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40 Years After Military Coup, Chileans Reflect

Today, Chileans at home and abroad will be thinking about a date that means something different for them than for their northern neighbors. September 11, 1973 was the day the government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup lead by General Augusto Pinochet. The rest - is a very long, drawn out, bloody history. More than 3,000 dead, more than 30,000 tortured, more than a million fled the country. During that time, the city streets became minefields: curfews were imposed and voices were hushed. The work of one artist said it all, subtlety: Lotty Rosenfeld took to the streets with her weapon of choice: Sellotape - which she would use to tape the line dividers in the streets - intervening into the pre-established signs of the city to disrupt them. The road lines became multiple crosses down the main road of Santiago - looking at them into the distance was to see the city streets become a cemetery.

But as time went on, many of those who had faced repression began their small rebellions and began to make their incursions on to the streets. Protest movements willing to risk it all to retake the streets, to make them public again. Many of them were students demanding social justice and the end of the dictatorship. In 1988, in a plebiscite to vote Pinochet in or out of power, they lined the polling stations of the country to monitor the votes and avoid fraud. Victory was theirs, and the democracy they thought they had fought for began.

But the government voted into power quickly told its people to sit still and to avoid rocking the political boat. The social movements took a back seat. And just like that, by using the benevolent image of reconciliation, the government smuggled the impunity of the past into the present with minimal fuss, taking the edge off the their own crisis of legitimacy caused by granting amnesty to torturers and entering a power sharing arrangement with the authoritarian regime. This was a liberal democracy that had inherited the modernizing politics of the military regime while carefully marking its distance from the past.

Today, 40 years on, another students protest movement is on the streets of Santiago marking a date which they never lived - but who legacy they inherited. They say the transition to democracy continued a system which commodified their rights and made education a business. They have taken on the struggle of the generation that fought during the military regime, multiplying their numbers, owning public space, rewriting political activism in the digital age, winning a place on the negotiating table of Power. The government cannot ignore them, that would be to risk the credibility already on the line. For this student movement, the legacy of the September 11, 1973 is the inequality of the present. For Chile, this student movement could mean an authentic rupture with the past for a better future.

Here two student leaders, past and present, think about the anniversary of the military coup, and what it means for them 40 years on.

Andres Fielbaum, President of the Federation of students of the University of Chile (FECH), one of the most prominent and formidable groups in the Chilean student movements.

40 years have passed since the military coup. What does that date mean for you given that you didn't experience it at the time?

This 40-year anniversary has a symbolic weight - we are reminded of the terror, the violence, the torture the death, the disappearances. But for me personally, there is an additional symbolism that has to do with the fact that the Pinochet dictatorship set up a system in which our rights were turned into commodities. It's not a coincidence that one of the most popular chants at student protests today is "It's going to fall, it's going to fall, Pinochet's education reform is going to fall.'

What happened in Chile is that the political parties that came to power during the transition failed in their role of representing their electorate. They implemented policies of consensus that were political pacts between different parties but which ignored the most pressing issues that Chilean society was facing at the time. Additionally, these parties retained the basic structures of the Pinochet regime, especially in terms of education. The government told families that they were going to face huge debts, but that their problems would be resolved because their kids would go to university. And then we realized that universities was just big businesses and that people were getting degrees that were of no value whatsoever.

The culture of protest during the dictatorship was a fight for democracy. Today there is democracy in Chile. But you are out on the streets - what are you protesting?

Today you can't talk about education in Chile without having the student movement at the negotiating table. The student movement has become the most legitimate actor in the attempt to restructure the education system in Chile because we have been the only body that has managed to understand the education system as a business and has left students extremely in debt. Not just that: the student movement has managed to demystify certain concepts that people were failing to question: the idea that profit is the endgame, the idea that education is something we need to pay for. We have broken those myths and made people realize that education is a fundamental right and that Chile can be a better country.

Another thing, I don't think it's a coincidence that the younger generations have been central actors in social movements in Chile - precisely because we didn't experience the trauma and fear of the dictatorship. At the same time, many of those who were involved during the '80s are now back on the streets with us. It's no coincidence that after the mass protests of 2011, there has been a rise in movements around the country revindicating other issues such as the environment, health etc.

