the quest for freedom and social justice that Claudio Jimeno died for, and that perhaps his sacrifice was not entirely in vain.
And yet, I cannot console myself, 40 years later. I still remember his rabbit grin as he said goodbye to me at La Moneda on the night of Sept. 10, 1973.
The next day, that terror-filled Tuesday in Santiago, changed many things forever, including political and economic conditions that altered Chile and, arguably, the world. But when we look back at the past we need to be reminded that ultimately history comes down to real human beings, men and women who are grievously affected, to each and every Claudio Jimeno of our species, one by one by one.
It comes down to what is irreparable and needs to be mourned: Claudio cannot, as I do each morning, waken to the endless sound of birds.
Claudio Jimeno, the friend who died instead of me 40 years ago, will never see his grandchildren grow up.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 15, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Ariel Dorfman’s work “Death and the Maiden.” It is a play, not a novel.