Being in Chile for September 11th, especially this year, is moving.
On a personal note, I am conducting research for my dissertation, which investigates how political prisoners and their families rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of the political violence that began thirty-nine years ago today when a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. It saddens me to think of the participation of my country—the United States—in that attack on democracy, especially when the memory of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, while undoubtedly tragic in its own right, has long become a battle cry for supposedly defending freedom.
Like Ariel Dorfman in his essays “The Other 9/11” and “Epitaph for another September 11th,” I grieve for both tragedies while finding it unsettling that Chileans fought peacefully (as Dorfman pointed out, with a few exceptions, but non-armed movements far outweighed the armed) for the return of the civil rights and democratic institutions that were ripped from them, yet the U.S. government happily championed war abroad and the destruction of civil liberties both abroad and at home.
Over the past few years, Chile has witnessed an effervescence collective struggle that fueled the protests in the 1980s that eventually led to Pinochet’s downfall in a 1988 plebiscite. This is largely seen in the student movement. Students have continuously demonstrated for affordable, equal, and quality education. They are fighting the privatized education system that Pinochet re-organized under his military rule as he began the systematic destruction of the welfare state and implementation of neoliberal economic policies. And the police are still reactionary and violent, just as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, as I watched the protests at the Universidad de Chile’s main building a couple of weeks ago, I could not help but think that I had stepped back in time. Students yelled from the windows of the building, which they had taken over (peacefully), and banners flew, featuring Allende’s face and slogans such as “The economy at the service of humans, not humans at the service of the economy.” A large crowd of demonstrators blocked the main thoroughfare, and they were soon sprayed with either water or tear gas. Yet I doubt the students will give up anytime soon. The memory of collective struggle is living on through them.
So this September 11th, I have both Chile and the United States in my thoughts. With demonstrators pushing for reform in Chile and an upcoming presidential election in the U.S., I hope that both countries truly reflect on the meaning of democracy today, rather than whisk around patriotic thoughts with the wave of a flag.