III: Santiago in a Nutshell

Even writing the title of this blog post, I’m laughing at myself. In this post I will attempt to summarize the last forty years or so of Santiago and Chile as a whole’s history, based almost completely on information I learned on walking tours and in discussions with some locals I met. Hopefully this post will not only be concise, informative and reasonably unbiased, but potentially witty and slightly more humorous than a Wikipedia article.

Heh. Wish me luck.

Once upon a time there was a man named Salvador Allende. Allende is famous for a number of reasons, the most pre-eminent being that he was the first democratically elected socialist president in the world.

That’s a lot of big words. Let’s break it down:

  1. Democratically elected: Allende came to power during his fourth attempt at presidency through open elections. He won in a close three-way race after being elected by Congress when no candidate was able to win a majority.
  2. Socialist: Ever heard of Marx? Very, very briefly Marxist theory was developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. Marx believed that capitalism was making a small number of rich people richer and a large number of poor people poorer, breeding dissent and dissatisfaction between social groups. He hypothesized that the unrest between classes would eventually culminate in a social revolution (akin to what happened during the 18th century Revolution in France). If led properly, this revolution would shift society from capitalism to socialism, where everyone would get from the community what he or she put into it. Marx believed that this socioeconomic system would eventually give way to communism – to a classless, stateless, just society where everyone would get exactly what they need and contribute exactly what they are able, no more or less.

It goes without saying that the above explanation is grossly oversimplified but do me a favour and just go with it for now.

Allende was elected president in 1970, in the midst of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. He made a number of sweeping reforms to the country in the following years, the most polarizing being his policies on land reform. Allende saw the economic inequalities in the nation and sought to bring about a more socialist society. He made a law that all landowners who were not developing or working even a portion of their land would be forced to sell that unused area to the government at a very low cost so that the government could in turn sell it back to the poor. Naturally, this ruffled a few feathers.

On September 11, 1973 Allende was woken up by a friend very early in the morning telling him to go to La Moneda Palace, the seat of government in Chile. Allende headed to La Moneda with an AK-47 (a gift from his good friend Fidel Castro) held in his hand. Once there he learned that Augusto Pinochet – the Commander-in-Chief he himself appointed – had arranged a military coup d’etat. This coup was in part sponsored by the American CIA, who were growing increasingly nervous about communism. Allende refused to step down so Pinochet used the Chilean national air force to drop bombs on the presidential palace. Troops moved in and publicly executed many of Allende’s followers. The second time they entered they found Allende himself. His body was rolled in a rug and buried in secret.


La Moneda Palace, Santiago

Here’s where things get a little controversial. In a relatively recent investigation by the Chilean government, it was determined that Allende committed suicide by sitting in a chair, resting his AK-47 between his legs and pulling the trigger with his big toe to release a bullet through his neck and into his brain. This is the official story. However, many Chileans today still largely contest this version, saying that Allende was assassinated by Pinochet and the Chilean Armed Forces.

Pinochet himself instituted a military dictatorship in the country, setting curfews on inhabitants and limiting the ability for people to gather in groups. More than 2,000 “communists” were killed or made to disappear during this time, and apparently over 40,000 were tortured.

Sounds like a pretty bad guy, right? BUT (and yes, that’s a big but) Pinochet’s cooperation with America meant they were able to support his implementation of extremely neoliberal policies, developed primarily by the “Chicago Boys”. Today, Chile is one of the most economically stable countries in South America, in part due to these radical policies.

It gets more complicated. In 1988, international pressure forced Pinochet to hold a referendum, asking the populace whether or not they wanted him to continue as president. He was only narrowly voted out by 56% of the population; the other 44% wanted him for another eight years. Although Pinochet respected the results of the referendum and stepped down in 1990, he remained Commander-in-Chief of the army until 1998, at which point he retired. An international warrant went out for his arrest that same year, but by the time he was processed he was judged too ill for the trial. He died of natural causes at his home in December 2006.

So, now what? Well, Chilean society remains divided, economically and socially. People are racially stereotyped on the basis of their skin colour, the neighbouhood in which they live, even on their last name (apparently names with a double “r” are generally wealthier. Go figure). Today’s government is politically frozen and generally disliked for its centrist policies. From my outsider perspective, it seems as though the majority of older rich people bemoan the passing of Pinochet and still celebrate him as an economic hero. The younger and the less wealthy feel as though they are finally free of a dictator who stifled their freedoms and killed a good man.


Dancers practice outside the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (GAM)

Since 2006, the youth have taken more pride in their country and work to protect it. Most public spaces in Santiago that are kept quite clean because of the growing respect people have for the city in which they live. People use common public spaces for dance practice, yoga, as a meeting place for friends, as somewhere to relax on a hot day. Artists work to remind locals of the Chilean history before Allende and to celebrate their unique cultural heritage.


Two massive paintings in Santiago by INTI, a Chilean street artist who uses vibrant colours and politically-charged symbolism to illustrate Chile’s rich heritage and modern struggles.


Salvador Allende’s grave

The Chilean national cemetery in Santiago remains one of the only places where economic and religious divisions cease to matter. Here, as long as one is a Chilean citizen and can afford the $1000 US fee for a basic grave, anyone can be buried, regardless of their station. It is also in this cemetery that Allende himself is buried in a massive tomb paid for by the 1990 post-Pinochet government. Pinochet’s grave is not accessible to the public.



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