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Law of Life, and Light | The Nation

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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.

Some fanatically religious accomplices were ready and willing inside Chile. Guardiola-Rivera notes how America’s anticommunist pivot in 1948 gave rise to a new figure of hatred, “the silver-tongued intellectual turned enchanter of the masses,” and links this figure with an earlier one: the Jewish revolutionary who propagates socialism, “a persuasive lie or a virus foreign to the social body, and in need of extirpation.” Following the leads in Paul Preston’s work on the Spanish Civil War, most notably The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012), Guardiola-Rivera explores a neglected aspect of the Chilean tragedy worthy of a Dan Brown potboiler, tracing the cross-and-sword genealogy of the right in a country where education, as in Spain, was dominated by the Catholic Church. Through theologian-professors such as Osvaldo Lira, the Catholic extremists in Alessandri’s circle were notably influenced by the Spanish ideologue Juan Vázquez de Mella, who pined for a medieval society of autonomous guilds under church authority and opposed capitalist democracy itself, let alone the “Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik” conspiracy. Nuancing the third term, Allende personally ticked all three boxes.

For the local neo-Hispanist crusaders, led by the attorney Jaime Guzmán and the politician Federico Willoughby, the modern evil that Franco crushed in Spain was now abroad in Chile. Under their auspices, a network was formed during the 1960s of arcane brotherhoods, paramilitary organizations and movements like the Gremialistas (Guildists), according to whom “any encroachment of the state’s action on…entrepreneurial, corporatist or Gremialista activity entails the violation of basic individual rights and natural law.” Thus a state that nationalizes private property, for instance—as Eduardo Frei, Allende’s Christian Democrat predecessor, had halfheartedly started to do—forfeits the right to represent the people, and to overthrow it becomes, as in Spain, a sacred Catholic duty. Cue the assassinations, sabotage, bridge bombings and other terrorist activity that wrecked Popular Unity’s attempts to redistribute power in society. After the coup, Guzmán and his cohort of fundamentalists would need no lessons from the Chicago School, which has long been thought to have imposed its “shock doctrine” on a clueless junta. The violence of what was originally an anti-statist but also anti-capitalist belief in decentralized guild autonomy, requiring an exemplary chastisement of the masses, simply melded with the violence of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism.”

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With the Catholic dinosaurs, the local oligarchs and media barons, and US political and commercial interests united against his government, Allende’s death seems multiply foretold. Even had he been allowed to go into exile, they would soon have gotten him, just as they did his constitutionalist vice president, Gen. Carlos Prats, in 1974, and his leading minister, Orlando Letelier, in 1976. When one US-backed putschist plot failed to stop Allende in 1970, the next was just a matter of time, with the people softened up for this solution by a many-pronged conspiracy over the next three years to, in President Richard Nixon’s words, “make the economy scream.” From the book’s title on, Guardiola-Rivera emphasizes the inevitability of the outcome, prefigured as far back as 1891, when President José Manuel Balmaceda attempted to curb the British and was overthrown by a coup funded by the Edwards and Matte families—names that recur in this story, in the same role. Like Allende, Balmaceda committed suicide.

At the same time, Guardiola-Rivera reminds us with facts and figures that the coup was not a reaction to economic mismanagement, nor could the conspirators plead provocation by the far left, despite the increasing unruliness of impatient popular movements. “The tipping point never came, leaving all the responsibility for the unleashing of the violent Furies to fall squarely on the shoulders of the military”: the words are those of Joan Garcés, Allende’s close adviser, but Guardiola-Rivera also draws on mythological and metaphysical imagery throughout his book. One section is titled “The Flies,” an allusion to the Jean-Paul Sartre play using the same metaphor of the Furies—thus also implying, as in Sartre, a critique of the acquiescent herd. Guardiola-Rivera powerfully argues that, true to its mystical roots, the repression was inquisitional as much as political, a bid “to refound the state on the basis of sacrificial violence, to complete a ritual of purification by fire.” Allende’s suicide was less self-sacrifice (or, confusingly, the sacrifice of the mythic scapegoat) than a “Promethean” act, he argues. A distinction is also made between classical tragedy, which enables catharsis, and the mass sacrifice that ultimately led to the paralysis of Chilean society, stuck in “purgatory.”

In another suggestive twist, Guardiola-
Rivera portrays Pinochet as a theatrical archetype awash in petty resentments and ambitions, now that evidence has come to light of his intellectual jealousy of General Prats and his long-standing obsession with Napoleon, whose position at the head of a triumvirate after the coup of 18 Brumaire he imitated. It is still not known for sure just when this seemingly constitutionalist commander in chief of the Chilean Army decided to betray his oath, but if it was a last-minute decision, he got into character fast: “Actually, just throw them from the airplanes on the way out” was his response to the surrender of former ministers at the blazing Moneda Palace on September 11, 1973. From that point on, the general, his secret service (DINA) and the Catholic fanatics supporting his regime claimed to be restoring a law and order that the right’s terrorist forces, with a hidden helping hand from the United States, had been the only ones to disrupt.

A “state of exception” was soon instituted, whose models run from the consul or dictator in Roman law through Napoleon to the emergency decrees in Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain. The key influence here, albeit barely cited, is Carl Schmitt, whose theories of decisive, law-defining leadership legitimized an indefinitely renewable state of exception for both Hitler and Franco. Just as envisaged by the German jurist, crisis and internal war have become the permanent condition of many modern nations. An open-ended period of “transitional justice” was installed in Chile, and “that model and its economic sidekick, the trickle-down theory of economic justice, would be imported elsewhere in the world. It has become the normal state of affairs since the late twentieth century,” Guardiola-Rivera observes.

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