Posts Tagged ‘Allende’

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 and 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?

9-11 World Trade Centre

10 years on, what have we learned?

As time marches on and we edge ever closer to the fateful 10-year anniversary of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, I am reminded of the act of witnessing it, as I am sure many other people are. Where and when I was, what I thought and felt, what I did.

Even without watching the nightly wall-to-wall programming of commemorative programmes (some of which I confess I find unpleasantly ghoulish) it is impossible to ignore how the event presses in on one’s consciousness. I have been tempted to try and glide past the memorialising because I have done all my thinking about that awful morning, I know what I think, and remembering the awful scenes and its aftermath often reduces me to great sadness. But then, as I do my best to ignore it, I feel guilty for not respecting the memory of those who died or were injured or bereaved, and also for avoiding active consideration of the geo-political implications of what happened, so I end up beating myself up.

In order to square this circle I do what any writer would do. I give up ignoring it, and write.

I recall I was watching TV in bed, resolutely awake as I often am, at around eleven or midnight (I forget the exact time difference). Newsflashes started breaking, and I found a news channel, woke my wife from her slumbers, and then, like so many millions of others, we watched with growing horror and realisation of the scale of the attack. I think I guessed immediately that the first plane to hit a tower was the work of terrorists. Something just twigged. Soon enough, of course, the second plane and subsequent news made it clear that this was an assault of unprecedented viciousness and effective co-ordination.

I turned to my wife and said “This means war.” I mused. And after a while I added: “But it won’t solve anything. Until we find out why these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.”

She asked me who it meant war with. I answered: “We’ll find someone.”

Looking back, I think it is revealing that I instinctively used the word “We”.

It is easy to forget now, in the aftermath of the vitriolic debate about the wisdom of “what the West did next”, how much of the world felt at one with America at that moment. Whether or not we approved of America’s exercise of its diplomatic or military might, and Lord knows many of us had not, for a generation or more, there was a profound sense that this great wrong was simply that – unfathomably, appallingly, unutterably, cruelly wrong. And that therefore, and without equivocation or analysis, we stood united with the victims, and with those who would extract justice for their deaths.

The subsequent squandering of that goodwill by America may, in fact, be the ultimate tragedy of what has happened since.

America had certainly been lumbering around the world stage since World War II with all the subtlety of an overweight and rather unintelligent schoolyard bully. Overthrowing and murdering democratically-elected leaders either directly or by proxy – Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo – tacitly or actively supporting brutal regimes or wars – 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 3 million dead in Pakistan’s attempted suppression of Bangladesh,75,000 dead in El Salvador – and, of course, its highly questionable involvement in Vietnam. Amongst others. And in the Middle East, America was implicated in various coups d’etat, police actions, aggressive growing of its military presence, and so on. The list of clumsy and often murderous American actions is tragically long, and if I fleshed it out here this article would be about little else.

And yet, for many, even those who had felt the heavy-handed might of American influence and not always benignly, there was an abiding opinion that, for all its faults, America was basically on the side of the good guys. For example, it almost single-handledly paid for the United Nations infrastructure, and its aid programmes, year after year. Its people donated more to overseas charity, per head of population, and in gross terms, than any other nation on earth. Its own overseas aid programmes were mammoth. Many of us were old enough to recall (or to have been told, first hand) how American money had essentially re-built Europe after World War II. And Japan. And Americans themselves – while they might occasionally have been a little brash or unsubtle for countries lucky enough to host their holiday-makers – were recognisably good natured, polite, free-spending, and generous with their praise, too.

America was looked on as a child which was occasionally naughty or untutored, but which was always striving to do better, and as such, should be encouraged. A great and glorious and ever-evolving experiment in free-market economics tied to a healthy, forceful democracy, never likely to be perfect, but my goodness it was prepared to give it a go.

In the years since 9-11, the general opinion of America has changed out of all recognition. And Americans are to blame.

There are many reasons why the stock of the good old USA has fallen so far and so fast, not least the way the rest of the world is appalled at the current American inability to find a way out of an economic mess which is largely of its own making, and the refusal of its political class to sit down and nut out a bi-partisan approach to problem solving. Both the White House and those on the Hill (and don’t get me started on the state of the GOP generally) look and sound like they are in the grip of a bunch of egotistical village idiots high on crack cocaine … talking aggressively and confidently about nothing that has any passing contact with the reality of the world.

But most of all, the current mistrust and downright dislike of America is down to one thing.

