11 September 1973

Christopher Hitchens

  • Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History by Andy Beckett
    Faber, 280 pp, £15.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 571 20241 1

I have a more or less fixed memory of the end of the ‘Sixties’. In the autumn of 1970 I went to join a strike picket at the General Motors plant in Fremont, California. Handy for Berkeley and Oakland, the factory was one of the salients of a national labour shutdown that was scheduled to begin at 12 o’clock at night. In the ranks of supporters were hardened veterans of the battle against the Vietnam War, especially of the famous blockades of the military recruiting centres in the Bay Area. Sympathisers of the not yet discredited Black Panther Party were in evidence, as were those who had been beaten and tear-gassed alongside César Chávez in his fight to unionise the near-serfs of the Salinas Valley agribusiness empire. All the strands of ‘the movement’ were still in some kind of alignment. Just before the deadline, the company cops tried to smuggle some scab trucks through the gates, and the resulting bonfire of overturned vehicles gave a lovely light. In the next edition of the People’s World, the splash headline was a very Sixties one: ‘Fremont – In The Midnight Hour’. It competed for space with another, smaller headline, which announced the victory of Salvador Allende’s ‘Popular Unity’ coalition in Chile.

The Nixon-Kissinger regime was then only in its opening years, but it had become clear to some of us that the long, withdrawing roar of the Vietnam crisis was at least half over. What nobody quite suspected was that Chile, a country far below the Equator and seemingly well out of the line of fire, would have such a determining effect on what it meant to be ‘left’ or ‘right’ in the ensuing two decades. Andy Beckett was born a few months before the moment I have just described, and I am stirred and astonished at his brilliance, and by the imaginative sympathy with which he rekindles the arguments and emotions of a period he never knew.

For many people including myself, 11 September has long been a date of mourning and rage. On that day in 1973, lethal aircraft flew low over a major city and destroyed a great symbolic building: the Presidential palace in Santiago, known (because it had once been a mint) as La Moneda. Its constitutional occupant, Salvador Allende, could perhaps have bargained to save his own life, but elected not to do so. Instead, over a crackling radio, he made a speech that will bear comparison with the last broadcasts from Athens in 1941 and Budapest in 1956:

This is certainly the last time I shall speak to you . . . History has given me a choice. I shall sacrifice my life in loyalty to my people, in the knowledge that the seeds we planted in the noble consciousness of thousands of Chileans can never be prevented from bearing fruit . . . Much sooner than later, the great avenues towards a new society will open again, and the march along that road will continue.

There’s also an echo here of some of the defiant speeches made in defence of the Spanish Republic and the Popular Front. And, as a young politician in prewar Chile, Allende had arranged to give refuge to many anti-Franco Spaniards and Catalans and Basques. Moreover, he had sent a delegation to the Bolivian frontier in late 1968, to rescue the cadaverous survivors of Che Guevara’s doomed insurgency. If you visit the Bodeguita del Medio in Havana today, there to sample the bogus Hemingway-style mojito cocktail that the management offers to the new tourist trade, you can see where Allende once added his signature to those scrawled on the wall. ‘Cuba Libre,’ it says. ‘Chile espera.’ That was on 28 June 1961. The inscription possesses an almost antique quality these days, like a graffito from a revolutionary Pompeii. Allende, in other words, was Old Left: a dedicated physician, an anti-clerical Freemason, a tireless campaigner and reformer and internationalist. But, unlike the Fidelistas of the 26 July movement who promised an election in Cuba and have still never got round to holding one, he was absolutely committed to the routines and even the rituals of what was once known as ‘bourgeois democracy’. His victory in 1970 was the coronation of innumerable previous attempts to assemble a coalition of the Chilean Left, large enough to include the radical Christians and those of the middle class who wanted some say in how the country’s natural resources were exploited, and by whom. Pablo Neruda may have been a dank Stalinist in his politics, and have allowed this to infect his poetry, but he was writing as a patriot when he composed the potent verses entitled ‘They Receive Instructions against Chile’ (translated here by Robert Bly):

But we have to see behind all these, there is something
behind the traitors and the gnawing rats,
an empire which sets the table,
and serves up the nourishment and the bullets.
They want to repeat their great success in Greece.
Greek playboys at the banquet, and bullets
for the people in the mountains . . .
the generals retire from the army and serve
as vice-presidents of the Chuquicamata Copper Firm,
and in the nitrate works the ‘Chilean’ general
decides with his trailing sword how much the natives
may mention when they apply for a rise in wages.
In this way they decide from above, from the roll of dollars,
in this way the dwarf traitor receives his instructions,
and the generals act as the police force,
and the trunk of the tree of the country rots.

This warning was published in 1967, just after the CIA had abolished civilian rule in Athens. Allende’s election was principally a test of the limits of Chilean independence, but it was also a laboratory experiment in what used to be termed ‘the peaceful road to socialism’. Would oligarchy and empire permit an election result to stand if it went against their interests? A good number of people on the left, myself again included, were convinced that no such window would be allowed to stay open for long. Graham Greene made a visit to Chile in the early Allende years and spent a good deal of time with the supporters of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), who kept on warning that there would be a violent confrontation, engineered by the ruling class and the Yanquis without respect for ‘the rules’. Allende himself gave a series of interviews to Régis Debray, Guevara’s former epigone, in which he maintained to the contrary that a democratic transition was possible. Reviewing Debray’s book for the Times in 1971, I quoted Tawney’s old dictum that while you could peel an onion layer by layer, you could not skin a live tiger claw by claw.

In truth, as we now know in annihilating detail, the principle was not allowed to be tested. Even before Allende had taken the oath of office in 1970, death squads paid for by Henry Kissinger had embarked on a campaign of murder and destabilisation, and had shot down the chief of the Chilean General Staff, René Schneider, in the street, for nothing more than his legalistic opposition to a coup. There was an initial revulsion at this, on the part of the centre and even the Right, and the sheer voting strength and level-headedness of Popular Unity enabled it to postpone the evil day for three years. But in the meantime Nixon yelled orders, which were obeyed by his corporate and intelligence allies, to ‘make the Chilean economy scream.’ (As Daniel Ellsberg’s wife commented when she first saw the Pentagon papers, the American authorities in those days were fond of using ‘the language of torturers’.) So that when the Chilean Armed Forces came out of their barracks in September 1973, and began their hysterical mop-up, there were depressingly many who found harsh authority a respite from shortage and scarcity, and from the kind of socialist rhetoric that brings diminishing returns. This moment is captured with consummate skill in the Costa-Gavras movie Missing, where the conservative American father of the ‘disappeared’ Charles Horman arrives in town just after the coup and hands his son’s girlfriend a bag of goodies from the prosperous North. ‘Here are some things Charlie said were in short supply.’ The girl (Sissy Spacek) fixes Jack Lemmon with a pitying look. ‘Not any more,’ she says. The scarcities, like everything else, were politically conditioned.

