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The Death of Chile

It will take years to assess all the changes that President Allende was able to make before he died, midway through his six-year term. That he had done much for Chile is beyond question. His predecessor, Eduardo Frei, only began substantial reforms after the first half of his presidency. What will now happen to these changes is still an open question. It is likely that in the repression which we are now witnessing they may be washed away.

Before I describe the benefits and some of the costs of the Allende years, I must discuss the nature and policies of the ruling military junta and the golpe that it staged on the eleventh of September. We had heard that Chile’s armed forces were institutionally loyal; that they had accepted their place in the life of the nation and were vigorous supporters of civilian supremacy and the rule of the constitution. This was certainly true since the civil war of 1891 in which the president, José Manuel Balmaceda, was overthrown. That struggle, in which segments of the armed forces were pitted against each other, cost the nation 10,000 lives out of what was then a population of under two million. The landed aristocracy and the nitrate barons were temporarily successful against an apostle of middle-class reforms, but their victory was short-lived since the middle class was able to win representation in national life through electoral means. During the following decades (and then only in the depression years following World War I) the military rarely acted. When it did, it did so with self-restraint. Now the violence, the systematic terror, and the well-planned barbarism of the military have astonished students of Chilean history and sociology and made obsolete the data and assumptions with which they were working.

The full force of the repression is hard to appreciate because statistics are concealed as military secrets and few foreign reporters are able to reconstruct them. It is only clear that the killings, beatings, and arrests go on as if Chile needs a new atrocity every day to remind it that it is now under the jackboot. We hear mainly of dramatic examples: Victor Jara, the Pete Seeger of Chile, was coolly killed in the National Stadium because his protest songs angered the military mind. The universities, once among Latin America’s greatest, have been taken over by the military, their principle of autonomy now a joke, their dissident faculties and students pruned according to master lists compiled by a variety of vengeance squads. The social sciences are proscribed as morally poisonous and will be replaced by such “safe” disciplines as science and technology.

For the moment the nation is entirely in the hands of the military. People are summarily dismissed from jobs because of their alleged political beliefs. Peremptory searches of neighborhoods are made at will and their inhabitants are marched off to secret destinations. Those radio and television stations and newspapers that are permitted to operate do so under the threat of censorship; dissident books, journals, and magazines are burned or destroyed; the intellectual life of Chile is in hiding. Rather than a coup, what we have here is a putsch—the junta did not want merely to take over the government but to impose by terror a new system based on physical and psychological fear.

But its problems are just beginning. Obviously admiring of their military colleagues who rule in Brazilia, the junta officers must avoid too close a relation with them if they are not to offend the other Pacific Coast countries that are members of the Andean Pact. If Chile aligns itself with Brazil it will find itself estranged from the Hispanic nations, led by its traditional enemy Argentina, who fear the growing power of Brazil. Furthermore, the generals can take little comfort from recent Argentine history. For while disposing of civilian rule has been easy for the Argentine generals, they have never been able to govern in its stead. Throughout last year Argentine trade unions were in turmoil in Córdoba. and in Chile similar trouble could well take place in an industrial city such as Concepción. Last year the Argentine military caused grave shock and resentment when it massacred political prisoners in the town of Trelew; the Chilean junta has been acting with equal ferocity each day of its short period in office. By outlawing the Peronist movement, Argentine officers only caused it to reappear in other forms.

Argentina was ungovernable after its military overthrew the constitutional government in 1968. How long can Chile’s armed forces remain in power? And if the military dictators in Buenos Aires had to deliver power to Perón because of their own political ineptness, to whom could the Chilean generals turn over their power when their situation becomes equally desperate, as it may well do? None of the likely possibilities can offer them much comfort. Two of the potential leaders are now out of the country and a third is about to leave. The first is Carlos Prats, the former commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, who loyally served Allende as he would have served any other constitutional president. When he resigned simultaneously from the armed forces and from the president’s cabinet in August he was trying to preserve the government and placate his colleagues. Respected by all and feared by many of them for his philosophy of military obedience to civilian authority, he was, in a rare act of kindness, spared by the military when he was in its hands. Now in Argentina, he may some day, in a symbolic if not literal sense—like O’Higgins a century and a half ago—cross the Andes to liberate his nation.

Another choice is Gabriel Valdés, now in New York as the director for Latin America of the United Nations Development Program. Although he has persistently disclaimed any political ambitions, he has many admirers among the left wing of his party. A Christian Democrat with fierce loyalties to democratic principles and the rule of law, he is respected throughout South America for his advocacy of regional autonomy and national self-development. When he was foreign minister under Frei he insisted at the Viña del Mar conference in 1969 that Latin America declare economic independence from the US; and he continuously nettled Edward Korry, then the US ambassador, because he resisted Korry’s meddling in Chilean affairs. (Korry has now resurfaced in New York, amazingly enough, as the president of the United Nations Association. His part in helping to create the conditions for Allende’s downfall should be one of the main tasks of the research that is now commencing on the Allende years.)

