The Other September 11

The Other September 11

I met Volodia Teitelboin today, and he told me General Prats had resigned. He was replaced by the chief-of-staff.

General Pinochet?

That’s right. Volodia thinks the change will strengthen the government and ward off the threat of a coup. He claims Pinochet is a legalist and that, though Prats is good, he has clearly fallen out of favor.

The topic of this conversation was the situation in Chile, and the information was transmitted by Luiz Carlos Prestes, secretary general of the Brazilian Communist Party, on August 24, 1973. I was visiting the Soviet Union, and I met him at his stark apartment in Moscow, where he lived in exile. Volodia was a senator and a leader of the Chilean Communist Party.

General Carlos Prats was the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army. I had already had the opportunity to meet him personally. He was an educated, conservative soldier who held democratic convictions and was solidly opposed to military intervention in the political sphere. General Augusto Pinochet was then the second highest-ranking army officer. A confidant of Prats, he had held the post of acting army commander on several occasions and had demonstrated a “legalist” approach to the turmoil that marked the Chilean political process.

Despite the soothing comments, I was convinced that a coup was only a matter of days away. Prats had resigned after a group of generals’ wives had taken to the streets to protest against him. Instead of punishing the generals involved, he opted to resign. Another three generals in high-level positions decided to follow Prats’s example. A pillar of Chilean legality had retired from the stage.

I decided to interrupt my trip to the Soviet Union and return to Chile, where I had lived in exile for more than eight years. My guess was that the coup would take place before September 18, Chile’s National Day, when the military would be called upon to parade and salute President Salvador Allende. It seemed quite clear that such a demonstration of deference would not take place.

A few days after I arrived in Santiago and began to prepare my departure from Chile with my wife, Monica, and our two children, Monica woke me earlier than usual with the words They have surrounded and are shooting at La Moneda! In my entire life, I do not recall waking up as suddenly and lucidly-with my heart pounding-as on that fateful September 11, 1973.

The rumors broadcast on Santiago radio stations were confused but to the point: the coup had begun. Despite my conviction that it was inevitable, I was appalled. In 1964, I had gone through a somewhat similar experience in Brazil. It seemed almost incredible that what had been predicted was actually coming about and in as definitive a manner as possible.

I left the house, though I am not sure where I intended to go. Automobile and pedestrian traffic was congested and the tension in the air was palp...