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Chile Remembers 1973 Coup that Unseated Salvador Allende - 2003-09-09

While much of the world will take time this week to reflect on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, citizens in Chile will pause to remember another historic anniversary, one that also changed the face of their country forever.

In a radio address recorded in the waning moments of his presidency, Chilean President Salvador Allende remained defiant, refusing to surrender his power despite an onslaught of bombs and bullets that were ripping apart the presidential palace in Santiago.

"I will not resign," Allende vowed. "I will pay for the loyalty of the people with my life." And soon thereafter, he did, taking his own life inside the La Moneda - the presidential palace - before oncoming soldiers could capture him alive.

The bloody coup that ended the life of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, put General Augusto Pinochet into power, opening a deadly and dark chapter in Chile's history. During Pinochet's reign, approximately 3,000 people "disappeared" and thousands of others were tortured and exiled.

Now, 30 years later, while much of the world is focusing on the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, millions of Chileans will pause to reflect on a date that haunted them long before 2001.

"It is a date in which a new history begins, in which people living through that date felt that the world in some way had ended," says Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chilean ambassador to Argentina.

Until recently, Mr. Valdes served as Chile's ambassador to the United Nations, where he was a member of the U.N. Security Council.

"The 11th of September in Chile was the military coup that overthrew the government of President Allende, but it was much more than that," he says. "It was the end of the story of democratic success of civilian government in Chile which marked an identity of the country and the political system, therefore people felt that day that the country was a different one, that something had happened that betrayed the history of the country."

In 1973, Gabriel Sepulveda was an employee at a shop located near the La Moneda. He says he remembers the confusion that erupted when Pinochet's soldiers arrived but it wasn't until he heard President Allende on the radio urging people to go home that he knew that this day would be unlike any other.

"September 11 marked a historic passing in Chile and the Chilean people suffered when the military arrived," Mr. Sepulveda says. "It is a tragic story for us…. after September 11 this was a completely different country."

The United States supported General Pinochet's efforts to topple President Allende. Despite U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent admission that the United States was not "proud" of its role in the coup, some Chileans, like Angelica Ramirez, still hold the United States partly responsible for the arrival of Pinochet's iron-fisted regime.

"We have a lot of anger because the 11th of September…..well, the United States played a big role in this thing," Ms. Ramirez says. "So we could say, as the Chileans say, that they were looking for it too. And although a lot of years have passed, we forgive but we don't forget."

Forgetting the horrors of the Pinochet era is a strategy that many Chileans adopted when he stepped down in 1990. But the wounds still remain, and only recently has the country begun the difficult task of making amends with its troubled history.

In neighboring Argentina, recent court decisions have moved that country closer to holding those responsible for the thousands of deaths that occurred during its last dictatorship. The actions in Argentina have bolstered the efforts of human rights groups in Chile and President Ricardo Lagos has pledged his support for more accountability. Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes thinks the 30th anniversary of the Pinochet coup will finally force the country to face its past.

"I think that this event in Chile this year will have an enormous importance and has in some way generated a very uncomfortable feeling for all those who were actors at that time, they have been confronted by their own deeds and with their own responsibilities and this is not an easy thing to do," says Mr. Valdes.

Repeated efforts to have 87-year-old Pinochet stand trial have been unsuccessful, and because of his old age and failing health, it is unlikely that he will ever have to answer for the atrocities committed under his reign that began 30 years ago.