A third candidate for restoring traditional democratic rule in Chile is Radomiro Tomić, the Christian Democratic Party’s (PDC) candidate in 1970. An outspoken man who espouses both socialist economics and Christian humanism, he is loathed by many of the middle class who feel that he helped to soften the electorate for Allende’s victory when he ran on a platform similar to Allende’s including nationalization of the major industries and confiscation of the copper mines. But he is also widely admired as a man of probity and intellectual consistency. There is little doubt that he is now in personal danger, and efforts are being made to secure a university post for him in the US (he is one of Chile’s leading social scientists and best-known university professors).

But the military junta is not likely to transfer its new authority to anyone. If it intends to stay in power, where is its support?

The generals no longer lead a national army as they did just a few weeks ago, but have now become the force of the oligarquía, the coalition of big business and big landowners that opposed not only Allende but the reforms of Frei as well. I suspect that at least 40 percent of the population despises them, a proportion that will grow as members of the middle class and the professions come more and more to resent the new arrogance of the military and the policies that it is bound to pursue. What will the military junta do? It cannot return to its barracks after handing back the government to the regular political parties and parliament. It has nothing but scorn for them. And then there is all the blood that has been spilled, the executions by firing squads, and the torture that have taken place. After such terror the junta cannot summon normality as it would a class to school. But can the junta continue to rule, supported only by discipline and weapons?

It is now clear that the right wing of the Christian Democrats, led by Frei, thought a military solution was the only one feasible. They refused to work out compromises with Allende that would have kept the political system intact. But they were thinking of the 1920s when the military acted more gently and cleared the way for a resumption of normal political life. They seem to have forgotten the army’s motto, “By reason or by force.” At the beginning of the summer. General Pinochet, the leader of the junta, had proclaimed that if the military “came out” it would “kill.” One cannot blame the middle class for misjudging its army; practically all Chilean experts did so too. What one can condemn them for is seeking a military solution in the first place. Why did they turn to the military? Was it because the military had guns and seemed to be apolitical? Why should Frei and his followers in the PDC have expected the military to be a more patriotic custodian of the national traditions than they were themselves?

The military has taken an irrevocable step. They came out and they “killed.” In a recent story on the “Slaughterhouse in Santiago,” Newsweek‘s Chilean correspondent estimated that between two and three thousand people had been killed or wounded in Santiago alone. My colleagues and I, using information secretly coming out of Santiago, estimate that from seven thousand to ten thousand people may have been killed throughout Chile, a figure that takes into account reports of the repression that has been going on in the villages of the south.

Most of the urban casualties were in the neighborhoods of the poor and were under-reported. Foreign newsmen could not get to see these poblaciónes and they were therefore temporarily invisible. But in fact the rotos, the broken ones, had, during Allende’s regime, lost the habit of accepting invisibility. Having tasted the real power that their government gave them, they can’t be expected to return to their former degradation. They too can kill. At the very least they can produce a Northern Ireland. They can bomb, they can kidnap, and they can assassinate. No military force is large enough to prevent this.

But the politics of counterviolence is not all that the military faces. It is unreasonable to expect that an important faction of the PDC—associates of Tomić and Valdés—will play the trained creatures of a military master. They are political men whose reformist party stood for due process and a democratic life. According to those who have been in touch with them, they, and many other members of the middle class, are appalled by the cruelty of the junta and its bold advocacy of a centurion corporate state. Already, in a statement unreported in the US or Chile, but printed in the European and Latin American press, Bernardo Leighton and Renan Fuentealba, joined by other left-wing PDC congressmen, attacked their own party for supporting the junta. This group will doubtless grow as the numbness wears off and they learn to live with, and master, fear. Even the editor of a right-wing newspaper recently declared that there was more press freedom under Allende than now exists. The military’s fate will partly depend on the degree of terror that it is prepared to maintain. It may gain time by resorting to a policy of meticulous extermination of all opposition. But its fate will always be perilous.

In assessing the Allende years, one must recognize what he restrained his government from doing, as well as acknowledge the misdirection of some of his economic and social policies. Allende preserved the integrity of political institutions although he was thwarted by a highly political court and legislature, and in turn tried to outflank their power. There was far less intentional police brutality under Allende than existed under the previous Christian Democratic regime. There were hardly any cases of imprisonment on political grounds. The universities were entirely free although some faculties became heavily politicized. The radio and press, wretched as they were, were free to give their often hysterical versions of events from all political points of view. Political life was almost entirely free of secret police surveillance. Under Allende, politics were difficult, frustrating, sectarian, but most of all they were dangerous. It was this last element that pronounced the final sentence on the president, the constitution, and the self-regulating apparatus of political life.

