By Published: Sept. 26, 2023

CU Boulder showing of film, followed by panel discussion including Chileans who grew up in the dictatorship, will address the 50-year legacy of the 1973 military coup and Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year rule

Fifty years ago this month, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup to overthrow democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government.

In the almost 17 years that followed, the Chilean people lived under a brutal and violent dictatorship during which an estimated 3,400 people were “disappeared” or executed, tens of thousands more were arrested and often tortured and an estimated 200,000 were forced into exile.

Pinochet banned political parties, had national electoral registries destroyed, privatized government social welfare programs and redrafted the constitution, which had been in place since 1925, to give himself sole authority to curtail individual rights.

Though Pinochet narrowly lost a 1988 plebiscite, or yes/no vote by everyone in a country, to determine whether he should be president for eight more years, the legacy of the coup and his dictatorship continue resonating in Chile, 50 years later.

Julio Sepulveda

Julio Sepúlveda grew up in Chillán, Chile, during the dictatorship.

“The dictatorship left a lot of scars,” says Julio Sepúlveda, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of geological sciences and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research fellow who was born during the dictatorship and grew up in Chillán, Chile. “It’s a trauma, and it’s a trauma for society and for individuals and families. You didn’t have to be alive in 1973 to suffer that trauma—many generations were impacted and still are impacted.”

Sepúlveda will be part of a panel Wednesday afternoon following a screening of “The Coup in Santiago: The Last Days of Salvador Allende.” The event, hosted by the CU Boulder Latin American and Latinx Studies Center, will focus on the complex social, political and economic legacy of the coup and dictatorship.

“When I was a child, we didn’t speak about it very much because I think people were afraid,” says Viviana Huiliñir-Curio, a PhD student in the CU Boulder Department of Geography who also will be a panelist Wednesday.

“It was super taboo, and I think some people decided they couldn’t talk about it because someone could hear you and put in a call to the carabineros (the national law enforcement) saying that you were a Marxist.”

Growing up in a dictatorship

Both Huiliñir-Curio and Sepúlveda were born during the dictatorship, beginning school when nationalism and Chilean identity were strongly emphasized even to young children. Huiliñir-Curio, who grew up in Temuco, Chile, belongs to the Mapuche indigenous group. However, because of policies of discrimination against indigenous groups during the dictatorship, she didn’t grow up speaking—or even learning—her native language of Mapudungun.

“Persecution was part of the experience during the dictatorship,” she says. “The older generations preferred not to teach Mapudungun because for them, it was something that could be dangerous. And in school, I never heard the word ‘dictatorship,’ it was always ‘the government of Pinochet.’ I realize now that the education in school during the dictatorship tried to reinforce distorted ideas about how Pinochet brought development and progress to the country, and it was very influenced by the U.S. culture of the American dream and reinforcing patriotic feelings and national symbols. And indigenous people in these stories were only part of the past, impacting our identities, while discrimination and racism were part of daily life.”

Viviana Huilinir-Curio

For Viviana Huiliñir-Curio, a member of the Mapuche indigenous group, state-sanctioned discriminiation was part of daily life during the dictatorship.

However, she also remembers growing up singing the songs of Quelentaro and Víctor Jara, a folk singer and activist who was tortured and murdered by the military junta in 1973. “I didn’t totally understand the meaning,” she says, “but they wrote songs about injustice, about inequality and the impoverishment of Mapuche and Chilean campesinos (peasants) and the experiences of low-income families living in the población (marginalized urban neighborhoods). They were songs of resistance.”

As a child during the dictatorship, Sepúlveda says he wasn’t aware of the political and economic nuances that were the daily reality for Chileans, but he was aware of divisions even within families—that Pinochet supporters could report anti-Pinochet family members to authorities.

He also has an uncle who was detained and tortured; an aunt's husband who was in Chile’s FBI-equivalent helped trace and gain his uncle's release.

‘It’s a part of us now’

Living in the United States has also given Huiliñir-Curio and Sepúlveda distinct perspectives on the legacy of the dictatorship and how it continues affecting Chile today. Documents continue to be declassified, some as recently as August, detailing U.S. involvement in the events leading up to the coup, generally justified as preventing the spread of communism. Also this summer, Chilean President Gabriel Boric enacted a national search plan to track down the desaparecidos, or disappeared, who were never found.

However, Sepúlveda mentions that Chile—like many countries, including the United States—is seeing a surge in right-wing rhetoric and extremism, “and we’re hearing many similar things that were said before the coup, as well: socialism is hurting the economy, the government wants to take our land, society is more violent and we’re not safe. These are things you hear in America, too.”

In September 2022, Chilean voters rejected a referendum for a new, progressive constitution, keeping the one written during the dictatorship in place, and in May conservatives won the majority of seats on a 50-member commission to redraft the constitution.

“The right wing has really started emphasizing policies of fear, creating a sense of chaos, telling people that the left wing is going to bring us back to the ‘70s, to socialism,” Sepúlveda says. “If you’re writing policy for social benefits, for access to education, if you support those initiatives, then you get labeled a communist. The far right is creating a campaign of fear that we’ll become the new Venezuela, which is not the case.

“Chile is a diverse society, and it’s difficult to see how countries that have so much good in them are being corroded by a system that is so rigged, by a narrative that is so convincing.”

However, Sepúlveda says he sees hope in the Estallido Social protests of the previous four years that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets against social inequality. Further, Huiliñir-Curio says she sees hope in the ever-growing focus on identity, political memory and indigenous rights, in people’s willingness to speak out against economic and social inequality shaped by the dictatorship and in younger generations' using education and artistic expression, among other tools, to not allow the lessons of the past 50 years to be forgotten.

“It’s a very complicated legacy, and there are those who say we need to move on, we need to put it behind us,” Huiliñir-Curio says. “The denialism from political parties that do not officially recognize the damage provoked by the dictatorship is difficult to talk about, forgive and forget. It’s a part of us now, it’s a part of who we are, and we must ask every day what we learn from this history, this reality.”

Top image: Soldiers force presidential palace employees to the ground during the September 1973 coup; photo by Chas Gerretsen for Gamma

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