Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile

Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile

Returning to Chile decades after Allende’s death, I was no longer a soldier of the revolution. What changed?


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.

* * *

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.

For my part, raised in a Chile with so many impoverished people, a Latin America scarred by arrogant Yankee interventions, I gravitated to my father’s positions, though always held in check by my mother’s refusal to add one more victim to the century’s long list of atrocities. So Salvador Allende was the perfect combination of my two progenitors: an admirer of Cuba and a fervent Marxist, he insisted at the same time that we could build a more just social order without having to repress our adversaries.

The failure of our peaceful Chilean revolution did not turn me into an advocate of armed struggle. On the contrary, it launched, inside me as well as in the left in Chile and across the globe, a multifaceted dialogue about how to achieve socialism in our time and not end up slaughtered by those whose power we were contesting.

At the same time, there were two realities of our Chilean struggle that could not be ignored. First, the international fight against the dictatorship was spearheaded by the Soviet Union, which was pouring resources into the antifascist front we were trying to organize. And second, the Chilean Communist Party, because of its organizational skills, popularity and experience of having outlived ferocious persecution in previous decades, constituted the backbone of the resistance to Pinochet. So even as I drifted away from the more rigid dogmas of Marxism, I bit my tongue whenever the Soviets or the Communists were attacked.

A balancing act that often led to ungainly pratfalls.

The most discomfiting of these occurred in Germany in 1975. Our friend Freimut Duve, the editor of my essays in German, lodged my wife, Angélica, and me for two nights at his house in Hamburg and also arranged for us to visit Günter Grass’s cottage near the city.

The great author (and artist) showed us his latest etchings and then escorted us to the kitchen, where he was preparing a superb fish stew in our honor. I had devoured all his books, we were having the best of conversations and he seemed more than willing to sign on to our committee to help artists in the homeland—everything chummy until he told me that he’d recently been in the south of France at a conference of solidarity with the Czech resistance to the Soviet occupation, which the Chilean Socialists had refused to attend. “Don’t they realize, Ariel,” Günter said, “that the Prague Spring and the Chilean revolution have both been crushed by similar forces, one by the Soviet Empire, the other by the Americans?”

I could glimpse my German host Freimut trying to head me off, change the subject back to flounders and tin drums, but I wanted to treat Günter like a comrade: as a man of the left he’d understand that the Chilean Socialists couldn’t publicly side with the Czechs against the Soviets and our own Communist allies. Günter’s eyes narrowed and his bushy mustache bristled even more, if that were possible. What was my position on the Prague Spring?

I’d been in favor of that flowering of liberty and had condemned the Soviet invasion, as Allende had, to which our host replied that my current stance was then more shameful, because I was subjecting my freedom of opinion to petty party politics. Couldn’t I see that Dubcek and Allende were equivalent?

He abruptly turned and began to work at his drawing table, and it was clear that our meeting was over, not a drop of stew to be savored, no more to be said.

Except when we timorously rose to say goodbye. “When something is morally correct,” he said, “you must defend that position without concern for political or personal consequences.”

What I could not tell Grass, would perhaps not have wanted to admit to myself, was that it was not only out of political pragmatism that I had turned a blind eye to the many glaring excesses of rulers who claimed to be inspired by Marxism. Beyond the loyalty and admiration I felt toward my father, I was held back by all those Communists at whose side I had fought in Chile and the rest of Latin America.

The dead, the dead, we carry so many ghosts to whom we often swear more fealty than to the living. The many heroes of my youth, Marx in the British Library, the workers and soldiers storming the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the Vietnamese dying by the thousands to save their land, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, lucharemos hasta el fin. I had chanted that in the streets of Santiago next to Pito Enríquez, thin as a toothpick, and he had died, my Communist friend, in some aseptic hospital in Toronto, I could not tell him of my transformation and bring him along with me on this voyage away from the dogmas that he had believed in and that I had tolerated in the name of comradeship. And Enrique París, who had been tortured to death, castrated at La Moneda; and Fernando Ortiz, who had been picked up one overcast day in the Plaza Egaña and had never returned home. And the songs of the Spanish Civil War, El Ejército del Ebro, rumba la rumba la rum bam bam, the night when the Republican army had crossed the Ebro and defeated Franco’s mercenaries, ay Carmela, ay Carmela, I had heard that song in the womb, in that same womb had listened from near and far to the partisans’ Bella ciao in the hills of Tuscany as they fought Mussolini, and the battle of Stalingrad and Fidel entering Havana, ay Carmela, ay Carmela, and inside me were Neruda and Brecht and Nazim Hikmet and Che Guevara, all dead, so inflexible in their death and yet alive in the vast vocabulary of my Internationale heart, arriba los pobres del mundo, a part of the legacy I had inherited.

How could I simply throw out everything I had learned in my more ardent days just because of mistakes I told myself did not nullify the quest for equality that I was not willing to declare bankrupt? Above all I was held back by an acknowledgment of what our world would look like without the infinite struggle of so many ordinary men and women for racial equality and the rights of workers, by what a dreadful planet this would be if those militants had not opened a space for women to be free, if they had not stood by the side of the unfortunate colonies of our earth on the road to liberation.

So it took a persistent drip and drop and accumulation of betrayals and mass murders for me to wrest myself away from that confusing allegiance. The Cultural Revolution in China had not been enough, and the Prague Spring had not been enough, and the killing fields of Cambodia had not been enough, and the appalling Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had not been enough, but every one of those events had chipped away at my armor, until finally the workers of Poland—the wretched of the earth, no less—were being repressed for demanding the same freedoms being asked for by the people of Chile, and enough, basta, that was the tipping point.

