To bomb or not to bomb? That is the question that has been exercising self-proclaimed liberal interventionists over the past two decades, from Bosnia to Syria. The argument that divides public opinion across the Western world is how far military means can be used to punish dictators.
It is worth remembering that a different dilemma racked policymakers during the 1960s and ’70s. Then, the question was which dictators to embrace — to fend off the threat of communism. Coups were staged wherever the U.S. had traction, from Congo to Indonesia.
Some of the bloodiest and, for the left, most romantic battles took place in Uncle Sam’s backyard, in Central and South America. From the moment Washington gave its backing to Gen. Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua (“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”: copyright President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1939), it was open season to oust anyone with socialist aspirations. By the end of the 1960s, leftist leaders had been kicked out of Brazil, Peru, Argentina and more, their supporters killed or imprisoned and tortured.
To mark the 40th anniversary of one of the most notorious coups, the London-based, Colombian-born academic Oscar Guardiola-Rivera retells the story of Salvador Allende, the doctor and activist who would briefly be president of Chile.
The author deftly follows two strands — political developments in Chile itself and the global context that rendered a seemingly mild version of Latin American socialism so unpalatable for U.S. government and business interests. Guardiola-Rivera contrasts Allende with more glamorous figures of his time, such as the peripatetic revolutionary Che Guevara. Allende took the more boring route, working through the system. He disagreed with the use of arms to achieve ends. “Allende lived a regular life, made regular choices and regular mistakes.”
Allende’s quieter version of politics alarmed the Chilean right and its supporters in the U.S., who feared it might succeed and serve as an example to others in the region. Straight after World War II, the battle had switched from anti-fascism to anti-communism.
“In the process, a new figure of hatred was invented: the silver-tongued intellectual turned enchanter of the masses, ready to unleash the destructive force of their resentment against the hard-working, law-abiding middle and propertied classes at home, while sowing chaos abroad in order to disrupt the natural order among nations,” Guardiola-Rivera writes. “Nothing short of an exorcism, the unleashing of regenerative and purifying counter-revolutionary violence, could cast him out.”
First came the Law for the Permanent Defense of Democracy, known as the “damned law,” in which the Communist Party was banned and activists arrested. When Allende went to the Pisagua prison camp to try to visit some of them, he came across for the first time an army officer who was running the jail, a certain Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. As Pinochet rose up the ranks, the army’s suspicion of the various left and center-left governments was clear. What was not, and what remains a tantalizing debate among historians, is the extent to which Pinochet was wedded to the idea of a coup until the last minute. A week before the coup, he denounced as “lunatics” those who suggested the army should intervene. Was this is a pose? Probably.
The Americans certainly were determined to act and even before Allende won the elections of 1970, they were planning ahead. Clandestine meetings took place involving the White House, State Department, CIA and U.S. Embassy in Bogota. They funded a number of groups whose job it was to foment trouble and to undermine the economy. The Gremialistas, or guild members, were central.
It all came crashing down on Sept. 11, 1973, when jets, helicopters and tanks entered the capital, taking out the presidential palace, the Moneda. Resistance was determined but brief. Allende took his own life rather than succumb.
A second coup followed the first. Pinochet, originally part of a military team, quickly took charge, consolidating his power and seeking to annihilate his opponents. Intellectually insecure, he devoured all the literature he could get hold of about his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. A campaign of terror was mounted across the American continent, with individuals being targeted for shooting or bombing, including on a sidewalk in Washington D.C.
Fast forward to 1998. Long after he has left office, the old man is arrested at a private London hospital. After a protracted legal battle, he is allowed to return home, where he later dies of old age while under house arrest in Santiago.
No charges were ever brought. Some loyalists, in Chile and in the U.S., still praise him for introducing market reforms that built up their country’s economy.
But they are a strange subset. Many Chileans still feel the anger about what happened to Allende and his ideals. For the most part, people now seem to shrug their shoulders and try to explain away the violence in a “that was then” sort of way. The world, people like to imagine, has moved on. If only it was that simple.