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The Chicago Boys in Chile

Orlando Letelier
Excerpted from the August 28, 1976 Issue

It would seem to be a common-sensical sort of observation that economic policies are conditioned by and at the same time modify the social and political situation where they are put into practice. Economic policies, therefore, are introduced in order to alter social structures.

The necessary connection between economic policy and its sociopolitical setting appears to be absent from many analyses of the current situation in Chile. The violation of human rights, the system of institutionalized brutality, the drastic control and suppression of every form of meaningful dissent is discussed as a phenomenon only indirectly linked, or indeed entirely unrelated, to the classical unrestrained “free market” policies that have been enforced by the military junta. This failure to connect has been particularly characteristic of private and public financial institutions, which have publicly praised and supported the economic policies adopted by the Pinochet government, while regretting the “bad international image” the junta has gained from its “incomprehensible” persistence in torturing, jailing and persecuting all its critics.

The usefulness of the distinction has been particularly appreciated by those who have generated the economic policies now being carried out in Chile. In Newsweek of June 14, Milton Friedman, the intellectual architect and unofficial adviser for the team of economists now running the Chilean economy, stated: “In spite of my profound disagreement with the authoritarian political system of Chile, I do not consider it as evil for an economist to render technical economic advice to the Chilean Government, any more than I would regard it as evil for a physician to give technical medical advice to the Chilean Government to help end a medical plague.”

It is curious that the man who wrote a book, Capitalism and Freedom, to drive home the argument that only classical economic liberalism can support political democracy can now so easily disentangle economics from politics when the economic theories he advocates coincide with an absolute restriction of every type of democratic freedom. One would logically expect that if those who curtail private enterprise are held responsible for the effects of their measures in the political sphere, those who impose unrestrained “economic freedom” would also be held responsible when the imposition of this policy is inevitably accompanied by massive repression, hunger, unemployment and the permanence of a brutal police state.

In such a context, concentration of wealth is no accident, but a rule; it is not the marginal outcome of a difficult situation but the base for a social project; it is not an economic liability but a temporary political success. Their real failure is not their apparent inability to redistribute wealth or to generate a more even path of development (these are not their priorities) but their inability to convince the majority of Chileans that their policies are reasonable and necessary. In short, they have failed to destroy the consciousness of the Chilean people. The economic plan has had to be enforced, and in the Chilean context that could be done only by the killing of thousands, the establishment of concentration camps all over the country, the jailing of more than 100,000 persons in three years, the closing of trade unions and neighborhood organizations, and the prohibition of all political activities and all forms of free expression.

While the “Chicago boys” have provided an appearance of technical respectability to the laissez-faire dreams and political greed of the old landowning oligarchy and upper bourgeoisie of monopolists and financial speculators, the military has applied the brutal force required to achieve those goals. Repression for the majorities and “economic freedom” for small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin. It is nonsensical that those who inspire, support or finance that economic policy should try to present their advocacy as restricted to “technical considerations,” while pretending to reject the system of terror it requires to succeed.

Orlando Letelier (1932–1976), minister of foreign affairs under Chilean President Salvador Allende, wrote this article weeks before he was assassinated in Washington, DC. 

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New Wind in Latin America

Penny Lernoux
Excerpted from the February 19, 1977 Issue

The average Indian, black or half-caste, is not poor because he is lazy, stupid, disorganized or cowardly; he is poor because he is oppressed, and because he is oppressed he becomes ensnared in a self-perpetuating culture of poverty.

As Brazilian theologian Eduardo Hoor-
naert points out, “Colonizers tell the colonized races that wealth comes from work, but the people do not believe this because they can see it isn’t so. A ‘good’ position in society is only possible by belonging to the dominant culture.”

None of this is new. But until recently nobody had a practical suggestion for replacing the culture of poverty with an ethic of development. Ironically, the institution responsible for finding a solution also shares the blame: the Roman Catholic Church. After centuries of denigrating the natives’ culture and spiritual beliefs, the Church has made an abrupt about-face, discovering the latent power of “popular religiosity” to answer poverty and fatalism.

