Santiago de Chile
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president, has frequently invoked Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died in a US-backed coup on September 11, 1973, as a hero and a model. As a fervent supporter of the democratically elected Allende, who worked with him in the Presidential Palace in Santiago in the months before the military takeover, I feel compelled, therefore, to imagine the words of advice Allende might direct from beyond the grave to his Venezuelan colleague at this dangerous moment for Latin America.
Señor Presidente Nicolás Maduro:
I send you these words as you fight for your political life, vowing that you will not be deposed as I was in Chile by a military coup carried out by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, terminating democracy in my country for 17 years and leaving a lasting legacy of pain and injustice.
I understand why you wish to emphasize the similarities between your situation and the one I endured. Though there are many uncomfortable and embarrassing differences between us—which I will not hesitate to point out—there are also striking and alarming parallels. As in Venezuela today, revolutionary Chile back then was ferociously divided into two warring camps, with leaders of Congress seditiously asking the military to intervene against the constitutional government, goaded on by the more prosperous sectors of the population, whose interests were under siege as we gave birth to a society for the majority and not the select and privileged few.
The Chilean experiment—we were trying to build socialism through peaceful means, rejecting the sort of armed struggle that had prevailed in all previous revolutions—was in trouble, and undergoing considerable economic difficulties, albeit nothing like the extraordinary humanitarian disaster plaguing Venezuela at this moment. And just as Nixon and Kissinger and American multinational companies conspired against Chile in 1973, Trump, Pence, and Pompeo (not to mention the redoubtable Elliott Abrams, of Iran/Contra infamy) are leading the effort to oust you, the constitutional president of Venezuela, through the force of arms.
Latin Americans can be excused if they see in this imperial arrogance a sad repetition of the countless interventions—military, political, and financial—in the internal affairs of countries around the world that have disgraced Washington’s foreign policy for far too many decades.
Despite these resemblances between Chile in 1973 and Venezuela in 2019, I feel that you do a disservice to history and to the cause of revolutionary change by comparing yourself to me. I was, throughout my life, and until the moment of my death, a defender of democracy in all its forms. Never, during my three years in office, did I restrict the freedom of assembly of my opponents (even when some of them engaged in virulent tactics and terrorist acts), nor did I curb in any way the freedom of the press (even when papers, radios, and TV stations owned by the Chilean oligarchy were calling for my removal and spreading lies about my person and my tenure). Not one person was jailed for expressing his or her opinion, nor, heaven forbid, was anyone tortured while I was president. If anything, my opponents were given free rein, which they grievously abused, helped by millions of dollars expended by the CIA. And I scrupulously respected the result of all manner of elections during my time in office, especially when they were unfavorable to me. One other disparity: You have enormous support from Russia and China, whereas I asked what was then the Soviet Union for help and received not a penny in aid (maybe as payback for my having condemned the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968). As for China, it had reservations about our libertarian revolution, and later refused to break relations with the Pinochet regime.
The situation is, therefore, complicated: Echoing the Chilean crisis of 1973, you find yourself threatened with a military takeover financed and coordinated from abroad, while, at the same time, you display strong authoritarian tendencies that I most definitely do not identify with or condone. You are right to reject the flagrant foreign intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs and right to warn about the consequences of calling for the armed forces to drive out a government elected by the people of your country, a move that would fracture the legal constitutional order and imperil hard-earned sovereignty. But you are wrong to undermine through your repressive actions the democracy you claim to be protecting, and wrong when you persecute many citizens whose patriotism and love for human rights cannot be disputed. And despite my sympathy for some of your reforms (though they often smack more of populism than socialism), your administration exhibits a worrisome level of corruption and ineptitude. Let me add that for Chileans who suffered massive exile under Pinochet, it is disturbing to watch such vast contingents of your own compatriots fleeing their homeland.
You keep stating how much you admire me. Allow me, then, to offer some advice as to how you might save your country from a civil war and, at the same time, preserve some of the reforms that have redistributed income and empowered the poor who have been perennially neglected by some of the very people who now seek to terminate your presidency. When I faced an analogous state of affairs—Chile was paralyzed by an opposition that knew no bounds in what it was willing to do to unseat me—I decided to hold a referendum that would allow the people to determine the road that our country should take. If I lost that referendum, I would resign and call for new elections. My plan, announced to the high command of the armed forces, was to definitely call for that referendum on September 11, 1973. But—what a surprise!—the plotters of the coup advanced the day of the takeover in order to block a nonviolent solution to our impasse, proving that they wanted to destroy democracy and not defend it, which may well be the case with a number of your own antagonists.
I am not sure if you are willing, or able, to envisage a referendum in Venezuela today such as the one I was going to propose over 45 years ago in Chile. I did not trust my opponents and they did not trust me. But I still believe that we could have negotiated a series of agreements that would have left democracy and the will of the people intact.
It is not only the suffering of the Venezuelan people I am hoping you can avoid, but something of significance to all Latin Americans. Although it is true that some of your troubles are due to the actions of the United States, which has boycotted and subverted your economy as it did ours, and instigated a coup against your predecessor, Hugo Chávez, I am particularly concerned that the way in which you have irresponsibly misgoverned your country is doing immeasurable harm to the progressive forces in the rest of Latin America. You are being used as the bogeyman of the continent, and several right-wing movements, including those in Chile, Colombia, and Argentina, not to mention the neo-fascist Bolsonaro in Brazil, have gained power, in part, by positing themselves as the only ones who can save their lands from becoming another Venezuela. Even Trump has, absurdly and maliciously, implied in his recent State of the Union speech that only he can stop America from becoming “socialist” like Venezuela.
There is, of course, no basis whatsoever to the scurrilous claims that anyone who opposed right-wing rule or savage capitalism would be the next Maduro, but such accusations have facilitated the rise of malignant strains of conservative, nationalistic populism, many of which are openly nostalgic for Pinochet’s dictatorship. It is troubling that you give “socialism” a bad name precisely when democratic socialism has again become popular among workers and young people everywhere as a way of solving the global problems the world faces, at a time when we need more democracy and not less, more tolerance and not less, more respect for our fellows and not less, as an answer to our dilemmas.
You may well respond by stressing that my tactic of negotiations, my belief in a revolution that valued the rights of my adversaries, led to my death and the demolition of the Chilean “road to socialism.” My vibrant answer is that, now, so many decades later, my example of sacrificing my life for democracy and a peaceful revolution continues to shine throughout the world, inspiring humanity to never cease its quest for social justice.
It is my hope that you will, at the very least, ponder my words, and find a way forward that will prevent a terrible bloodbath and not inflict permanent damage to the cause of those who struggle for the right of the forgotten children of the earth to dream of an existence full of dignity and decency, free from misery and oppression.
Yours, from the other side of death and history,