Adrian Dix: Chileans in Vancouver remember Salvador Allende and September 11, 1973
“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers”
—Chilean president Salvador Allende’s farewell address, September 11, 1973
Drive south on Tyne Street off Kingsway by the Safeway and you will see on your right an araucaria (a Chilean pine, also known as the monkey puzzle tree). The tree was planted in remembrance of Maria-Olga Flores-Barazza and Bernardo Araya Zuleta, two Chilean prisoners of conscience targeted by the Pinochet dictatorship, and who disappeared on April 2, 1976.
The tree and Chilean Housing Co-operative behind it are symbols of the fight against oppression that saw its birth in the fearsome events of September 11, 1973, which are being remembered around the world today.
Forty years ago, the elected Chilean government of President Dr. Salvador Allende was deposed in a vicious U.S.-backed coup d’etat. The events of that day had impacts around the world, including right here in Vancouver.
Dr. Allende had been a fixture of Chilean politics for decades. As leader of the Socialist Party, he lost presidential elections in 1952, 1958, and 1964 before his victory in 1970.
His election victory, with 36 percent of the vote in a three-way race, was fiercely challenged by military, congressional, business, and American interests, which attempted to block his legitimate ascension to power. These events culminated in the assassination of General Rene Schneider, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army who opposed interference in his nation’s democratic process.
Backlash from General Schneider’s murder ended the attempt to deny Allende the presidency; however, the efforts to undermine his government were undertaken from day one. President Richard Nixon infamously ordered the CIA “to make the (Chilean) economy scream”.
In spite of the U.S. backed anti-Allende campaign, as well as institutional opposition from the majority in Chile’s Congress, Allende’s government achieved many successes, not least of which were political. His Socialist Party increased its share of the vote in the 1973 parliamentary elections to 43 percent.
These gains among the electorate could be traced back in part to Allende's initiatives to lift the health and prospects of Chileans, and decrease the massive disparity that left an overwhelming majority of people living in poverty and without opportunities to improve their circumstances.
Led by his belief that a more just and fair society could be achieved through peaceful and democratic means, Allende introduced measures to improve people's daily lives and chances for a better future: agrarian reform that gave Chileans access to six million acres of land previously concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners; sanitation, housing, and nutrition programs for young children and mothers, which all aimed to lift public health conditions; rent reforms, literacy programs, better health care facilities, and social security rights for the entire labour force. In their short life time, these reforms produced a positive effect, lifting wages by 30 percent, increasing school enrolment, and reducing malnutrition rates among Chilean youngsters by 20 percent.
Not surprisingly, it was Allende’s economic policies—in particular his nationalization of the copper industry so Chileans could benefit from their most lucrative national asset—that galvanized the already deep antagonism of the U.S. government, multinational business interests, and the military against his government.
The coup, made possible by covert actions of the CIA under Nixon's administration (which also invested at least $8 million into the anti-Allende movement), amounted to a complete subversion of a constitutional democracy.
Henry Kissinger famously mapped out the American position as follows: "the issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves....I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people."
The events that followed the coup's launch are well-known—a siege of the presidential palace, the death of Allende (a subject of controversy to this day), the murder and disappearance of thousands of Chileans, 17 years of rule by a military junta maintained by state terrorism and led by General Augusto Pinochet, and a generation lost for human rights and democracy in Chile.
The coup and its aftermath also led to thousands fleeing Chile. Many of these political refugees arrived in Vancouver, creating many profound links between Vancouver and Chile in the years following 1973. Led by this active Chilean diaspora and many others, Vancouver became a centre in the opposition movement to the Pinochet regime that spanned the Northern and Southern hemispheres. These efforts culminated in the end of the military dictatorship and the restoration of Chilean democracy in 1990 after a long and brutal struggle.
The Chilean community has also had a profound impact on Vancouver in political, social, and economic terms. The Chilean Housing Co-op at School and Tyne is one expression of this, as are a myriad of social, women’s and cultural organizations. The survivors who here in the wake of 9/11/73 can be found in every walk of life in our city and province, making an active contribution to their respective fields and local communities.
One of those Chilean-Canadians, Waldo Brino, exemplifies this. A long-time board member of Collingwood Neighbourhood House and leader in the Renfrew-Collingwood community, Brino came to me earlier this year with a modest proposal: to rename the section of School Avenue in front of the Chilean Housing Co-Op as Dr. Salvador Allende Avenue. This summer, he started the process with the City of Vancouver to do just that. It is an application that deserves strong support.
In the months and weeks preceding the 40th anniversary of the coup d'etat, events, marches, and tributes have taken place in Chile and in places where Chileans sought refuge. The purpose of these events have been both to press for justice for the abuse people suffered under the ruthless Pinochet regime, and to reclaim and commemorate the achievements of and hopes expressed by the Allende government.
Here in Vancouver, a Dr. Salvador Allende Avenue would do just that and more. It would recognize that the tragic events of 40 years ago affected Chile, the world, Vancouver, and ourselves—and acknowledge our efforts to fight for justice can and must extend beyond our borders.