Lessons of a Catastrophe

Lessons of a Catastrophe

Chile was a democracy, yet tyranny triumphed–in the name of fighting terror.


It can’t happen here.

Thirty years ago that is what we chanted, that is what we sang, on the streets of Santiago de Chile.

It can’t happen here. There can never be a dictatorship in this country, we proclaimed to the winds of history that were about to furiously descend on us; our democracy is too solid, our armed forces too committed to popular sovereignty, our people too much in love with freedom.

But it did happen.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military overthrew the constitutional government of Salvador Allende, who was trying, for the first time on this planet, to build socialism through peaceful and electoral means. The bombing by the air force of the Presidential Palace on that day started a dictatorship that was to last seventeen years and that, today, even after we have recovered democracy, continues to haunt and corrode my country.

The coup, however, left not only pain and loss in its wake but also a legacy of questions that I have been turning over and over in my mind for the past thirty years:

How was it possible that a nation with a functioning parliament, a long record of institutional tolerance, a flourishing free press, an independent judiciary and, most critically, armed forces subjected to civilian rule–how could that country have ended up spawning one of the worst tyrannies of a Latin American continent that is not exactly bereft of murderous regimes? And, more crucially: Why did so many of Chile’s men and women, heirs to a vigorous democracy, look the other way while the worst sort of abuses were being perpetrated in their name? Why did they not ask what was being done in the cellars and attics of their howling cities, why did they make believe there was no torture, no mass executions, no disappearances in the night? And a final, more dire, challenge, one that is not restricted to Chile and serves as a warning to citizens around our threatened world today: In the coming years, could something similar befall those nations with apparently stable democracies? Could the erosion of freedom that so many in Chile accepted as necessary find a perverse recurrence in the United States or India or Brazil, in France or Spain or Britain?

I am aware, of course, that it is intellectually dangerous to wildly project one historical situation onto another thirty years later. The circumstances that led to the loss of our democracy in Chile were very specific and do not find an exact replica anywhere in the contemporary world. And yet, with all the differences and distances, the Chilean tragedy does send us one central message that needs attention if we are to avoid similar political disasters in the future: Many otherwise normal, decent human beings in my land allowed their liberty–and that of their persecuted fellow countrymen–to be stolen in the name of security, in the name of fighting terror. That was how General Pinochet and his cohorts justified their military takeover; that is how they built popular support for their massive violations of human rights. A few days after the coup, the members of the junta announced that they had “discovered” a secret Plan Zeta, a bloodbath prepared by Allende and his “henchmen.” The evidence of such a plan was, naturally enough, never published, nor was even one of the hundreds of thousands of the former president’s followers who were arrested, tortured and exiled–not one of the thousands who were executed or “disappeared”–put on trial in a court of law for the conspiracy they were accused of. But fear, once it begins to eat away at a nation, once it is manipulated by an all-powerful government, is not easily eradicated by reason. To someone who feels vulnerable, who imagines himself as a perpetual victim, who detects enemies everywhere, no punishment to the potential perpetrators is too light and no measure to insure safety too extreme.

This is the lesson that Chile retains for us thirty years after the coup that devastated my country, particularly in the aftermath of that other dreadful September 11, that day in 2001 when death again fell from the sky and thousands of innocent civilians were again slaughtered. The fact that the terror suffered by the citizens of the United States–which happens to be the most powerful nation on Earth–is not an invention, as our Plan Zeta turned out to be, makes the question of how to deal with fear even more urgent than it was in Chile, a faraway country whose sorrow and mistakes most of humanity could quickly forget.


What has transpired thus far, in the two years since the disastrous attacks on New York and Washington, is far from encouraging. In the sacred name of security and as part of an endless and stage-managed war against terrorism, defined in a multitude of ever-shifting and vague forms, a number of civil liberties of American citizens have been perilously curtailed, not to mention the rights of non-Americans inside the borders of the United States. The situation abroad is even worse, as the war against terror is used to excuse an attrition of liberty in democratic and authoritarian societies the world over. Even in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries “liberated” by America–and free now of the monstrous autocracies that once misruled them–there are disturbing signs of human rights abuses by the occupiers, old prisons being reopened, civilians being gunned down, men abducted into the night and fog of a bureaucracy that will not answer for them.

I am not suggesting that the United States and its allies are turning themselves into a gigantic police state such as Chile endured for so many years–not yet, at least. But that suffering will have been in vain if we do not today in other zones of the world heed the deepest significance of the catastrophe the Chilean people started to live thirty years ago.

We also thought, we also shouted, we also assured the planet:

It cannot happen here.

We also thought, on those not-so-remote streets of Santiago, that we could shut our eyes to the terrors that were awaiting us tomorrow.

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