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Law of Life, and Light

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Soviet stamp of Salvador Allende, 1973

Soviet stamp of Salvador Allende, 1973

Story of a Death Foretold
The Coup Against Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973.
By Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.
Bloomsbury. 472 pp. $30.

On September 11, 2006, I stood outside the National Stadium in Santiago among about 250 people, old and young, tying flowers onto fence bars to honor the many Chileans who had died during the first days of the 1973 military coup. Inti-Illimani anthems I knew from the old days of Chile Solidarity groups wafted through the air: “The people! United! Will never be defeated!” Although this was apparently the first time in years that the Socialist and Communist parties had commemorated the anniversary together, it still wasn’t much of a crowd. But then a voice, rich and warm, rang out from the loudspeakers, talking about justice, courage and love. It was the voice of Salvador Allende. I’d had no idea he was such a tremendous orator. Our melancholy lifted, and for a moment it seemed as though the values Allende had died for could truly matter in public life once more.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera believes they can, and for more than a moment. Story of a Death Foretold is no revisionist critique, nor is it a biography of its central character. Rather, it treats the well-known tale of Chile’s bid for a democratic government of the left and that effort’s bloody repression as the emblem of an age-old human struggle: the “law of life, and light” against the “laws of darkness or death.” More specifically, it argues that the atavistic Catholic-fascist ideas underpinning the Pinochet dictatorship, in conjunction with the forces of US neoliberalism, produced the norms that govern the world today. A senior lecturer of international law and politics at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and a sometime aide to the Colombian Congress, Guardiola-Rivera practices an eclectic scholarship that first reached a wide audience with his hopeful 2010 book, What If Latin America Ruled the World? Here, too, the alternation of philosophy, historical narrative and idealistic troop-rallying surprises and enlightens the reader. But it’s hard to be upbeat about the Chilean tragedy, and Story of a Death Foretold feels like a wrestling match between optimism and fatalism whose outcome remains uncertain.

Allende was born in Valparaiso in 1908 to well-off, progressive parents, but he owed his political education to Juan Demarchi, an elderly Italian anarchist whose stories he imbibed as a teenager. The fact that Demarchi was a shoemaker is telling, because it introduces a basic theme that Guardiola-Rivera develops with passionate conviction: the assumption by the powerful that creative working-class intellectuals do not exist, even as they divide the world into “two sorts of people”—themselves and the rest—and justify economic inequality by pointing to the alleged infantile barbarism of the powerless. The Chilean ruling class, which has always been especially wedded to foreign interests, first British and then American, epitomizes this attitude. From the Valladolid debates in 1550 that established the Americas as primitive, hence exploitable, to Henry Kissinger’s remark to a Chilean foreign minister that history never had and never would occur in “the South,” to the furious revenge exacted by the United States, the local elite and its military junta against those who, in the early 1970s, had briefly dared to think otherwise—all these episodes enforced the absolute sense of entitlement felt by the “Owners of Chile.” But there was an interlude of doubt. The postwar era was an “Age of Anxiety” for the Chilean establishment and particularly for the United States, unsure whether the insolent desires for “another law and a different order” stirring in its backyard should be quelled with subtlety or violence. The dawning in Chile of a “revolution from below” and the growing activism of indigenous Mapuches, campesinos, slum dwellers, students and workers that shaped Allende’s trajectory from the 1930s onward are surveyed by Guardiola-Rivera in the early part of the book, alongside events in the United States and Europe.

* * *

Much marked by his experiences as a doctor among the poor, Allende was a prominent figure on the Chilean left after co-founding the Socialist Party in 1933. Allende narrowly lost the presidency, in suspect circumstances, to the right-wing Jorge Alessandri in 1958. Yet he stood up to pressure from the Popular Action Front to call a protest strike, much as he would refuse in 1973 to unleash pre-emptive violence against the imminent military coup. Allende’s commitment to democratic legalism and pluralistic inclusiveness was amazingly consistent, beginning with his 1931 expulsion from the student group Avance, in part for not sharing its Marxist contempt for a supposedly less “conscious” Lumpenproletariat. But while skeptical of the Marxist dogmas of scientific socialism, he always included the Communists in his alliances, recognizing that only a pueblo unido had any chance of challenging and changing the status quo. As he put it to the Chilean Congress in 1939, he aspired to a coalition mobilizing all of the “workers, peasants, employees and the small bourgeoisie…who have the will to build and maintain democracy, fight oligarchy, and struggle against fascism and imperialism.” Such would be the alignment with which he won the presidency in 1970, when at the last minute he replaced Pablo Neruda as the candidate for Popular Unity at the head of a coalition including leftist Christians and liberals.

If Allende was reason and moderation incarnate, he was also a revolutionary who believed in the greatness of what Luis Buñuel called los olvidados, the forgotten ones. His political platform as of 1958 envisaged agrarian reform, regulation of the financial sector, and the recovery of Chilean sovereignty through the nationalization of the copper and nitrate mines that were the main source of the country’s wealth. “In the framework of a gradual transition and transformation of the relationship between the state and the people, these constituted the principles of what in time would be known as ‘the Chilean Way to Socialism,’” Guardiola-Rivera writes.

Yet the foreign corporations and their placemen in Chile were bound to fight any threat, no matter how gradualist, to their power and wealth. On the paranoid level, Allende’s very mildness, worldliness and plausibility made him appear monstrous to some—and not just because he might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As the Americans saw it, should he win the 1970 election—and, worse still, lose the next and gracefully stand down—it would prove to the world “that democracy and socialism were not polar opposites,” Guardiola-Rivera writes, defying “the very context of the Cold War and market economics.” To the Nixon administration, the corporations and the Pentagon, this scenario made Allende a far more serious threat than Fidel Castro. Cables and memos from that period discuss options for dealing with Chile without seeming to intervene. Other recently declassified materials reveal the extent of Brazilian involvement in the plot.

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