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Defending Allende

On September 4, 1973, an enormous multitude of Chileans poured into the streets of Santiago to back the besieged government of Salvador Allende.

Although during the day I worked at La Moneda, that night I joined a vociferous group of compañeros and militants who marched down the Alameda, the central avenue of the capital, waiting for hours to pass by the presidential palace and catch a glimpse of our leader. As soon as we saw him next to his wife, Tencha, waving a handkerchief from a balcony that overlooked the Plaza de la Constitución, we intensified our chant, our vow that the pueblo would defend Allende.

We kept roaring that oath, even after we turned the corner and left him behind, and then we did something that I still recall, fifty years later, with a tide of nostalgia and emotion. We went around the block and smuggled ourselves into the next colossal contingent of militants so we could pass by the same spot again, as if we wanted to make sure he was still there—though also as if we were saying good-bye to our president. We did not know—or did we have an inkling?—that we were also saying good-bye to ourselves, to who we had been and what we had aspired to, good-bye to a way of life and dreams, good-bye to the country that would soon change.

We may have had an intuition that the battle for memory—a battle that has continued to this day—was already beginning. We were trying to fix that moment so that it would not be forgotten, so that when the story was told that Allende had been alone as the coup materialized and nobody came to the rescue, we could point to that march and to so many actions during those years in defense of what he stood for, use that memory to deny the lies of his enemies and the erosion of time. We would have to defend him when he was gone. Maybe that was what, in retrospect, we were really doing: envisaging a future with and without him.

Maybe we already knew that we were going to lose.

One week later, on September 11, 1973, a military junta, headed by our supposed man-in-the-pocket, Augusto Pinochet, and representing the full fury of the army, navy, air force, and carabineros (national police), made its pronunciamiento, which turned out to be considerably stronger than the words shouted to the wind by our scattered throats: Allende had been deposed and the junta would rule “only for as long as circumstances demand.” When the president refused to resign, the military shelled the palace from the air and the ground. After many hours of combat during which Allende, along with a handful of bodyguards, functionaries, and close friends, engaged in armed resistance, La Moneda lay in smoldering ruins and the president was dead.