Protesters march with signs
Demonstrators protest the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende at the John C. Kluczynksi Federal Building. Allende died by suicide after a military coup supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency put pressure on Allende's position. Credit: ST-19033055-0012, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Hortensia Bussi held back tears as she addressed a crowd of more than 2,000 people gathered at DePaul University on a December afternoon in 1973.

She was in Chicago because, on September 11, 1973, with spring in the air and Chile’s national holiday on the horizon, military aircraft launched from the port city of Valparaíso for the capital, Santiago. They attacked the presidential palace and, at some point during the fighting, Chilean president Salvador Allende—Bussi’s husband—died.

With the first winds of a Chicago winter whistling through Lincoln Park, Bussi charged that the U.S. government directly supported the coup d’état that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government and installed a military junta. 

This September marks 50 years since Augusto Pinochet took over Chile, kicking off nearly two decades of authoritarian rule. And while the U.S. is inextricably linked to that government, Chicago also has a deep connection to the coup and its aftermath. For neither the first nor the last time, the city became a sanctuary for people seeking a life away from the forces bent on their domination and subjugation at home. But while some activists opened the doors of the Second City to exiled Chileans, others plotted policies to fortify the regime. 

That’s why Bussi found herself in DePaul’s half-full Alumni Hall, pausing to let her tears subside. When she regained her composure, she explained how U.S. policymakers had conspired against her husband, cutting all financial ties to the Chilean government—while maintaining substantial military support. 

For Washington, Allende’s Chile was always a problem. Chileans had done something unacceptable to U.S. Cold War foreign policy: they freely elected a socialist government from within the empire’s sphere of influence. 

After Allende won a plurality in the 1970 presidential election, U.S. president Richard Nixon ordered his advisers to “make [Chile’s] economy scream.” He also directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to pursue a two-track plan to stop the election from being recognized by the legislature or, failing that, to encourage the Chilean military to interfere. There could be no sense in Latin America that it was “safe” to vote this way, Nixon said. 

Though the Nixon administration failed to prevent Allende from ascending to power, after three years of economic sanctions, they got their coup. 

The day before her speech at DePaul, Bussi stood with the family of Frank Teruggi Jr. at his burial site in Des Plaines. As reporters squeezed in to get a picture of the mourners, Bussi bent down and placed a pine branch on the grave. 

Allende’s election attracted thousands of like-minded socialists to Chile. Terrugi, a Spanish-speaking leftist who graduated from Catholic school in Niles, was among them.

Teruggi grew up in the suburbs and became politically active while attending college in California. There, he founded a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He was in a range of leftist organizations from 1967 to 1973, and was among protestors at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1971, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent spotted him at a meeting of anti-war Vietnam War veterans in Denver, which earned him a file under the FBI’s counterintelligence program. He affiliated with the North American Congress on Latin America, a leftist nonprofit known for its opposition to U.S. imperialism, and joined similar Chicago-based groups.

Just before he left for Chile, a Chicago Tribune reporter writing a man-on-the-street piece about the Loop noticed Teruggi hawking copies of the Chicago Seeda short-lived, radical underground newspaper—behind blue-tinted sunglasses. By the time the article ran in early 1972, Teruggi already landed a new job in Santiago working for an outlet called the North American Investigatory Source. The organization translated English media for Spanish-speaking Chileans while relaying information back to the U.S. about the situation in Chile.

Demonstrators march in downtown Chicago.
A 1987 anti-dictatorship demonstration in the Loop.  Credit: Courtesy of the Ahuile family.

The economic conditions worsened as Allende’s Popular Unity government strained toward a third straight year of turmoil induced by American sanctions. In 1970, Chilean military officials were unwilling to give in to urges from the CIA to interfere with electoral processes. But after the Allende government maintained its support in a 1973 election, patience with democracy finally ran out among military leadership and business owners. Women marched through the streets protesting food shortages, banging together lids, pots, and pans. As planes bombarded La Moneda Palace on September 11, police and soldiers began to sweep up those it identified as enemies of the state.

