September 11, 1973 was a tragic day that marked our history as a country. It crushed our hopes of overcoming tremendous structural inequality, it ended the government of Salvador Allende and our democracy; it also divided us deeply. 50 years after the coup, it is necessary to review certain common minimums in order to project ourselves as a country towards the next 50 years, because history must be understood in order not to repeat it.
When we talk about the coup d’état today, we must understand that 70% of Chileans had not been born 50 years ago. In other words, those of us who witnessed these brutal events are today a minority in our country. And it is precisely those of us who experience these events closely who have a responsibility with memory, because it is what allows us as a society to recognize ourselves in the present, and connect yesterday with tomorrow.
Politics, in simple terms, consists of processing our differences peacefully, respecting the freedoms and visions of each other; it is key to understand the limitations and agree on basic issues. In 1973 the policy was defeated and that is something that cannot happen again.
A coup can never be justified. It can never be part of the options that countries have to resolve their differences, because it is nothing more than the way to crush a government and terrorize a people. This is one of the basic issues on which we must agree today. Images like the bombing of La Moneda and the tanks surrounding the Government House cannot leave anyone indifferent.
Second, no matter how complex the political context, democracy must never be called into question. The dictatorship only confirmed the enormous gulf that separates a democracy, with all its imperfections, and a regime that resorts to the most brutal force to eliminate basic civil and political liberties.
Democracy is not a perfect system, but it is the best system we have. It is a system that has the tools and institutions to correct its shortcomings. Democracy is built in a dialogue between plural and diverse views where self-criticism and honest criticism are welcome in any political process; they are, in fact, one of the weapons of democracy.
A third issue on which we must all agree is that crimes against humanity have no place in our country or anywhere in the world. We are still carrying pain as a society, because for 17 years a State policy was based on annihilating those who thought differently or those who were considered dangerous.
Nothing can ever justify the trampling of the dignity that defines us as humanity.
It is undeniable that there are unquestionable, documented facts, and the wounds are more difficult to heal if there are those who deny or justify what commissions such as Rettig or Valech have already established, or the judicial investigations themselves. This deteriorates our possibility of being a community. That is why our moral duty is to do everything possible so that cases as painful as those experienced during the dictatorship are not repeated.
In Chile, when we talk about the coup, the dictatorship, the crimes against humanity, we are not talking about abstract concepts, but we are talking about events that were branded in our individual, institutional, and national memory.
When we look at polls on democracy and how credibility has been lost in it, we should be alert. An example of this is the latest CEP survey that reflects the distrust of Chilean men and women towards the institutional political system. The phrase “people like you don’t care about a democratic regime or an authoritarian one” is supported by 25% of those surveyed. Other surveys show that for a percentage of Chilean men and women, the best ruler of Chile has been Augusto Pinochet.
September always comes as a mirror in which we recognize ourselves as Chilean men and women, and in these 50 years we must look at each other and recognize ourselves as brothers from the same country to lead us to defend and deepen democracy, and always respect human rights. That is a responsibility of all of us. We must ensure that there is full truth, full justice and a commitment from all to take care of democracy. Hence the importance of the Search Plan for the Disappeared Detained announced by the current Government.
I recently read Patricio Aylwin’s memoirs, The Political Experience of Popular Unity. At the beginning and at the end, the former president wonders what we could have done better or differently to have managed to change the course of events. The distrust at that time made it impossible to reach agreements, something from which we must learn. We must also take care of the language and the way in which we relate to each other, because the forms also matter and we must take care of them.
50 years after a tragedy known worldwide for its brutality, we must be clear about what we are experiencing. It should be a lesson for the future that we will build for the next 50 years, so that no one in our country doubts the seriousness of what happened, so that everyone has the good sense that this cannot happen again. So that we can be a more united Chile, in which we all fight for our deepest desire: to end the inequality that has historically marked our country, to achieve well-being and dignity for all who inhabit our territory.
Memory is a powerful tool. Remembering the coup and its consequences allows us to reflect on our past, understand our present and, most importantly, build a better future. Let’s not forget the past, but let’s use it as a beacon to guide our future actions and build a fairer and more equitable Chile.
Michelle Bachelet is the former president of Chile and a columnist for EL PAÍS
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