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.

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