A week after the coup, Terrugi and his roommate were arrested at their apartment in the Ñuñoa neighborhood of Santiago. A U.S. military advisory group in Latin America had funneled to the junta their address and Teruggi’s intelligence file, detailing his organizational ties.

Witnesses say he was imprisoned inside the national stadium, a de facto prison for the new regime’s political opponents. Teruggi’s captors led him away from other prisoners soon after his arrival. Military police tortured him, murdered him with a short burst from a machine gun, and dropped his body in the street. 

Chicagoans gathered in the Loop to demand a full investigation. By the end of October, they had formed the Chicago Committee to Save Lives in Chile, a coalition of religious, academic, and political organizations that joined forces after the coup. The group sponsored the Hortensia Bussi rally in December.

Doris Strieter, a Maywood village trustee, Lutheran activist, and one of the committee’s founders, was in the crowd at DePaul that day. The Lutherans were active nationwide in settling Chilean political dissidents. Bishop Helmut Frenz, head of Chile’s Lutheran church, organized within the country to help the military’s political enemies find a way to safety.

Strieter and her husband, a Lutheran reverend, helped settle some of the 400 families Frenz managed to extricate from Chile. By early 1974, tens of thousands of people had been arrested and detained as political enemies of the state. Some were never heard from again. 

Yamil Ahuile was a few months into his first sentence in a Chilean prison when Bussi gave her address on Chicago’s north side. He would serve more than two years before Frenz struck a deal with the U.S. State Department resulting in his release. A father of two, Ahuile was not reunited with his wife and children until January 26, 1976, when the family boarded a plane that took them to exile. They moved into an apartment at a Lutheran theological school in Glendale Heights.

A family poses outside
The Ahuile family reunited at the airport in Chile on January 26, 1976. Credit: Courtesy of the Ahuile family

In 1973, military police arrested Ahuile at his home in the small southern town of Angol. For weeks interrogators beat him and performed mock executions. He endured the regime’s signature torture—electric shocks administered on a metal bed frame—and guards threatened to do the same to his wife. 

Ahuile was the general manager of the region’s electric company. Chile is not a large country, but parts of it are remote and sparsely populated. Slightly more than 10 million people lived there in 1973. Where the Ahuiles lived in near-southern Chile, many towns had yet to be electrified. 

Ahuile’s son, also Yamil, recalls attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies in surrounding villages where he heard his father give fiery political speeches about the conditions in the country. He was a charismatic speaker, a talented organizer, and the leader of the local socialist party.

“He knew a lot of people because they would have political meetings,” the younger Yamil tells the Reader, nearly five decades after the family escaped to Chicago. “He was bringing energy to a lot of communities. He was almost like the mayor of the town.” 

After the coup, Ahuile knew that, because of his high profile, he had to go into hiding or risk being rounded up. As word reached him that friends and political allies were being arrested, he decided to turn himself in. His daughter, Leylha Ahuile, was old enough to remember that day. 

“After the coup the military came into our home, turned on the fireplace in the living room, and went into the library across the hall and started grabbing books, vinyl records, and anything they found was thrown into the fire,” Leylha Ahuile says. “I remember seeing my mother’s beautiful cookbooks, our collections of children’s books, and the records that my parents loved to listen to.” She remembers the smell of the fire as it consumed her family’s belongings. “That same smell came through the windows of my Manhattan apartment on September 11, 2001.”

Prisoners were not fed while interned by the regime. Family members had to bring them food, which became difficult when they transferred Ahuile away from the local jail. 

Sonia Ahuile, wife to the elder Yamil, says, “It was very sad to see him deprived of his freedom, but the pain of seeing my children deprived of their father, of their atmosphere of joy and security, it is impossible to describe.”

The Ahuiles were well-off in Chile. They had a large house with a swimming pool and employees. Sonia was a schoolteacher. But they struggled to find jobs when they arrived. The couple’s professional credentials took time to be recognized. Yamil had to take a job reading meters for ComEd. Sonia opened a day care in their small apartment. 

They were actively involved with the Chicago Committee. They volunteered to house other refugees from Haiti and Latin America, sometimes for months at a time in their new Elmhurst home. Leylha Ahuile recalls sharing a room with refugees and helping them navigate the English-language bureaucracy. “By the time I was 13, I would often miss school to accompany [refugees] as a translator to obtain a driver’s license or into the city to the immigration offices,” she says. 