During the dictatorship, the opposition was confronted by state violence and repression. What challenges are you facing today?

The difference between political activism today and during the dictatorship is that today we don't have the same kind of repression. Our lives are not at stake. We can appear in public scenarios to mobilize people, not in clandestine places like they did then. On a technological level, the difference today is that we have social media. The press still has a central role - and a very biased one at that - but central because most of the Chilean population don't have Facebook or Twitter. But those tools are useful for us because we can bypass the editorial lines of the mainstream media in order to share ideas with our fellow activists.

What political activists inspired you during the dictatorship? What have you learnt from them?

I think I have learnt a lot from the political activists of the 80s. Firstly, in terms of their courage. They were up against a dictatorial regime which threatened you with kidnapping etc and those people I have spoken to have been witnesses to horrendous things. I think we have learnt a lot from them in terms of organizing ourselves, in terms of discipline. But we also think that we need to at what they failed to change structurally in the democratic period.

What is the resonance of Salvador Allende today?

The resonance of Salvador Allende is massive. The speech he made when he won the elections in 1970 he made it here at the FECH balcony. It's widely recognized that Allende set in motion an unprecedented process of democratization. And he did this within a democratic system because he was voted in to do it. I do think there have been changes in our political culture, but I think the basics remain the same. Today, the student movement deeply mistrusts the political elites and feel they have much more in common with political activism than political institutions. In Chile, the political institution is ultimately very conservative and also because political parties have decided to talk to each and to owners of big business.

Do you think there is parallel between your movement and all those that have emerged around the world?

There is a clear parallel with all those countries that have undergone a neoliberalisation process. A few decades ago they would have been promised a better future under this system, but after a few years of economic boom, they realized that their societies had been privatized and that inequality deepened. And so I think that there is parallel with those people protesting around the world.

Willian Rojo Libuy was president of the student's movement at the Catholic University in Valparaiso in 1986. During the Salvador Allende government, he was a political activist for the Communist Party.

Tell us about how you came to build a protest movement during the dictatorship?

At the beginning of the dictatorship student organizations were totally destroyed. It took us years to rebuild a national student movement, to convince people to unite forces and come together. I would say that one of the most important roles we played during dictatorship was campaigning to vote Pinochet out of power in the plebiscite of 1988. We campaigned a lot in the poor neighborhoods of the country where we needed to get support so that we would win the plebiscite. And we succeeded in forcing Pinochet out of the presidential palace. This is a fight that had begun at the end of the '70s with human rights movements and culminated with the plebiscite. Obviously, you could say that international geopolitics had a big hand to play here given that the U.S. no longer supported Pinochet as they had in the run up to the military coup that overthrew Allende. But this reading would undermine our efforts: it was the Chilean majority who ended imposing their vote 'No.'

You fought during the dictatorship for democracy. But did the democracy really bring what you were fighting for?

We can't deny it: the left-wing governments of the transition failed on a number of counts. The coalition government tried to placate the social movements so that, metaphorically speaking, we could have a peaceful celebration, and prevent any attempt from the military of coming back to power but I feel that they were too conservative: the constitutional reforms that were so important - ended up being far too weak and that meant that the electoral system has been terrible for the country - some say it's given the country stability. I say it has kept Chileans repressed. And when it became clear that these governments were failing in their task, social movements began to emerge. The demands the students are making are very similar to the ones we were making back then. We did our part - we got rid of Pinochet. Today, the students are continuing the struggle. During the period I was campaigning, it was far more risky because we knew that we were always going to be subject to the dictatorship's repression.

Do you think there is parallel between your movement and all those that have emerged around the world?

These social movements are not just a Chilean phenomenon, nor just a Latin American one. The system worldwide is based on the exploitation of many for the enrichment of few. Inequality slaps us around the face every day and so this is a global struggle. And I hope that students today will be able to create a more fair society - here, in the Middle East and around the world.

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