Conflating the search for Al Qaeda and the assassins of 9-11 into an excuse to finally get rid of Sadaam Hussein and his ugly regime in Iraq and to secure America’s strategic access to the region’s oil was a terrible, perhaps unforgivable mistake. Blind Freddie can see that it has left a legacy of bitterness and instability in the area that will not be overcome in my lifetime, and not, I fear in the lifetime of my precious daughter, nor even her children if they arrive.

There are many, and they are by no means all Middle Eastern, Muslim, or liberal politically, who can simply never forgive Bush and Cheney – especially – but also Tony Blair, John Howard and others – for a conflict that rapidly and predictably led to umpteen entirely avoidable civilian casualties. 100,000? 200,000? Half a million? More? No one will ever be entirely sure. It seems like the upper estimates are the more accurate. (If you doubt my assertion that the bloody, never-ending quagmire in Iraq was predictable, just “google” Dick Cheney’s remarks on why Bush Snr didn’t continue on and depose Hussein when he had the chance. They are instructive.)

And yet, faced with ample evidence and growing certainty that a terrible error had been made, the American political establishment steadfastly refused, year after year, (and still refuses), to allow any official suggestion that the war was ill-advised, ill-planned, badly prosecuted and very possibly illegal. No mea culpa was allowed to pass its lips.

It gave every impression that the on-going civilian disaster in Iraq was just a mild disappointment on the road to a greater good, despite mounting evidence that Iraq was not (and won’t be) pacified, that the chaos would spread to neighbouring nations (as it has, and will continue to do so), and that its new Government, despite democratic trappings, would likely end up just as corrupt, brutal and inefficient as the last.

The rest of the world could see this very well, (most saw it before the first shot was fired), and were appalled by America’s stupidity, cupidity, insensitivity and intransigence.

And blinded by that instinctive knee-jerk patriotism which can in some circumstances be so useful and laudable, but which when the American government is behaving badly is so unhelpful and damaging, and captured by the almost religious fervour and respect in which those who “serve” are held in the American consciousness, the American people seemed only mildly discomforted by what was going on in Iraq.

Yes, of course there were notable and honourable exceptions. And, of course, the intelligentsia and the chattering classes engaged with the debate.

But the vast mass of Americans seemed to care less that their military, (and it was, almost entirely, American troops), were slaughtering thousands, whether deliberately or accidentally, (as if it really matters), and were compounding the madness by foolishly creating  a power vacuum into which assorted madmen rushed waving AK-47s, and  football stadiums full of entirely innocent civilians were dying every year. In Vietnam, this produced a near revolution inside America. Nowadays, the wave of bloody death visited on families going about their ordinary lives seems to have become so commonplace – or so well hidden – that it creates barely a ripple on the body politic. Until one starts discussing the cost, in dollar terms, of the military adventure, or the body bags of American casualties coming home with such tragic regularity, and then people really do seem to get riled up.

I do not propose to discuss Afghanistan as well here because I believe the conflict in that sad and much-battered country is entirely different in nature, although it can appear similar if one only looks at the surface detail. The war in Afghanistan was a genuine international effort, welcomed by many of its people, with specific aims (even if they have since proven intractably difficult to achieve), and morally supportable. The Taliban were and are the latest manifestation of brutal fascism on our planet, and their influence would undoubtedly have spread (into the former Soviet Union, and into Pakistan and Iran) if they had not been displaced, along with their medieval rejection of learning, medicine, individual rights, and hatred of women. Because they have not essentially changed their nature, or their agenda, the war to sustain quasi-freedom in some parts of Afghanistan is still, in my opinion, justified. (Although we need to start working out with much greater urgency how the hell to end it.)

So what do I think, ten years on from 9-11? I think, if America is to somehow regain its international standing, at least with its friends, if not its enemies, then sooner or later someone with great leadership qualities and backed by a surge of public moral support is going to have to stand up and say, without prevarication, “We acknowledge that – despite the courage of our troops, despite the fact that many of us thought we were doing the right thing – Iraq was not only not our finest hour, it may have been our ugliest. We fatally miscalculated: we over-reached ourselves. We didn’t care enough about the people of Iraq. We were misled by those who should have known better, and we failed to think hard enough. Never again – never again – will we behave in such a cavalier and dangerous manner. Forgive us, world. We know we messed up, big time, and we have learned. Just watch us, we won’t do it again.”

Because that’s why some people hate America, and why so many people who love America nevertheless despair of its future, despite their love.

You just never seem to say sorry.

And remember: until we work out while these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.

God bless America.