In one way, this strangulation of Chilean democracy was a jewel in the crown of those successful Washington-inspired military coups and counter-revolutions that featured Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, went on through Indonesia in 1965 and Greece in 1967, and extended as far as Cyprus in 1974. (The slogan of the extreme Right in Chile during the Allende years was the single ominous word ‘Jakarta’: intuitive proof in itself that the poisoned apple did not fall far from the tree.) But, as a Chilean comrade of mine ruefully commented recently, he never expected that Pinochet could produce a revolution as well as a counter-revolution. The new model ‘free economy’ created in Chile became an inspiration for the British and the American Right, even as its police state provided a rallying point for the international Left. Andy Beckett makes both points with great acuity, but he confines himself to the British scene. In my view, Chile in those years had a catalytic effect on the entire political discourse. In Western Europe, it helped create the conditions both for Euro-Communism and for the ‘historic compromise’ by which important elements among the conservative order (especially in Italy) decided not to identify themselves with authoritarian rule. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, the incessant Communist propaganda about solidarity with Chile had an unintended consequence. The moral grandeur of Allende’s death, which was simplistically employed to demonstrate the obvious barbarity of American imperialism, also derived from the fact that he had been murdered as a legitimate President in between two free elections. So perhaps there was some missing point to be made about political pluralism as well. The emblematic moment here was reached in 1975, when the Soviet Union swapped the conservative dissident Vladimir Bukovsky for the imprisoned Chilean Communist leader Luís Corvalán. The Party press reported only that Corvalán had been released as a consequence of international proletarian solidarity, but in Poland in the winter of 1975, there to report on the beginnings of the workers’ movement, I found that everybody in Warsaw knew the true state of the case. Some of the comparisons between Dubcek in 1968 and Allende in 1973 were facile. And some were obtuse – Corvalán had enthusiastically supported the Soviet invasion of Prague, while not even the Red Army went so far as to murder Dubcek or massacre his sympathisers. Over time, however, the idea of a universal human rights ethic gained enormous traction from both crimes. And in the United States, the identification of the authorities with the junta principle, and not just in Chile, was a perpetual source of embarrassment and discredit. (The recent Inspector Clouseau-like performance of the Bush team over Venezuela shows, perhaps paradoxically, that establishment confidence in such methods has not yet been regained.)

To take the British microcosm of these events, as Beckett does, is to recognise a somewhat neglected and in many ways rather charming aspect of our history. There is an old latent connection between the two countries, extending back as far as Admiral Cochrane’s opportunistic semi-freelance aid for the War of Chilean Independence against Spain. (Some distant booms and cannon shots from this episode may be found in the later novels of Patrick O’Brian.) Is it too fanciful to see a common and self-consciously phlegmatic character as well? Chile is divided almost as surely from its continental neighbours, by the spine of the Andes, as is Britain by the Channel. The outlook is maritime: the principal industry is, or was, mining. Gabriel García Márquez once described Chile as ‘a cornice of the Andes in a misty sea’. One could push this too far, no doubt (the sheer quality of Chilean wine would be a counter-indicator), but it remains the case that the Chilean upper class is highly anglophile, as are many of the liberals and leftists, and that it’s a cause of local regret that, whereas the Chilean Navy owes much to British traditions, the Chilean Army was trained by Prussians – who used to rehearse counter-insurgency on the local Aurucanian Indians until the supply of exemplary victims was exhausted. Even so, and in order to distinguish it from the grisly recurrence of juntas and pronunciamentos in adjacent countries such as Argentina, Chile became known sometimes as ‘the Switzerland’, and sometimes also ‘the England’, of Latin America.

Life in the British Labour movement in the mid-to-late 1970s was mediocre and uninspired. At the Wilson-Callaghan level of leadership, the main features were compromise, consensus and corruption. The future SDP was evolving within the Cabinet; the Liberals and even the Orangemen were abjectly wooed in Parliament. The IMF could dictate terms, often not very politely. Meanwhile, the activist Left was mired in arguments over the closed shop and the dull referendum on the Common Market. Not exactly the stuff of radical intoxication. The Chile Solidarity Campaign supplied a much-needed infusion of dash and authenticity. Here was a flagrant example of a regime of steel helmets and dark glasses, riding like a juggernaut over the wreckage of the unions, the universities and the free press. Many brilliant Chilean exiles found refuge in Britain, and many of them could recite poems and play musical instruments. Joan Jara, the English-born widow of the composer and musician Victor Jara, could still a large hall with the story of how, before Pinochet’s goons murdered her husband in the camp they had improvised in Santiago’s National Stadium, they had taken particular care to smash his hands. Concerts and rallies for Chile possessed real élan. Beckett doesn’t mention it, but I remember that a fluent young MP named Neil Kinnock became the darling of the constituency parties by his advocacy of the Chilean cause. A row over the sale of British frigates to the Chilean Navy led to Eric Heffer’s resignation from the Labour Government. And – in an episode Beckett does revisit in some detail – the workers at the Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride refused to touch, or let anyone else touch, the jet engines that were being repaired for Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunters (the very planes that had bombed their own capital city on 11 September 1973). The boycott was kept up for almost five years. It is strangely moving to read his reconstruction of that episode of gritty working-class internationalism, even if the minutes of the union meetings now sound a bit like the last signals from a dying planet.

Very much less publicly, and in meetings of which we do not possess the minutes, a faction of the British Right was drawing the exactly opposite conclusion. Commenting on the Pinochet blood-bath on the day it began, the Times outdid itself by saying that matters in Chile had deteriorated to the point where ‘a reasonable military man’ might have decided to become the saviour of his country. We have since been told, in the memoirs of Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver, that there was quite a lot of loose talk in the officers’ mess in those days, about taking Britain by the scruff of the neck and generally cleaning things up. The public face of this sinister idiocy was represented by blimpish figures of fun like former General Sir Walter Walker, who perhaps thought he had found a formula to negate one of the oldest maxims of the class war – that you cannot dig coal with bayonets. But there were other serving officers who clearly hoped that they might improve on the silent mutiny with which they had prevented Harold Wilson from using force against Ian Smith’s racist settler rebellion in 1965. For such people, the workers of East Kilbride were ‘the enemy within’, to be grouped with Irish Republicans and revolting students.

Much more significant in the long run were the policy intellectuals crystallising around the Thatcher candidacy, who wanted to revive the free market doctrines of Hayek and Friedman. The paradox in their case was obvious: it might take a very strong state to impose these libertarian values. Milton Friedman himself, and others of the so-called ‘Chicago School’ of political economy, had been engaged by the Pinochet regime as advisers. In 1976, Allende’s former comrade Orlando Letelier, by then living in exile in Washington, wrote an extraordinary essay for the Nation entitled ‘The Chicago Boys in Chile’. I remember getting the New Statesman to reprint it. It laid out the principle of the ‘free economy/strong state’ equation: ‘shock treatment’ number one being the application of electrodes to the recalcitrant, and ‘shock treatment’ number two being the withdrawal of public subsidy for the unfit or the inefficient. A few months after publishing the article, Orlando Letelier was torn to pieces by a car bomb in rush-hour Washington traffic, just a few blocks from where I am writing these words. The explosive device, which also murdered an American colleague and friend, was detonated by agents of the Chilean dictatorship who, until recently, had the distinction of being the first state-supported terrorists to dare an attack in the middle of an American city. This – the ‘blowback’ from Kissinger’s policy of giving Pinochet a fair wind and a green light – has now been fully investigated by the Justice Department and the FBI. Their finding, that Pinochet himself ordered the ‘hit’, awaits executive action at a moment when the US is at least officially pledged to combat such outrages without pity or discrimination.

Beckett explores the filiations between the Chilean ‘experiment’ and such Thatcherite figures as Sir Alan Walters and Robert Moss. In the course of his inquiries, he almost incidentally explodes one false claim, which is that Thatcher’s tenderness for Pinochet arose from his ‘helpfulness’ over the Falklands/Malvinas War. This is a canard, sometimes also given currency by those who thought that the battle against Galtieri and Videla was not worth fighting. In fact, Chilean opinion about Argentine expansionism and promiscuity is fairly solid across the political board. The long running Beagle Channel dispute in the Magellan Straits makes sure of that. No government in Santiago would have been anything but pro-British in such a confrontation. How nice it might have been to see Prime Minister Michael Foot thanking President Salvador Allende for his help in bringing down the gang of torturers and kidnappers in Buenos Aires. But the Left forbids itself such thoughts. And the Right, at least in its Baroness Thatcher incarnation, forgets to say that a free market that requires death squads may be to that extent somewhat unfit for human consumption.

At any rate, there was a certain symmetry to the arrest of Pinochet in London, during one of his many Savile Row-type gentleman’s vacations. His subsequent confinement in a Surrey mansion – Surrey with a lunatic fringe – was hardly less apt. A weekly visit from the Thatchers may not have seemed cruel, but was undoubtedly unusual. And it had been on a ‘thank you’ visit to Chile in 1994 that the unironic lady had experienced the first fainting fit and collapse that presaged her ultimate decline and rancorous retirement. The picture is completed by the absolute gutlessness of British Labour in its second incarnation, and by Jack Straw’s decision to send the old brute back to Santiago. In the post-Milosevic moral universe, and in the wake of a finding even by the House of Lords that universal jurisdiction must stand and ‘sovereign immunity’ must fall, that counted as a spectacular abdication. Indeed, it made Pinochet’s long confinement in England a violation of habeas corpus and of his human rights.

As an unintended consequence, however, it will also pass into history. Thanks to Straw’s scuttle, Pinochet was to be indicted in Chile itself, but then treated with the compassion which he had denied to his numberless victims. The judge in the case, Juan Guzmán Tapia, had voted for the extreme Right in the 1970 election, had welcomed the coup in 1973, and had voted to keep Pinochet as President in the semi-fixed plebiscite of 1988. His decision to put the General in the dock was a cathartic event for the whole society. And his current investigations, into the murder of Charles Horman and others in 1970, and into the nexus of the continent-wide ‘Operation Condor’ assassination scheme, remind one of nothing so much as the incorruptible magistrate in Costa-Gavras’s Z. We will very soon know some even more dreadful things about how our rulers behaved in that period of despotism and disappearance. (Those nostalgic for the Castro version of what might have been should take note, however: their beloved Fidel was one of the first to denounce Pinochet’s arrest, on the grandiose grounds that it infringed Latin American dignity. This demonstrated the autumnal character of his own patriarchy, and the shift towards caudillismo that now infects the sympathisers of people like himself, and of his ally Milosevic.)

Writing just after the coup in 1973, Gabriel García Márquez produced a minor masterpiece of quasi-Castroite prose, entitled ‘Why Allende Had to Die’. I remember helping this essay, too, into the pages of the New Statesman. Its closing passage still has the power to make me quiver:

He would have been 64 years old next July. His greatest virtue was following through, but fate could grant him only that rare and tragic greatness of dying in armed defence of the anachronistic booby of the bourgeois law, defending a Supreme Court of Justice which had repudiated him but would legitimise his murderers, defending a miserable Congress which had declared him illegitimate but which was to bend complacently before the will of the usurpers, defending the freedom of opposition parties which had sold their soul to fascism, defending the whole moth-eaten paraphernalia of a shitty system which he had proposed abolishing, but without a shot being fired. The drama took place in Chile, to the greater woe of the Chileans, but it will pass into history as something that happened to us all, children of this age, and it will remain in our lives for ever.

To reread this was like scenting a madeleine of the drama and struggle that once was. Allende had famously been given a present of a sub-machine gun by Fidel Castro, and he died wielding it – the first time he had ever taken up arms. Had he used that gun first, and mounted a pre-emptive strike of his own against the parasitic Armed Forces and their cold-eyed foreign patrons, he might well have been morally justified. But the subsequent regime would have become a stupid ‘People’s Democracy’ and would have expired, or been overthrown, in discredit, within a decade or two. Allende chose instead to die for the values which García Márquez satirised, and it can safely be said that the long struggle of the Chilean people to depose and replace Pinochet did no dishonour to those principles, which are now being slowly and painfully internationalised.

By accident – indeed by an opportunistic and cowardly deportation – Britain has repaid a portion of the debt it owes to Chile. Today, the family of General René Schneider is bringing a lawsuit in Washington against Kissinger, every page of which consists of a US Government declassified document. The Chilean courts are conducting inquests and autopsies on the mutilated bodies that continue to surface. The gargoyles and goons are having to try to dodge inconvenient questions. Like some other small or ‘faraway’ countries in our past, Chile is one of those which – to its glory and its misery – has produced more history than it can consume locally.