Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ALAN ANGELL - Chile's coup: the perspective of forty years

The military seizure of power in Chile on 11 September 1973 continues to influence the country's politics, and its reverberations around the world were also to last for decades. Alan Angell, a distinguished scholar of Chile, reflects on the legacy of the coup and the reasons for its enduring impact.


I was in England at the time of the coup. Like many observers it took me by surprise - I thought that, difficult though the situation was in Chile, somehow a compromise would be worked out, probably with a referendum and with theUnidad Popular (Popular Unity) government forced to moderate its radical policies. I was wrong. But then, so were many Chileans who also thought that there would be no coup, or that, at worse, there would be a limited and moderate intervention.
This is the first reason for the continuing impact of the coup. It was not expected in a country which had an enviable record of constitutional government. Authoritarian governments in Spain or Greece or Portugal, following the collapse of fragile civilian regimes, were not regarded as fundamental departures from political practices in those countries. But Chile was different - at least that is what many observers believed, and with reason. The reaction was that if such a coup could happen in Chile, then it could happen almost anywhere. The Cuban revolution had become for the world in general a symbol of resistance to imperialist oppression. The Chilean coup became in turn, for the world in general a symbol of brutal military overthrow of progressive regimes.
Symbols are not accurate history. The repressive side of the Cuban revolution was ignored. There were far more brutal coups in Latin America than in Chile. Grasp of the complicated politics of Chile from 1970-73 was very superficial. But that did not matter. At the level of international perception, the Cuban revolution now had its mirror image in the Chilean coup.
A second reason for the profound impact of the coup was that it was, in some ways, the first televised coup. Images from the days following 11 September flooded the screens and newspapers of the world - and four images in particular. The Hunter-Hawker jets bombing La Moneda; the soldiers burning books in the street; that photograph of a grim-faced Augusto Pinochet wearing dark glasses and seated before the standing members of the military junta; the prisoners waiting in fear in the National Stadium. Even in the countries most remote from Chile geographically, socially and culturally, those images brought home in a direct fashion a picture of what was happening in Chile on 11 September and after. And those images from 1973 were joined by another one - the shattered car in which Chile's exiled former foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, met his death in Washington in 1976.
A third factor keeping the coup alive in the international spotlight was the activities of the Chilean exile community. For a decade after the coup, opposition politics were conducted as much abroad as in Chile. Many exiles were politicians with links with sister parties in Europe, other parts of Latin America and elsewhere. Chilean Socialists, Communists, Christian Democrats, and Radicals - all found receptive political homes outside Chile. The exile community was adept in seeking condemnation of the Pinochet government in international organisations such as the United Nations, and in persuading national governments to boycott Chilean trade and to sever links with the Chilean government. International sympathy for the Chilean opposition was widespread and strong - much more so than for the exiles from other military regimes in the southern cone. The international community felt that it understood and could relate to what was happening in Chile, whereas the politics of Argentina, or Brazil or Uruguay were so different from the experience of most developed countries that military coups in those countries evoked little response.
The clash of absolutes
It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the Chilean coup on the political consciousness of a wide variety of countries. In the European parliament the country most debated (and condemned) for many years after 1973 was Chile. In Britain, Salvador Allende’s ambassador to that country, Álvaro Bunster, was the first foreigner to address the conference of the Labour Party since La Pasionaria at the time of the Spanish civil war. In Italy, analysis of the coup by the Communist Party and its intellectual leader Enrico Berlinguer led to the "historic compromise" by which the Italian CP joined the government for the first time for many years. In France the Socialist Party debated long and hard how to change its tactics after the Chilean coup. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were among countries welcoming thousands of Chilean refugees.
This reaction was not short-lived. What was striking was how consistent was international condemnation of the Chilean government up to the time of the plebiscite in 1988 - by which time even the United States government had joined the critics.. read more: