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For the last decade, I have been haunted by voices from the other side of death. In this way, back in 2003 I transcribed the words of Pablo Picasso after a tapestry version of his famed painting Guernica at the entrance to the Security Council was covered over at the UN just before then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was to present the Bush administration case justifying an invasion of Iraq. From the depths of ancient Mesopotamia, I transcribed the words of Hammurabi, the exalted prince of Babylon, as he reviled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for laying waste to his ancient land. And in that same year I found that Christopher Columbus, too, had words for the new warriors/conquerors of the twenty-first century, while the poets William Blake and Franceso Petrarca asked Laura Bush how she could sleep with the man responsible for so many deaths.
The dead were then silent for years, which left me unprepared when Salvador Allende came to me offering advice for Barack Obama. It seemed, at first glance, a strange connection. Elected president of Chile in 1970 by popular vote, Allende was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup three years later. On that other September 11, also (coincidentally enough) a Tuesday, terror rained down from the skies as the Chilean air force bombed the Presidential Palace where Allende died, ending an experiment in constructing socialism through peaceful, democratic means, and inaugurating the long dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Barack Obama has never, of course, claimed to be a revolutionary like Allende, though he did once upon a short time ago give the impression of being a reformer dedicated to bringing about significant change. And though, like Allende, he has faced ferocious opposition to his plans from similarly conservative forces, there has never been the slightest rumor of a coup d’état in the United States (nor, as it turned out, any need for one)—though who knows what would have happened had Obama decided to take on the military-industrial/national security behemoth that essentially governs the country.
And yet, I have no doubt that Allende would have sympathized with Obama on his entry into the Oval Office, and that he would have appreciated his urge to search for common ground with his adversaries, as well as the intelligence and sophistication of his mind. And I’m sure he would have greeted young Barack’s election in 2008, as I did, with a certain joy, seeing in it the popular wish for a different sort of politics, a different sort of world.
Evidently, based on what follows, Allende did feel that it was worth sending a message to the American president from the shores of death where so much becomes clearer, where we will all ultimately discover whether we truly kept faith with the lives and dreams of those who, in turn, had faith in us.
Here, then, is his message:
I have held off, Barack Obama, till now,
I have bitten my tongue in this dusk and averted my gaze
if words like tongue and gaze and bitten biting bite
have any meaning under this grim face of night.
Now it is time that you knew what awaits you here
once you join us in the vast kingdom of the gone,
what your retreat and regret will be if you do not learn
the lessons I learnt from defeat,
the omen I am sending your way as you fail to lead
and flail and neglect the reason you became our hope.
I held off this warning, young Barack, till now.
Who was I, after all, to send you words of advice?
Surrounded as I am in this dark by the many who tried and failed,
who gave their lives to change the world so those unheeded
in the shadow of strife, the child who cries in the dawn of life,
the women and the old and the working poor could rise.
I am surrounded in this sorrow by those who did not prevail.
Who am I, after all, to send anyone a word of advice?