Law of Life, and Light

Law of Life, and Light

A new history of Chile is a wrestling match between fatalism and optimism.


On September 11, 2006, I stood outside the National Stadium in Santiago among about 250 people, old and young, tying flowers onto fence bars to honor the many Chileans who had died during the first days of the 1973 military coup. Inti-Illimani anthems I knew from the old days of Chile Solidarity groups wafted through the air: “The people! United! Will never be defeated!” Although this was apparently the first time in years that the Socialist and Communist parties had commemorated the anniversary together, it still wasn’t much of a crowd. But then a voice, rich and warm, rang out from the loudspeakers, talking about justice, courage and love. It was the voice of Salvador Allende. I’d had no idea he was such a tremendous orator. Our melancholy lifted, and for a moment it seemed as though the values Allende had died for could truly matter in public life once more.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera believes they can, and for more than a moment. Story of a Death Foretold is no revisionist critique, nor is it a biography of its central character. Rather, it treats the well-known tale of Chile’s bid for a democratic government of the left and that effort’s bloody repression as the emblem of an age-old human struggle: the “law of life, and light” against the “laws of darkness or death.” More specifically, it argues that the atavistic Catholic-fascist ideas underpinning the Pinochet dictatorship, in conjunction with the forces of US neoliberalism, produced the norms that govern the world today. A senior lecturer of international law and politics at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and a sometime aide to the Colombian Congress, Guardiola-Rivera practices an eclectic scholarship that first reached a wide audience with his hopeful 2010 book, What If Latin America Ruled the World? Here, too, the alternation of philosophy, historical narrative and idealistic troop-rallying surprises and enlightens the reader. But it’s hard to be upbeat about the Chilean tragedy, and Story of a Death Foretold feels like a wrestling match between optimism and fatalism whose outcome remains uncertain.

Allende was born in Valparaiso in 1908 to well-off, progressive parents, but he owed his political education to Juan Demarchi, an elderly Italian anarchist whose stories he imbibed as a teenager. The fact that Demarchi was a shoemaker is telling, because it introduces a basic theme that Guardiola-Rivera develops with passionate conviction: the assumption by the powerful that creative working-class intellectuals do not exist, even as they divide the world into “two sorts of people”—themselves and the rest—and justify economic inequality by pointing to the alleged infantile barbarism of the powerless. The Chilean ruling class, which has always been especially wedded to foreign interests, first British and then American, epitomizes this attitude. From the Valladolid debates in 1550 that established the Americas as primitive, hence exploitable, to Henry Kissinger’s remark to a Chilean foreign minister that history never had and never would occur in “the South,” to the furious revenge exacted by the United States, the local elite and its military junta against those who, in the early 1970s, had briefly dared to think otherwise—all these episodes enforced the absolute sense of entitlement felt by the “Owners of Chile.” But there was an interlude of doubt. The postwar era was an “Age of Anxiety” for the Chilean establishment and particularly for the United States, unsure whether the insolent desires for “another law and a different order” stirring in its backyard should be quelled with subtlety or violence. The dawning in Chile of a “revolution from below” and the growing activism of indigenous Mapuches, campesinos, slum dwellers, students and workers that shaped Allende’s trajectory from the 1930s onward are surveyed by Guardiola-Rivera in the early part of the book, alongside events in the United States and Europe.

* * *

Much marked by his experiences as a doctor among the poor, Allende was a prominent figure on the Chilean left after co-founding the Socialist Party in 1933. Allende narrowly lost the presidency, in suspect circumstances, to the right-wing Jorge Alessandri in 1958. Yet he stood up to pressure from the Popular Action Front to call a protest strike, much as he would refuse in 1973 to unleash pre-emptive violence against the imminent military coup. Allende’s commitment to democratic legalism and pluralistic inclusiveness was amazingly consistent, beginning with his 1931 expulsion from the student group Avance, in part for not sharing its Marxist contempt for a supposedly less “conscious” Lumpenproletariat. But while skeptical of the Marxist dogmas of scientific socialism, he always included the Communists in his alliances, recognizing that only a pueblo unido had any chance of challenging and changing the status quo. As he put it to the Chilean Congress in 1939, he aspired to a coalition mobilizing all of the “workers, peasants, employees and the small bourgeoisie…who have the will to build and maintain democracy, fight oligarchy, and struggle against fascism and imperialism.” Such would be the alignment with which he won the presidency in 1970, when at the last minute he replaced Pablo Neruda as the candidate for Popular Unity at the head of a coalition including leftist Christians and liberals.

If Allende was reason and moderation incarnate, he was also a revolutionary who believed in the greatness of what Luis Buñuel called los olvidados, the forgotten ones. His political platform as of 1958 envisaged agrarian reform, regulation of the financial sector, and the recovery of Chilean sovereignty through the nationalization of the copper and nitrate mines that were the main source of the country’s wealth. “In the framework of a gradual transition and transformation of the relationship between the state and the people, these constituted the principles of what in time would be known as ‘the Chilean Way to Socialism,’” Guardiola-Rivera writes.

Yet the foreign corporations and their placemen in Chile were bound to fight any threat, no matter how gradualist, to their power and wealth. On the paranoid level, Allende’s very mildness, worldliness and plausibility made him appear monstrous to some—and not just because he might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As the Americans saw it, should he win the 1970 election—and, worse still, lose the next and gracefully stand down—it would prove to the world “that democracy and socialism were not polar opposites,” Guardiola-Rivera writes, defying “the very context of the Cold War and market economics.” To the Nixon administration, the corporations and the Pentagon, this scenario made Allende a far more serious threat than Fidel Castro. Cables and memos from that period discuss options for dealing with Chile without seeming to intervene. Other recently declassified materials reveal the extent of Brazilian involvement in the plot.

