Si Vas Para Chile: The Struggle for Hope

Chilean Poster Chile Poster

This year [2005], after thirty-three years, I returned to Chile for the first time.  Back in 1972, I wanted to experience a different social order from that of my native United States.  Salvador Allende’s coalition of Socialists, Communists, Christian and independent left parties, the Unidad Popular, had won an electoral triumph over the split forces of conservative and reactionary parties and initiated one of the most important episodes in modern socio-political history.  For some, Allende’s presidency brought Chile to the brink of totalitarian Marxist domination; for others, including myself, it was a unique time when hope blossomed that social and economic equality and justice could be achieved by democratic means.
On this year’s visit, I saw Chile as it is today:  Peaceful, democratic, and prosperous – at least for the privileged economic sectors.  The revolutionary aspirations of the Allende years that had fired the imagination and fervor of so many, while horrifying and enraging others, are all but obliterated by the signs of a modern, apparently thriving capitalist economy:  a clean and efficient subway system; pedestrian-only shopping corridors in the heart of the city; sky-scraping steel and glass office buildings and hotels; street after street of newly constructed luxury homes in gated communities.  In the sprawling malls filled with all manner of consumer goods, it is easy to imagine being in the heart of a North American or European megalopolis.  The presidential palace, the Moneda, looks as it did when Allende presided there, the gaping holes from the Chilean Air Force’s traitorous bombardment long since plastered over and rebuilt.

But if signs of wealth and modernization are constantly in evidence, one does not have to dig very deeply to find the dramatic discrepancies between the so-called middle-class – still less than a third of the population – and the mass of the Chilean people.  Some seventy percent of Chileans, I was told, earn the minimum wage of $240 a month or less.  On that income, the glossy buildings, fine homes and modern malls, even the Metro, are well beyond the ordinary person’s reach.  Fume-spewing, dilapidated buses still careen three abreast down Santiago’s main thoroughfares, jammed with passengers.  The shanty-towns are less common, more tucked away and better cared for, but they are still there.  The desperation of engrained poverty and hopelessness makes it necessary to be very alert in much of downtown Santiago, where crime and delinquency are serious issues.  The indigenous population of Chile, the Mapuche, still suffers from harsh discrimination and, in many cases, abysmal poverty.  While the lives of the working poor have, on the whole, improved in three decades, the gap between the privileged and everyone else has only been accentuated by the enormous influx of foreign investment and privatization of virtually all Chilean economic activity.  In contrast to the lives of the poor, the modern enclaves of the barrio alto are like a country within the country, or, as some people put it to me, the re-conquest of Chile by Spain, Europe, and North America.

Although murals on the walls of the Mapocho River that traverses Santiago again advocate socialist revolution; although Punto Final – the strongest independent voice of the left in Allende’s era – has reappeared on the newsstands; although La Nueva Canción continues to reverberate with the revolutionary spirit of Victor Jara, Quilapayúnand Inti-Illimani; and although Patricio Guzmán’s film, Allende, draws large, enthusiastic audiences,  it would be wrong to deny that the political climate of today is vastly different from what it was during Allende’s presidency.  Even though Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist party – herself arrested and beaten by Pinochet’s officers, her father essentially killed in prison (he died of heart attack after being tortured) – stands poised to be electedPresidente de la República, neither she nor her party envisions a serious challenge to the vast inequalities of wealth and power in today’s Chile.  To a large extent, those with money or credit are consumed with consuming, while those with nothing are consumed with surviving.
Yet there are still hot embers –  burning cores in people who believe in the need for radical social and economic change:  Government officials with photos of Che on their wall and deep convictions in their souls;  young cantantes – singers – who sing edifying memorials to Miguel Enriquez, leader of the MIR, the group that advocated more radical and more rapid changes than Allende’s Unidad Popular;  UPpartisans who have returned from exile to continue their struggle as long as they live; and young ecological and anti-globalization activists who pour into the streets to protest when President Bush visits their country.  There are still many, including many young people, who feel that it must be possible to build a more just and equitable society, a more humane world.  They reawaken the hope and energy that was so palpable during Allende’s presidency.