Why dangerous? Because Allende attempted to use politics to bring social justice to a nation that was lacking in it. Faced with a smug middle class that cared as little for its poor as we do for ours, Allende attempted to undo a system in which 5 percent of the families controlled some 35 percent of the agricultural land, in which the banks worked only for the established rich and industries underproduced products that were overpriced. He attempted, and with significant success, to bring health, housing, a better diet, and education to the poor, and a sense of dignity and of national participation to those for whom Chile’s constitutional system had previously been unreal and fraudulent.

Now the military junta acts as if the old script can be replayed. The new regime’s economic commissar, Raúl Saez, has recently been touted by the Wall Street Journal correspondent, Everett Martin, as a no-nonsense man who will bring Chile’s economy back to normalcy. What Martin doesn’t mention is that Saez, the son of a general who himself attempted a coup against President Ibañez, was artfully dismissed by Frei from his position of minister of the treasury after only twenty days because of his harsh and inhumane policies. When the junta’s new foreign minister recently arrived in New York he was accompanied by Ricardo Claro, one of the leading members of the old group of unregenerate capitalists who were called las pirañas during the Frei regime. Claro had left Chile when Allende came to power. Now he and the rest of the ancien régime are back in business. Their first customers—and they are good prospects—are Nixon and Kissinger and their corporate allies. Already the US business community, as represented by the Council of the Americas, which has been mute about the suppression of human rights in Chile, has been told of the investment opportunities in the “new” Chile at a New York meeting addressed by the foreign minister.

A Brazilian exile, an expert on his own country’s military dictatorship, stated in early October that since 1964, when the legal government of Brazil was overthrown, perhaps 1,000 dissenters lost their lives. In Chile, that figure was easily reached in a day. This was not a typical Latin American coup. It cannot be compared to what took place in Argentina in 1968 or Brazil in 1964. It was more in the Iraqi or Indonesian style. It was a ruthless move that destroyed national institutions in a far more sweeping manner than has ever before been attempted in the modern history of Latin America.

It will be interesting to hear the comments of those who insisted that Allende didn’t have a sufficient popular mandate to bring about the changes which he attempted. For the military, without any mandate whatsoever, has accomplished changes more severe than any ever dared by Allende and has wiped out any pretense at pluralism in the Chilean social system. The Church and the military class, for example, were upset by Allende’s plans to unify the educational system, cutting back the role of private schools, and introducing themes of national reform and the value of manual labor into the curriculum. Although the American press barely reported them, these plans heavily contributed to the concentration of military and middle-class opposition against Allende. In fact his proposals grew out of discussions on education that have been going on for decades in Chile; they were never carried out and were undergoing modification when he fell. Now Chile has school “reforms” far more drastic than anything the Allende government ever contemplated.

The US bears major responsibility for what happened in Chile. Its systematic policy of economic strangulation created a momentum which led to the death of constitutional democracy. This policy reflected the demands of the American corporations that had been nationalized or controlled in Chile. It was conceived in 1971 by John Connally when he was Secretary of the Treasury, was carried out by his assistant, John Hennessy (a man with solid Wall Street connections), and openly stated by President Nixon in January, 1972. The Chilean economy, we now might say, was sentenced to hang from its neck and turn slowly in the wind. The Nixon government exerted pressure to block Chile’s customary sources of private financing and, by using the threat of a US veto, it stopped Allende from getting important loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Chile has classically needed foreign exchange to buy the food and other consumer goods that it has not been able to produce for itself. Cut off from the funds on which it had counted, the Allende government was unable to supply the nation’s middle class with the luxuries and essentials to which it was accustomed.

High inflation and economic shortages were not inaugurated by Allende’s regime. Inflation has been characteristic of Chile’s economy in this century and it soared during the last years of the Frei government. Although it is true that Allende’s attempts at nationalization and land and income redistribution were often disorganized and inefficient, it is also true that the shortages that were so irritating to middle-class Chileans would have been much less severe if Allende had not been prevented by the US from getting foreign loans and hard currency. Deprived and then embittered, the middle-class opposition parties repeatedly pressed the military to do its duty and come out of the barracks.

Even if we grant that grievous mistakes were made in social and economic policy, to justify destroying a constitutional government because of such errors would be unthinkable in any Western democracy. Yet this is precisely what the Wall Street Journal and Graham Hovey in his editorials in The New York Times have been doing, as they construct a mythology designed to show that Allende was responsible for his own fall, however lamentable the result. We may soon expect to hear roughly the same language from Secretary of State Kissinger, one of the principal architects of the “get Chile” policy.

This should not surprise us. Under the Nixon administration there are fewer democratic regimes in Latin America than there have been for decades. Aside from the Washington Post and Senators Kennedy and Church, and a few others, hardly anyone in Washington, Democrat or Republican, seems to care when democratic social reform is subverted and when the aims of a handful of US corporations are transmuted into US foreign policy. By placing private interests above the survival of democratic institutions in Chile, our government has directly contributed to the death of another free government in the Hemisphere.

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