Though irregular churchgoers, Latin American Catholics never fail to visit their local shrines. Consequently, religious sanctuaries that were considered white elephants only a decade ago have suddenly taken on new importance in the Church’s eyes. Moreover, these shrines can become a national symbol for a people with no means of political expression.

A religious shrine can also provide the people with an outlet for their worries and sufferings. At San Cayetano in Argentina, for example, a confessor is on duty twenty-four hours a day, not so much to listen to the people’s sins as to give them some comfort in the current atmosphere of repression and fear. A typical case was the mother of a 2-year-old child who was contemplating suicide because her husband had “disappeared,” a euphemism for political kidnappings by Argentina’s right-wing paramilitary squads.

“The thesis of Marx and Engels that religion is just an opium for the people, and hence does not prepare them for social and economic growth, has been pretty well exploded,” said Father Hoornaert. “Today, everyone recognizes that in certain circumstances religion can be an opium but that under others it can foment development: everything depends on how the message is delivered.”

The problem has been that, until recently, the message encouraged fatalism. Because God is viewed as remote and powerful, like the local dictator or absent landlord, most Latin Americans ask the saints or souls of the dead to intervene for them. There is a saint for almost every activity, from lottery ticket selling to bread making, and for every conceivable problem. St. Patrick cures snake bites; 
St. Anthony is invoked to attract boyfriends.

General Pinochet’s Chile offers another example of how the Church can use popular religiosity to bring about positive change—not among the generals, who believe they are above God, but among the poor, who have suffered the worst consequences of the military regime. To stave off starvation, the dioceses have encouraged the people to organize, with Church financial support, free school-lunch programs for 23,876 children and 127 community industries such as bakeries and leather goods factories.

While the people running the programs are afraid and economically insecure, theirs is not the fatalistic fear and anxiety that sociologists ascribe to the culture of poverty but the result of the military’s ongoing political and economic repression. None would dream of shouting “Down with Pinochet” in a public plaza, yet these slum dwellers are neither cowed nor resigned. “We have not forgotten the social gains we made in the past,” said a slum mother. “We cannot say anything now, but there will come a time when ‘those people’ must go, and then we will build a better society in which there is equality and justice for all of us.”

Penny Lernoux (1940–1989) wrote on Latin American affairs for The Nation from 1971 to 1987. 

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A Fantasia on Black Suffering

Review of Flight to Canada, by Ishmael Reed

Edmund White
Excerpted from the September 18, 1976 Issue

Flight to Canada is a comic exploration of slavery by the best black writer around. The novel is genuinely funny, for Reed has not rendered faithfully the horrors of servitude but rather created a grotesque Civil War America out of scraps and snippets of the past, the present and the mythic. He has put together a brilliant montage of scenes, potent with feeling and thought, designed to flash on the mind’s eye with the brilliance of stained-glass windows in a dark interior.

The main character, Raven Quickskill, is a slave who runs away from his master, Arthur Swille, hides out in Emancipation City and finally, after the war has ended, makes it over the border into Canada. Until his former owner is dead and buried, Quickskill must remain a fugitive, since Swille has resolved to capture him come what may. Throughout the tale the narration alternates between scenes back at the plantation in Virginia and scenes of Quickskill’s precarious freedom.

Reed blends the attitudes and trappings of the past century with those of today. Escaped slaves travel courtesy of Greyhound or Air Canada. Swille’s bondsmen loll on waterbeds and watch color television in the luxury of the Frederick Douglass Houses. When Lincoln is shot, the event is served up to viewers again and again through instant replay on television. Lincoln himself is a hypocritical and befuddled Nixon, a racist who thinks of emancipation as a ploy. This historical melange could easily have turned tediously allegorical, but Reed never allows the parallels between the past and the present to become complete, nor does he permit the contemporary references to sap the vitality of his story.

Reed’s fantasia on the classic themes of black suffering is a virtuoso performance. His endless list of names for blacks (cocoas, sables, kinks, mahoganies, spooks, shines, sbleezers, smokes, picks) is as funny and intolerable as a minstrel show. The best work of black fiction since Invisible Man both invites and outrages moral interpretation.

