Español: Presidente de Chile Salvador Allende ...

Salvador Allende (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a student, there was a bloody and vicious coup in the South American country of Chile, in which the socialist and President – Allende – died, as well as an unknown number of others.

As we remember one 9/11, it is undoubtedly salutary to remember another.

It is a feature of culture that events overtake one another, that we choose what to remember, and what to forget. In a media-flooded world, our attention span is fleeting.

But sometimes, we owe it to the dead to pause, and remember. Out of respect to them, and out of concern for the present day. As Woodrow Wilson so appositely remarked, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Chile Allende

The other 9/11 deserves to be remembered too.

The coup ushered in one of the most unpleasant military dictatorships in modern history.

What made it particularly notable was the cool, vindictive way that the incoming military government under General Pinochet captured, tortured and executed many thousands of left-leaning individuals – teachers, musicians, union officials, civil servants – the so-called “Disappeared”.  That these crimes also swept up a couple of America citizens led to a moving and controversial Hollywood film from campaigning left-wing director Costa-Gravas, “Missing”, which brought the events to a wider audience than might otherwise have been interested in the goings-on in a distant Latin enclave. With his other famous film “Z” it represents a high-water moment in political artistic commentary.

How many actually were imprisoned, tortured, injured or died is unknown and always will be. Estimates of deaths vary, during the coup itself and the resulting regime, from as low as “about 3,000”, to as high as 60,000. What is also true of this unhappy time in history is that truth, as always, is the first casualty of war. Rumours have always swirled of American involvement in the coup, and they have been both rigorously denied and forcefully argued by both academics and contemporaries.

Two good sources for further reading include http://www.namebase.org/chile.html and http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/59547/william-d-rogers-kenneth-maxwell/fleeing-the-chilean-coup-the-debate-over-us-complicity and Wikipedia.

Kissinger Pinochet

Realpolitik, they used to call it. Some of us also call it hypocrisy.

What is certain is that Chile became the victim of one of the most intense periods of the so-called Cold War. Whatever the precise nature of US involvement – and it was almost certainly a combination of actions by the US military-industrial complex and direct Nixon/Kissinger/CIA political activity – there was definitely also Russian support for the Allende regime, both practical (food, and supplies) and political.

As night follows day during that sad time, Chile went the way of so many proto-battlegrounds of that era: a collapse into first economic chaos, and then political chaos. As always, it was the innocent civilians that fared worst.

At University, I was active in the Chile Solidarity Front, a thinly disguised communist/Marxist organisation that campaigned against the military dictatorship and for the return of democracy. We all knew the Front was probably funded by Moscow, but even if we were non-Marxists (as I was) we didn’t care, such was our outrage at the recent events. And the Front did good work too.

Anything up to a million leftists, intellectuals, and democrats fled Chile and ended up all over the world, some after having been roughed up, arrested or tortured, some just getting out while they still could. They frequently arrived in their new host countries as the most genuine of refugees – broke, bewildered, traumatised, deeply sad. And angry. We would run fund-raising events, feed them, find them clothes, find them accommodation, and help them get settled in new academic or working careers. Often we would just sit with them, and let them talk. They would tell us of a world dimly perceived in suburban Britain but very real – where the Cold War was anything but cold – either in their native tongue, with translators, or in broken English.

I remember one young boy in particular, perhaps 19 years old. I can see his face now. He was almost impossibly good looking, like the poster child for wayward Latino men everywhere. Masses of black curls swept over his gaunt, bearded face and down to his shoulders, completely unrestrained by any comb or brush, and his eyes were black as night, clearly haunted by what had happened to him. Like some real life Che Guevara figure he would sit in the central lobby of our Students Union and pick out pretty tunes on an old guitar someone had given him, and graciously accept coffees, and smile politely, understanding little of what was said to him, always quiet and intense, always courteous, although the smile never touched his eyes.

He had a girlfriend, also Chilean, who would sit in silence next to him, staring at him. She wore a small scarf over her hair, always pulled severely back, I recall. Scarves were not a part of current Western fashion, and nothing she could have done would have emphasised her alien-ness more immediately or more completely. She looked like a refugee from our parent’s childhood or some agricultural dystopia. And she never spoke. Sometimes, they would glance at each other, and whatever had happened in their lives – whatever visions terrified them, whatever horrors they had endured – would wordlessly be acknowledged between them. But she never uttered a sound.

Today, I sell my wares – a little writing here, a little strategic advice there – to a descendant of the great Chilean exodus. Her father still thumps the table with fiery left wing emotions, apparently. But she is more complex: a modern product of a successful capitalist society and a prodigious work ethic. Now her own children, one exquisitely beautiful young girl, and one gurgling, cheerful boy, are setting out on their own lives, in time to enrich the society I live in with their own skills, and their own unique cultural history.

There is a live debate in Australia, as in most countries, about refugees and immigration generally. It fills our airwaves with snarling faces, worried looks, heartfelt anguish, and deep discussion. So although I started this article intending to write a piece on “violence is always awful, whoever initiates it” – and so it is – along the way, it morphed into me pondering not only the disappeared, but the dispersed.

I freely confess I do not know what the answer to the world’s problems is. I thought I did once. With the arrogance of youth, I was never short of an opinion, and idea, or a way forward. I am still full of opinions and ideas, but I no longer think getting people joiked together to acheive anything is easy, and sometimes it seems to be purely impossible. Thus I am grateful for incremental improvements, and hope we can manage them fast enough to prevent disasters.

Nowadays, I look at so many places in the world and despair that we will ever learn from our mistakes.

What I do know for sure is that Hate is not the answer. And if it is not the answer, then Love probably is.

And one of the best and most practical ways I can show my love is to state, categorically, that I welcome refugees to my country.

I welcome them no matter what race, colour, creed or history. And I promise to be patient as they learn to adapt to my world, certain in the knowledge that, in time, the vast majority of them will make a growing and valued contribution to my country and my region. “Send me your poor and huddled masses” still holds true, for me.

And every time an Afghan or an Iraqi or a Burmese or a Bonsian or a Lebanese or a Sudanese glances at me and catches my eye and smiles, and I see that the smile actually touches their eyes, then I will chalk up one more tiny victory against tyranny, against those who hate the human spirit, against those who believe they have a divine right to rule with cruelty, against those who rip and maim and torture and kill the innocent, against those who carelessly tear apart families, and against those who do not recognise our common humanity.

And there will be those who call me naive, and simplistic, and I will not care.

For my part, I will sit, and listen to my new neighbours play guitar, and watch their silent looks passing between them, and buy them coffee, until they can do it all for themselves. What else can I do? What else can any of us do?

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Comments
  1. Absolutely awesome!! Even though you didn’t mean it to be.

    Like

  2. mlshatto says:

    And more than a century before the coup in Chile, the Christiana Rebellion on September 11, 1851, marked a significant turning point in the struggle against slavery in the US. I don’t usually cite wikipedia, but this article gives the best detail that I could find quickly on line. Christiana is about 25 miles southeast of where I live, so this is taught as local history. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Parker_(abolitionist)

    Like

  3. Good on ya, mate. Well said.

    In my youth, we were taught this about the US of A:

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I life my lamp beside the golden door!

    I still believe it, as do you. Both sets of grandparents lived it, and now there are hundreds of us rosy-cheeked, “native born,” immigrant descendents breathing free.

    Like

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