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

These are dramatic claims, but hard to dispute in view of, say, George W. Bush’s special security measures after the other 9/11, or the alleged need for an indefinitely expansive, savagely punitive “austerity” following the 2008 crash, or the recently exposed scale of intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency beyond any legal mandate. In Chile, the point is borne out by the way the 1980 Constitution, drafted by Jaime Guzmán, still prohibits meaningful democracy by stipulating a two-thirds congressional majority to alter its provisions—one of which is the “binomial” electoral system ensuring that the right, however unpopular, always gets enough seats to impede the formation of a majority. Ironically, the brazen illegality of the past has so far inhibited politicians from breaking its statutory grip.

Instead, consumerism has reached pathological levels among the Chilean middle class, as if to fill the space of their violently evacuated utopia—still more so after 1989, when Pinochet had done his job and “democratic” rulers expanded the neoliberal project. On my visit, I was struck by how often people insisted, despairingly, that the national character had changed: from frugal simplicity to an obsession with outward trappings. Of course, violence doesn’t have to be experienced for its message to be unconsciously heard. Guardiola-Rivera quotes Alain Badiou on the relationship between the “laws of darkness or death” and the “dictatorship of normal desires,” in which stupefied citizens everywhere meekly reproduce media-defined values. Chile’s punishment is not an aberration, but rather the crude blueprint for all market economies.

So what of the “laws of light, and life” that animated the project to construct a new society on “a completely different social and economic foundation”? Guardiola-Rivera strives to assure us that they have not been altogether repealed. Some linkages of past to present are a bit shaky, such as the suggestion that when Allende and Che Guevara referred to “bringing about a ‘new man’ and a ‘new humanity,’” they were “thereby expressing very conscious feelings of interconnectivity…closer to the image of the ‘networked individual’ more familiar to today’s interconnected youth.” (The openness to emerging technology, which the Allendists inherited from Guevara, does provide the fascinating story of Project Cybersyn, the futuristic telex and computer network that enabled the Chilean administration to weather the 1972 truckers’ blockade.) As examples of horizontal, techno-enabled rebellions, Guardiola-Rivera briefly name-checks the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, as if tacitly acknowledging their abortiveness so far; yet there is scant admission that social media also facilitate new forms of corporate control. In Chile itself, whose “democratic” and ruthlessly neoliberal restoration he doesn’t discuss, the author can come up only with an impressive individual, the Communist student leader Camila Vallejo; he says nothing about the more anonymous “penguins,” as the first school students in revolt were called in 2006, or the revival of the Mapuche struggle for land and self-determination. The omitted decades, however, figure almost visually as the black hole of oblivion he found in talking to all the young Chileans who are only now piecing their history together.

There is both more substance and more abstraction to Guardiola-Rivera’s exploration of how Allende’s doctrine of geo-economic sovereignty prompted a radical, exemplary act of remedial justice, following the logic of restitution outlined by Frantz Fanon and other postcolonial thinkers. Chile expropriated the multinational-owned mines in 1971, applying the principles of UN Resolution 1803/1962 on Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources. Compensation was paid after the deduction of “excess profits” over time, for “the benefits of past injustice were cumulative.” The moral, juridical and philosophical bases for remedial action in general amid competing theories of rights are reviewed by Guardiola-Rivera in depth, quoting almost as many novelists as academics and, most interestingly, revisiting the Russell International War Crimes Tribunals of 1967 and 1974, which were presided over by Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez, respectively. Guardiola-Rivera believes that such undaunted thinking, like Allende’s measures, provides the answer to the eternal postponement sought by the “state of exception.” Allende’s “notion of justice entailed that the time to strike was now.”

For Guardiola-Rivera, this “story of a death foretold stands as an inspiration to change the way things are.” He interprets Allende’s refusal of violence, even when pressed by his political partners, as a victory (“Such fear and paranoia, the tendency of the wealthy and powerful to resort to violence, reveals their fundamental impotence”); his extraordinary last broadcasts from the besieged palace as counter-prophesy, “a prophetic call for justice now”; and his suicide as a founding act. In Guardiola-Rivera’s words: “The fact that I can choose death as a possibility means that I can always choose my future, and that there is no such thing as fate…. It can be said that the Chilean Revolution was not doomed to failure and therefore remains an open road to us in the present and the future.” Such optimism of the will in the face of his own grim evidence ultimately boils down to an existential imperative. He quotes approvingly a line of John Berger’s about activism: “‘an inconsequential redemption of the present’…against the present’s logic that insists on calling our efforts pointless.”

I remain more inspired by Allende’s life than by his death, so it’s less encouraging when Story of a Death Foretold reminds us of what an uncommon person he was, and how rare a politician. Outside the National Stadium in 2006, amid political disunity, his recorded words uplifted us—but it also felt like nostalgia. Today, the center-left is back in power in Chile, but Michelle Bachelet is no Allende. She and her rebranded coalition, Nueva Mayoría—which includes the Communists, but not some other leftist groups—are not certain to possess the will and courage required to throw off the constitutional shackles that have made Chile, under a handful of families and private corporations, the most unequal country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Educational reform is a good place to start, and it’s also within reach: Nueva Mayoría is just two seats short of the necessary majority, and one of the reform’s most vocal backers is Camila Vallejo, who won a seat in Chile’s House of Deputies. But Bachelet’s coalition did not win the two-thirds majority required to rewrite the Constitution. Then again, it could, within the terms of that document, call a plebiscite on the matter. To quote the campaign slogan of student leader Giorgio Jackson (who, like Vallejo, has just been elected) is to summarize Guardiola-Rivera’s message: “Now is the time.”

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