Flight to Canada must be hailed as an irrepressibly funny and mordant meditation on the eternal present of slavery in America. The book functions not only as a distorting mirror held up to the continuing history of servitude but also as the record of a single consciousness attempting to kill off the slave within—an heroic project that Chekhov once commended to us all.

Edmund White, whose latest book is Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014), has reviewed for The Nation works by Milan Kundera, E.L. Doctorow, Tony Kushner and others.

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Encounter: William Appleman Williams and Greg Grandin

Empire as a Way of Life

William Appleman Williams
August 2, 1980

Unmasking Uncle Sam

Greg Grandin
April 6, 2015

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‘Some’ Jews & ‘the’ Gays

Gore Vidal
November 14, 1981

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Solidarity—Lest We Forget

Daniel Singer
Excerpted from the July 3, 1982 Issue

Those on the left who cherished the illusion that Poland would somehow vanish from the news and that Solidarity would disappear from our political consciousness have been disappointed. A wave of strikes and skirmishes with the police spread throughout Poland recently in defiance of martial law; the situation in Poland must again be watched with the faint hope of a compromise and the very real fear of a bloody explosion.

The Polish story is far from finished. Its impact on socialists in the West, already significant, will increase in coming months. [One] problem is the temptation on the left to treat the enemies of our enemies as our friends. I encountered this attitude in Poland before Jaruzelski’s coup among spokesmen for Solidarity who were reluctant to criticize American imperialism or Reagan’s cold-war policies in El Salvador. I discovered it in the United States among left wingers who, having duly condemned the coup, were trying to push Poland into the background so as to be able “to get on with the job.” Their reluctance to keep the moral heat on the Soviet Union may sometimes spring from the best of reasons—e.g., the belief that one should give priority to the fight against home-grown imperialism. Yet too many scandals have been ignored in the name of clearing out the weeds in our own garden. Another wave of political blindness to crimes perpetrated in the Soviet bloc would be neither forgiven nor forgivable.

Nor does an understandable distaste for our strange political bedfellows justify a mood of withdrawal. The love of the Reagans and the Thatchers for the Polish workers is nauseating. It is easy, however, to show up their hypocrisy for what it is. We need merely demand that Solidarity’s conservative sympathizers follow its example and proclaim that all factories and offices should be run by the workers. It is not difficult to imagine the reactions to such a proposal on Wall Street or in corporate board rooms.

But there is a simpler reason that we cannot stand pure and aloof. Unfortunately, we are not yet numerous enough to win victories on our own. Virtue does not lie only in splendid isolation, or vice in sharing platforms or seeking allies. The slippery road begins when we conceal our principles in order to be accepted or worship alien gods to preserve an unholy alliance.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter—the American left’s reluctance to curse the two superpowers with equal vigor. Apparently, its conditioned reflexes are strong, for many people on the non-Communist left still seem to view Russia, however oppressive, as somehow socialist, and, however “bureaucratically degenerated,” as a workers’ state. To say that the United States and the Soviet Union both stink is not to equate the epitome of capitalism with the center of postrevolutionary oppression. It simply means that neither country can be described as the kind of society we are striving for.

The Western left must back Solidarity for more than moral reasons; there are also pedagogical reasons for supporting it. For millions of people socialism in Warsaw or Budapest or Prague is now identified with Soviet tanks; it is being confused with the corrupt and oppressive powers that be. Ideally, we could break the bewildering identification of socialism with Brezhnevism by providing a genuine socialism as an alternative. At the bare minimum, we must prove to our potential partners that socialists side with the victimized workers and not with their jackbooted oppressors.

Daniel Singer (1926–2000) wrote about European politics for The Nation for three decades, beginning in 1970. Gore Vidal called him “one of the best, and certainly the sanest, interpreters of things European for American readers.” 

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After the Breadwinner Vanishes

Barbara Ehrenreich
February 26, 1983

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East, West—Is There a Third Way?

E.P. Thompson
July 10, 1982