I had last seen Salvador Allende alive one week before the coup, on September 4, 1973, when I joined a million marchers who poured into the streets of Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of our electoral victory. That night it had taken our group seven fervid hours to reach the street below the balcony of La Moneda where Allende was saluting the multitude. Our hoarse voices might have roared that we would overcome, Venceremos, venceremos, but what we were really doing that night was bidding farewell to our president.
A week later he was dead, his body secretly dumped in a grave by the sea, the first of the Desaparecidos Pinochet would hide away.
On a bright December day in 2006, I stood on that balcony where I had last seen Allende. The making of a documentary gave me access to that iconic space, the chance to stare out onto the empty Plaza de la Constitución, exactly from where our martyred president had saluted us. It was a poignant visitation of ghosts and memories; some solace drifted into me from that visit. All of Pinochet’s repression had not stopped me from standing where Allende had stood—or from believing in the justice of Allende’s cause, his dream of a better world.
But how to arrive at the society he envisioned—ah, that is another matter. The young man who had left Chile as an intrepid revolutionary, convinced that the end of capitalism was nigh and that any sacrifice was therefore justified on the road to socialism, was not the older man who stood on that balcony thirty-three years later. When did it change?
If I had to single out one day, it would be a glacial morning in the winter of 1982 when I was summarily expelled from the chancery of the People’s Republic of Poland in Washington. It had taken me many years to get to the point of walking through the gates of that embassy, to meet that ambassador under an ornate, bourgeois chandelier, to be able to tell that representative of Poland that, as a socialist and follower of Allende, I was ashamed and outraged at what his government was doing to the working class of his country in the name of Karl Marx.
It had been the repression of Solidarity a few months earlier, in December 1981, the martial law declared by General Jaruzelski, the carnage at the Gdansk shipyards, the outlawing of the free trade unions and the jailing of thousands, the spectacle of the party supposedly embodying the hopes and desires of the proletariat turning its guns on those very workers—those events had been the straw that broke Ariel’s ideological back.
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My connection to communism had been, since the adolescent start of my political education, an ambiguous one, probably because I was torn between my mother and my father and their conflicting visions of social change. Like so many of his generation forged in the fight against fascism in the midst of the Great Depression, my dad had enthusiastically joined the communist movement. Although he’d broken with the sclerotic Argentine party by the time of my birth in 1942, he remained faithful to Marxismo-Leninismo, adhering to the Soviet Union and many Stalinist practices. For my father, those Bolshevik beliefs were the bedrock of his immigrant identity; to abandon them would, I surmise, have meant opening an abyss of introspection for which he was neither ideologically nor psychologically prepared.
Whereas my gentle mother, a staunch opponent of the death penalty and all other forms of brutality, had always been wary of communism’s shortcomings. With a vivacious sense of humor that did not sit well with the commissars, she had founded the SRCLCP, the Slightly Reformed Conservation Life Communist Party, of which she was the sole member.