Though exile as well as history had contributed to my transformation.

One morning in Paris—it must have been 1975—I knocked on the door of the apartment of Ugné Karvelis on the Rue de Savoie. Julio Cortázar, who lived with her, answered and told me they had a guest, just arrived from Prague, staying over for a few nights. Then Ugné slipped out of the living room and whispered to me that he was an author I would hear much about, a novelist destined for greatness.

It was Milan Kundera.

The saddest man I have ever seen.

That was no routine sadness etched deep into his face. It extended out from him like a wave of unmitigated grief, a loss as inconsolable as my own but without any of the hope that I kept forcing myself to feel.

He had fled from a regime that had become one of the cornerstones of the campaign against Pinochet, a regime I had refused to condemn publicly just a few months earlier at Günter Grass’s house. But the arguments I had used in my discussion with the German writer would have been useless, harsh, futile with Milan. The practicalities of “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” simply dissolved in the presence of a man persecuted by my allies, a real face, an anguish I could identify with.

Less than a year later, at the International PEN conference in The Hague, when we expelled the Chilean center, I was approached by a tall Russian man sporting stubble on his cheeks. He was glad that Chile had been banished and hoped something similar could happen to the Moscow branch of PEN, though he doubted that the unanimity engendered by my nation would hold when it came to the Russians. He shrugged, as if used to this labyrinth of politics, and then unspooled to me how he had spent years in a psychiatric ward. “They said I had to be off my rocker if I was against communism. No rational person could be against communism, no rational person could ever write the verses that I wrote.”

I had heard, of course, of the tactic being used by the Soviets against dissidents, of medicating and institutionalizing them. I had actually seen it as a positive sign, thinking that at least they weren’t sending them off to gulags in Siberia. Not quite excusing such a deplorable pseudo-psychiatric practice but somehow accommodating to it—as long as I did not have to sit next to the injured party.

* * *

As the years went by, I met many similar men and women. The Czech coach of a kids’ soccer team in Amsterdam, a Vietnamese tailor, and poets from East Germany and Cuba who wanted only to be free to recite whatever words leapt from their mouths. Something in me began to alter: it became more difficult to pigeonhole each exile according to his or her affiliation. I recognized their stories, the wistfulness they felt for the way tea was brewed back home, all those humiliations so parallel to mine. I did not need to identify with their political choices in order to absorb their pain.

My very slow opening to the victims of Communist experiments was accompanied by a parallel development: the progressive loosening of the bonds securing me to my own party.

My shift toward a more voluntary, less addictive relationship with the organized Resistance became possible, I guess, because literature had rescued me from the remorse of silence. A space began to open from which to establish a critique of my party and all parties. Irreplaceable as these organizations might be in a war against a ferocious enemy with an army of its own, did they have to swamp every aspect of life, force a choral answer to each and every problem? How to build a democratic society with parties that were self-perpetuating and prone to totalizing, as suffocating as the catacombs we were hiding in?

And here was a question I dared not ask: Wasn’t my own distancing a consequence of problems deep in the doctrine itself? I had deposited in a revolutionary party—true, of a new lefty variety—my liberty and conscience, and that Marxist philosophy, still a superb instrument with which to comprehend and critique capitalism, seemed to have increasingly foggy responses to the new dilemmas of our times. What role do indigenous peoples play in guiding us out of our current crisis? How to cope with the monster of industrialization—extolled traditionally by both the left and the right—without confronting the environmental degradation corroding our planet? And the challenges of feminism and the sexual revolution and homosexuality and the new technologies and religion, the world full of intractable mysteries, and the more questions I asked, the more I saw myself at the service of all forms of liberation, the more I understood my political work as occurring mainly in the uncertain territory of my writing and advocacy.

Even so, all the shifts in world history and all the emotional and intellectual alterations in my life would still have been insufficient to make me ring the bell of the Polish embassy that blustery day in Washington. One additional factor nudged me in the direction of moral independence. Oddly enough, this act of autonomy could only have happened, for me at least, in the United States, the center of the empire.

Because I was not alone that day. That visit had been organized by my friends Doug Ireland and Joanne Landy of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, a group of American activists who opposed their government’s bellicosity abroad while at the same time offering support to dissidents in the Soviet bloc. Seven years after rejecting Günter Grass’s reasoning about the need to concurrently denounce repression originating in both the United States and the Communist countries, I had found a band of sisters and brothers who were impeccably dedicated to that very objective, who understood that one cannot be for freedom in Nicaragua and against it in Hungary, that one could not deplore the US support of Pinochet and applaud Jaruzelski’s mentors in Moscow.

It was the American left that helped me find the freedom to walk into that embassy, declare that there can be no socialism without democracy and feel the satisfaction of being ejected, to cease being a soldier of the revolution. So that day in the Polish embassy I said goodbye to the soldier but not to the revolution, I bid a long goodbye to party politics but not to the politics of liberation, I stated that I would henceforth answer to my own conscience.

Back home that night, I made a telephone call. Not to Günter Grass. Or to Milan Kundera. To my father in Buenos Aires. I told my father how that Polish comrade of his had banished me from that building.

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“Ariel,” my dad said, and I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or frowning. “You know that I disagree with you. And I’m sure you also know how proud I am that you’re my son.” “I disagree with you too, Chebochy,” I said, using the endearing term that was his pet name. “And you know that I’m also proud of you.” And we left it at that.

Ay Carmela, ay Carmela.

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