Chilean Coup 50 years on: Letters as a lifeline for exiles in the UK

Gloria Miqueles was forced to leave Chile during the 17-year coup of 1973. This is her story, in her own words.

11 September 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the civic-military coup in Chile that overthrew the democratic and popular government of President Salvador Allende.

The dark shadow of the coup continues to hang over all of us who lived that experience and the horrors of the dictatorship. Its consequences still endure today.

Life before the coup

On 4 September 1970, Salvador Allende, a socialist, was democratically elected as President of Chile. This was at the height of the Cold War, and Allende faced severe opposition as a result.

Allende with his wife from the Documentary ‘The Children of September’ (Los Niños de Setiembre) by Sergio Marras (journalist, photographer and writer)

During the thousand days that his government lasted: Copper was nationalised; agrarian reform was deepened; hundreds of thousands of homes were built; many industries and services were nationalised, and programmes were developed to improve health, education and welfare. Culture flourished for the working people.

Salvador Allende in the Documentary ‘The Children of September’ (Los Niños de Setiembre) by Sergio Marras (journalist, photographer and writer)

For the first time, the Chilean people felt involved in the transformation of their country. What was happening in Chile – as Alan Angell says – “was having a huge impact on Europe, which was revising socialism, and what Allende was offering was socialism in a constitutional way, without violence.”

This reform inevitably challenged the power of the upper classes. The Chilean hierarchical society could not tolerate the irruption of ‘the bottom’ nor could the US’s Nixon administration.

Right wing parties, working together with the CIA, spared no effort or money in assisting the civic-military coup d’état. The coup would see 17 years of repression, state terrorism, torture, deaths and detainees who are still missing.

The Coup, Me, and the long Exile

I am among those that count themselves lucky to have lived the experience of the ‘Thousand Days’ of Allende’s government. Those were a thousand of hard, intense, happy, and hopeful days, although not exempt of problems and shortcomings. We were part of the Popular Government revolutionary process!

We were young and rebellious, brought together in the heat of volunteer work with other young people and industrial and agricultural workers. ‘Together we were protagonists of the thousand most beautiful and intense days in the history of Chile.’ (Luis Sepulveda, writer).

On 11 September 1973, however, ‘All the horror fell on us…’. Whatever the view of history 50 years on by those who still justify the coup, nothing, absolutely nothing, justified the brutality that followed.

In my case, it took three years for the terror of the dictatorship to catch up with me. This is because in Talca, where I was living and attending University, the Army Colonel Efrain Jaña-Jirón did not implement the military order to repress and assassinate supporters of President Allende. He was removed from his role, accused of ‘disobedience’, and imprisoned.

In 1976 I was detained by the DINA – national Intelligence Directorate- referred to as “Pinochet’s Gestapo”- in a university women’s residence-hall in Talca. First, I was taken to a clandestine centre of torture. What happened there, as Dr Sheila Cassidy (English doctor, arrested in November 1975 for treating a left-wing activist suffering from a gunshot wound) said “…is so incredible and so appalling that it is difficult for people without knowledge of interrogations methods…to believe’. The experience at the hand of the DINA defies description.

Drawing by Dr Sheila Cassidy, 3 Alamos (1976)

After some time I was taken to ‘4 Alamos (four poplars)’, a place of solitary confinement in Santiago. The main purpose of the confinement was to allow prisoners to recover from the tortures inflicted. I was lucky to have survived the previous torture and confinement centres.

I was then moved to ‘3 Alamos’, a concentration camp where for the first time the dictatorship recognised you have been detained as a political prisoner. The concentration camp was closed in 1976 under pressure by US President Jimmy Carter’s government, only after Pinochet (the leader of the military dictatorship that now ruled Chile) ordered the assassination of exiled diplomat Orlando Letelier in New York.

The 'Barraca' in 3&4 Alamos where the detained women were. Drawing by Pardo, A. (1975), 3 Alamos.

Later, in 1976, after five months of imprisonment, I attempted to go back to university to finish my degree. I was told that due to long term absence, without notice, my registration had been cancelled.  It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious and ludicrous, considering that the Head of the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics and the military designated Dean were part of the of the dictatorship that detained me.

Left without a safe place to live, I was advised to take up a scholarship provided by the World University Service to come to study in England.  This is how I ended up as an exile in the UK.

Somewhere in Cornwall early 1978, wearing a blouse I embroidered in 3 Alamos (Photo author private collection)
Exeter Cathedral – March 1978. (Photo author private collection)

Letters to and from the End of the World

Staying connected with loved ones back in Chile once in the UK was not easy. In 1977, when I first came to London, the only means available to me to communicate with my family was by post.

Letters definitely brought us closer. The distance the dictatorship put between our loved ones in Chile and us, in this cold, uncertain and distant place felt somehow lessened.

I always felt a degree of reluctance when it came to opening letters. It was not unusual for me to procrastinate, telling myself, ‘I’ll read it later’; it took courage to face the news. The letters, parcels, postcards – to and from Chile – transmitted the senders’ feelings, fears, doubts, nostalgia, the constant uncertainty in daily life. We missed them and they missed us. They were happy to hear of our successes, even if minor: if we were studying, if we were working. Sometimes the letters of exile were the bearers of sad news, departures, conflicts, financial needs.

Above all, those letters from afar transmitted all the love of the person sending them. It was the extra oxygen we needed to continue fighting and living.  Even now, when re-reading my mum’s letters, I can hear the way my mother spoke, the emphasis in her voice, the lowering of her voice as if not wanting people to hear what she was telling me. I still feel her now.

At the beginning of our exile, we did not have cameras, so we had to develop the ability of writing in great detail to record a true picture of what going on with us. I think that our letters often included some lies, ‘white lies’ though, to soften the truth when reality was too hard, too sad.

I learned that long-distance and a lack of communication kills family relationships. To keep family and friend bonds strong requires creative thinking and planning. Skills that I lack.

And although in exile you felt safe, it was not home! We kept our suitcases ready to go back for many years, never thinking the dictatorship would last 17 years or that we would end up staying.

Letters during the long years of exile, when social media as we know it today did not exist, were truly a lifeline for Chileans.  The letters we exchanged and kept are the safe keepers of our memories of exile an ocean apart.

Letters and objects sent to and from Chile throughout the Coup, written by Gloria and other survivors, can be seen in a special display at The Postal Museum. The display is included with your ticket to the museum.