Americans often speak of John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a defining point in their lives, a defining trauma. The events that have marked and reshaped my life occurred with another president’s untimely death--that of Salvador Allende in Chile, on Sept. 11, 1973.
Twenty years ago, I was a recent emigre to the United States, a child on the verge of adolescence, an immigrant on the verge of assimilation, and a latchkey kid with a single mother who worked a double shift, filing assistant by day, maintenance woman by night.
The news from Santiago interrupted a routine afternoon of sitcom reruns that had been my first effective lessons in the American idiom-- “But Skipper!” “No ifs, ands or buts, Gilligan!”
Salvador Allende was dead, the presidential palace bombed, embassies packed with people seeking asylum, while upper-class Chileans celebrated with Champagne and caviar. A group of obscure military chiefs, headed by the then-unknown Gen. Augusto Pinochet, had decided to put an end to the first freely elected Marxist presidency of the Western Hemisphere, accusing Allende of leading the nation toward insolvency, chaos and totalitarian dictatorship. On television, Pinochet declared the nation “free of the Marxist yoke” while sporting sunglasses and an unflattering smirk. Pinochet’s image would never recover from that first impression.
Only a few years previously, I’d been a witness to Allende’s election. Our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and step-grandparents was representative of the country in being hopelessly divided on the issue of Chile’s Marxist president. My grandfather, a retired policeman and suspicious of “rabble-rousers,” predicted a Castro-like dictatorship under Allende, with millions dead and Russians invading the nation with tanks. (American-made tanks would end up putting the palace under siege.) An uncle cheered me up instead with the prospect of a “people’s dictatorship” that would bring social justice, adequate housing, health care and a Marxist New Man.
I was not an Allendista. Eight years old and already a reactionary, I campaigned as a child volunteer for Allende’s major opponent, the octogenarian Jorge Alessandri.
Three years later, the death of Allende marked the end of a political game that Chileans of all ages played. Chilean politics, like American baseball, came with teams and score cards and plenty of bitter losses and boastful victory. But fair play was expected no matter who won or lost.
The overthrow of Allende was no mere coup. It was the end of Chilean democracy as we knew it. To the chagrin of even his supporters, Pinochet proved to be an obdurate old man with ambitions to reshape the nation in his own image and rule it until his death. The old man provoked his own political demise by staging the grand plebiscite of 1988 that he thought would be his coronation. He lost the vote, but he continues to cling to power by commanding the army. Unlike Gen. MacArthur, this old soldier refuses to fade away.
For our resettled family of three here--my mother, a cousin and myself--there was no returning to a Chile that was no longer the functional democracy we’d known. As a teen-ager, I thought I would simply return to Chile and make my way as an aspiring leader and martyr of democracy. But I discovered on my first visit to Chile, in 1975, that I was not made for martyrdom. I arrived as an Americanized teen-ager, and I think that’s why everyone chose me to hear their grievances. I was ill-prepared to listen to them. My grandfather worshiped Pinochet now, and felt personally betrayed by any criticism of his hero. The rest of the family reviled Pinochet, and a tenuous peace was maintained at the dinner table by not speaking about politics. But it was my brief encounter with my father that helped destroy my illusions about returning to Chile.
I had never lived with my father, and this meeting was an impromptu whim on his part, well-timed to challenge my false sense of security as a “privileged American kid.” As a Socialist sympathizer, he had been demoted from a university teaching position to a public high school and was required to keep the classroom “free of politics.” But he wasn’t complaining; he was alive after all. Some of his teaching colleagues had suffered a worse fate than harassment: “disappearance,” exile, execution.
The entire country had become alien to me, and youngster that I was, I needed the distance to don another identity, that of U.S. citizen. Twenty years later, I am still a U.S. citizen and a voter (what President Clinton might call a New Democrat), suspicious of doctrinaire politics and wary of cult figures, from Pinochet to Perot.
On the 20th anniversary of the coup that changed my life, I owe Salvador Allende a tribute of respect: While I never supported him, I would today respectfully disagree with his ideas, hoping our differences would be settled by the traditional Chilean ballot box, not through CIA conspiracies or Pentagon-provided bullets, much less Marxist totalitarianism--which Allende himself, by the way, never practiced.
Americans who feel that they lost a sense of “innocence” through the death of President Kennedy did not experience the loss of democracy, let alone of an entire country. That’s how, on the 20th anniversary of Allende’s death, I commemorate the loss of my first experience with democracy, hoping for no such future losses in my adopted democracy.