Though they were initially granted the right to return by the junta in 1985, Sonia and her husband Yamil feared for their fate and did not return home to Chile permanently until 1996, after the military government finally relinquished control. They built a home by the ocean and, despite the military’s purge of any records that the Ahuiles had ever worked in the country before their exile, even managed to extract pension benefits from the state.

The elder Yamil passed away in 2006. His son stayed in Chicago until 2015, working as a media producer before returning to Chile as well. Leylha returned home at last in 2020. 

Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park sponsored Salvador and Consuela Guerra. A surveyor by trade, Guerra, like Ahuile, left prison for an airplane that took him, his wife, and three children to the U.S.

A short walk from the church down Woodlawn Avenue, the Guerra family could have paid a visit to Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economics professor who trained Augusto Pinochet’s economic experts. The junta failed for three years to reverse the course of an economy pummeled by U.S. and corporate divestment; Chile became a laboratory for Friedman’s economic theories. “The Chicago Boys,” as they came to be known, were a group of Chilean economists trained by the university. Though Friedman publicly opposed the military regime in Chile, his ideas rescued the junta from a crisis that threatened its legitimacy.

A decade earlier, while the U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies funneled resources to Allende’s political opponents, an effort was also underway to shape the economic ideology of Chilean policymakers. With the help of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, the University of Chicago created an international program with the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. 

The program failed to prevent Allende’s Marxist ideology from capturing an electoral victory. But with the lane cleared by Pinochet, it was finally possible for Friedman’s small-government economic policy to shine in Chile. (The same year the Guerras were exiled in Hyde Park, Friedman won the Nobel Prize for economics.)

A group of people stand on a stage.
A Chicago Committee to Save Lives in Chile event from the late 1970s. Pictured: Some committee leadership and Yamil Ahuile Sr. (stage left). Credit: Courtesy of the Ahuile family

While Friedman and the Chicago Boys imagined the neoliberal possibilities in Chile, John Coatsworth worked as a history professor at the university and cochaired the Chicago Committee to Save Lives in Chile. He was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the era, leading an organization called the Latin American Scholars Committee to join the Chilean solidarity movement. Coatsworth’s scholars, together with Strieter’s Chicago Peace Council and Teruggi’s Chicago Area Group for Latin America, were the committee’s three founding organizations.

The repression in Chile shook evangelical Lutherans, leftists, and academics alike. These disparate points of view found coherence in appeals to the international human rights agreements. 

Chile in 1973 was an inflection point for activists and organizations in the north Atlantic. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reached for the terminology of human rights en masse for the first time. The Chicago Committee demonstrates how these ideas and methods gained traction at the local level in response to human rights abuses abroad.

Chicago has been officially considered a sanctuary city since 1985 when Mayor Harold Washington directed all city employees to stop enforcing federal immigration policy, an acknowledgment that the U.S. is no exception to the rule that nation-states fail to uphold the basic dignity asserted in human rights agreements. 

But that process was already underway in 1973 when the Chicago Committee started planning and organizing. The city became a sanctuary to exiled Chileans, as it had for Europeans, freed people from the south, 30,000 formerly imprisoned Japanese American citizens, and so many others since the founding of the portage. 

That is not to say the experiences of migrants and refugees in Chicago are easy. Today, governors of border states bus people to the city with no plan or warning. Major intersections and thoroughfares are dotted with mothers, fathers, and children who have nothing and nowhere else to go. 

And it certainly was not easy for the Ahuiles.

“When I went to college [at] Northern Illinois University, I realized that there were so many immigrants from so many different countries living in the U.S. and that is something I fell in love with,” Leylha Ahuile says. “I also saw firsthand how Latinos born in the U.S. were discriminated [against] just like I was. That Blacks were discriminated [against] by everyone—the level of discrimination in the U.S. became so apparent. And yet what most often prevails is the kindness of most.”

Today, it remains to be seen whether kindness will prevail most in the recollections of Chicago’s refugees.

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