The Allende years

From the ride in from the airport in 1972, my naïve notion of experiencing life in a socialist country was quickly dispelled.  As the rows and rows of shack-like houses in campamentos passed by the window of my rickety cab, I asked the driver what he thought of the revolution.  What revolution?”he chortled.  “There is no revolution in Chile!”  He railed bitterly about how impossible it was to live in Chile under Allende.  Later, I would come to understand that owning nearly anything, even something as meager as this beat-up cab, was a quantum leap from the lives of the vast majority of Chileans.  Despite working long hours under difficult conditions, most cab drivers cherished their relative status and were staunchly conservative, convinced that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain from an egalitarian, socialist state.
I lived all of 1972 in Chile, speaking with hundreds of Chileans from all points in the political and socioeconomic spectrum.  They expressed their views passionately and, more often than not, lucidly.  As a U.S. citizen, even though staunchly opposed to U.S. policies, I was nevertheless accustomed to believing that the United States was a model of a politically consciousness, democratic society.  I was unprepared to find that, in Chile, there was an exponentially greater level of political involvement in every stratum of society.  For all the theoretical openness of US political debate, I had rarely heard open discussion of fundamental social and economic issues.  Although the war in Vietnam and civil rights were, of course, intensely debated, only rarely was capitalism itself brought into question.

When I arrived in Chile in 1972, the excitement in the air mixed with almost unbearable tension.  An increasingly virulent counter-offensive threatened to derail the extraordinary hopefulness of the Allende’s presidency.  Even the ebullient first year had been an intense struggle.  After a bungled kidnap attempt by the CIA and local extremists aimed at depriving Allende of the presidency led to the death of the Commander of the Chilean Army, the center-rightDemocracia Christiana reluctantly followed historical precedent by confirming the candidate who obtained a plurality.  But the DC also moved to cripple Allende, requiring him to sign a document that gave the Chilean congress extraordinary rights to remove him from the presidency if he acted in any way they deemed to be a violation of law.  In effect, a two thirds majority could not only override Allende’s veto, but literally overthrow his presidency.  In the end, theDC would use this document to all but demand the military coup that soon followed.

Despite being a minority government that faced growing and intense opposition, Allende’s UP had made impressive strides.  By executing previously unenforced laws already on the books, Allende effected the most sweeping agrarian reforms in Latin American history.  Building on momentum and the popular will, he won legislation that nationalized Chile’s phenomenal mineral resources – copper, nitrates and coal.  Many factories were also brought into thearea social – state-controlled – of the economy as they were abandoned by foreign owners or seized by their workers.

But, despite these remarkable acts as well as significant gains in municipal elections, the Unidad Popular encountered increasingly debilitating resistance and sabotage from the right as well as challenges from the more radical left.  Conservative forces hoarded goods and sewed fear and discontent in the press – supported vocally and financially by the United States, which froze Chilean assets, refused to renew loans and poured millions of dollars into subversion.  On the left of Allende, many, most importantly theMovimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), overtly questioned whether revolutionary change could ever be achieved through the mechanisms of the bourgeois state.  They demanded more immediate changes, including support for extralegal action in support of peasants and workers who seized land and factories.  In December of 1971, shortly before I arrived in Santiago, Fidel Castro had concluded his month long stay by warning that the right was learning how to unite its opposition to change faster than the UP was learning to move forward.  Chile was attempting a unique process: La Via Chilena al Socialismo, the Chilean Road to Socialism, as the Allende and the UPcalled it – the attempt to achieve socialist revolution through democratic means.  When Fidel said this process was “insólito en la historia del mundo,” “unheard of in the history of the world,” his choice of words was double-edged for he also reminded the cheering crowds that no privileged class ever cedes its privileges voluntarily.  Those to the left of the Allende demanded arming the people while the UP insisted such actions would do nothing but give a legitimate excuse for the military to immediately seize governmental control.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning