My Secret Police Files

Ariel Dorfman

The author’s mug shot, Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 1973

I have often wished that I could access at least one of the many police files that have undoubtedly been compiled about me since September 11, 1973, the day a military junta toppled Salvador Allende’s democratic government in Chile and started hounding those of us who had been his peaceful followers. What did they really know about my activism, the men who could decide whether I lived or died? Last year my wish came true. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the coup, the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria—an organization that investigates and memorializes human rights violations in Argentina—combed secret police files for information about the refugees saved by the Argentine embassy in Chile after the coup. On a recent trip to Santiago, a city I have visited frequently since democracy was restored in 1990, I was able to read an extensive dossier collected by a secret security agency, allowing me to revisit—from the perspective of the censor, the spy, the stalker—a period of my life when I constantly felt at risk.

I went into hiding almost immediately after the coup. But how much danger was I in? I didn’t know whether the new authorities were aware that I had been working for the previous few months as a cultural and press adviser in the presidential palace where Allende had just perished, or that I belonged to a clandestine left-wing party that was advocating the overthrow of the dictatorship. Nor did I know whether they were considering prosecuting me for the insolent book I wrote with Armand Mattelart on Disney’s hidden messages, How to Read Donald Duck (1971), which soldiers had burned in public and the Navy had chucked into the sea. Whether I could remain in Chile or would need to go into exile, I thought, depended on what was in my files.

My party had no such doubts. Its leaders assumed not only that I was a target but also that, given my international cultural contacts, I could better serve the resistance outside Chile. A few weeks after the coup I reluctantly sought asylum in the Argentine embassy in Santiago, joining a thousand other fugitives. We were safe there, packed together in a building that only a short while ago had hosted cocktail parties and champagne receptions. But the Chilean secret service declined to give me safe-conduct to leave the country, claiming that they had some questions for me. I had been right to seek shelter.  

That interrogation never happened. Pressured by the Argentine government, the Chileans finally relented and let me depart. In December I arrived in Buenos Aires, the city where I was born thirty-one years earlier. Through the glass doors at the airport I could see my wife and son, who, with my Argentine parents, had traveled ahead of me. Next to them was an array of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But instead of embracing them, I was carted off to police headquarters, where the authorities had their own questions for me. The grilling, which lasted several hours, was nothing like what would have happened in a Chilean dungeon: after taking a full-body mug shot, three plainclothesmen pressed me to confess what rebellious deeds I had done in Chile that made me fear for my life. I cast myself as a wayward, peace-loving man with vague socialist leanings who had absconded for fear of brutality in the coup’s aftermath. They released me with an admonition: “Better behave yourself here, sonny. We’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

I had no idea whether they were feigning ignorance. Argentina was then itself going through a complicated transition to democracy, which was under threat from a right-wing cabal. My writer friends in Buenos Aires assumed that there was no danger, just as we had thought that a coup was impossible in Chile, but I noted troubling signs: increased repression of dissidence; a renewed call from left-wing groups for armed resistance, which would be met with all the fury of the state; death threats from fascist gangs; a middle class willing to tolerate the suppression of revolutionaries in exchange for security. I left with my family for Cuba at the end of February 1974, having finally secured my passport after long delays.

Two days later a group of thugs broke into my grandmother’s apartment in order to arrest me. They claimed to be from the police; perhaps they were in fact members of the death squads that were already roaming the streets, abducting civilians, and turning them into desaparecidos. Why had they chosen me? Why did they prioritize my arrest when so many other troublemakers were floating around the Argentine capital, some of them devoted, as I was not, to violence? I never got to find out, until I saw that dossier in Santiago.



In my recent novel The Suicide Museum, I hypothesized that the Chilean police had infiltrated the Argentine embassy and sent the information they uncovered to their sister services. When I approached my fifty-nine-page file, I half-expected to find evidence that I had imagined it right. What confronted me was more mundane: the photo taken the day of my arrival in Buenos Aires. There I was, forlornly holding a number (154), feigning innocence, eyes wide and inexpressive, lips sealed tight, in a somewhat seedy-looking suit and shoes.

Accompanying the photo is a summary of what the police had culled from my statements, none of which could have truly alarmed them. I had presented myself as absolutely innocuous, not so much as alluding to the insurrectionary Donald Duck book. But though my diatribe against Disney is absent from that 1973 summation, it appears in a wide-ranging report written three years later by an anonymous member of the Literary Assessment Office of the police department’s Coordination of Criminal Records, who comprehensively reproduced its central theses in 1,500 words.

Because the book was not just an academic exercise and could appeal to a mass readership, the Literary Assessor concluded, it should be forbidden in accordance with Law 20.840, a piece of legislation, approved in September 1974, that penalized acts of subversion. Like any author whose work has been suppressed, all these decades I had pictured my censors as barely literate monsters who missed the whole point of my texts. But this reader had understood the book all too well. Indeed, he had been scrupulously fair. He was aware of Piaget, Freud, and Marx. His prose is precise, subtle, even elegant, if a bit contrived—a worthy adversary. “What is interesting for the author,” he wrote, “is not that Donald Duck symbolizes the conception of American life, but that the central proposal goes farther: that Donald Duck promotes underdevelopment and turns the heartbreaking everyday cleavages of men in the Third World into an object of permanent enjoyment in the utopian realm of bourgeois freedom.”

But all this analysis and injunction had only been generated in 1976, after I had left Argentina. Why had they come for me two years earlier? Elsewhere in the dossier I found a possible answer. More than 70 percent of the information in the file refers to the FAS (Anti-imperialist Front for Socialism), an Argentine revolutionary collective of which I had never heard. Newspaper clippings and reports, mostly from October and November 1973, describe its members, meetings, and public exhortations. The Department of Búsquedas (searches), I learned, had ordered teams all over the country to follow any leads about the group.

I can only guess how I came to be coupled with the FAS, but its overwhelming presence in my dossier might clarify why those armed men visited my grandmother’s apartment. A week before I left the embassy in Santiago, Argentine police intelligence sent a note to the Chilean police requesting antecedentes (previous information) about Ariel Dorfman, “currently detained in Chile.” What happened next, I imagine, is that months later some mediocre investigator in the Department of Búsquedas, working his weary fingers through innumerable other such requests, ultimately took up my case and, despite finding no pertinent data, resolved to dispatch something, anything: there was always a chance, after all, that I might commit some violent act and that the bureaucrat would be blamed for not having indicted me. It is likely, then, that like so many other anonymous men—from those who carried out the Spanish Inquisition to McCarthyite minions and members of Stalin’s NKVD—he invented a transgression, a piece of fake news linking me to the clippings and reports about the FAS that happened to be on his desk that morning.

That file, now absurdly correlated to my name, presumably wended its way into the hands of some opaque supervisor who yawned and then determined that this Dorfman should be brought in for questioning: Why not? It is easy to picture what would have followed had they apprehended me: I deny, of course, all knowledge of the revolutionary group with which I have been associated; my tormentors do not believe me; and I probably, at some point, break down and confess my guilt, of that and any other accusation, proving that the man who had signaled me out had been right all along and that I should be dealt with accordingly.

Thanks to sheer luck, that was not my fate. Fifty years later, however, I am all too aware that countless innocent victims of history have not been and will not be so fortunate.

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