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.