- Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir by Marc Cooper
Verso, 143 pp, £15.00, December 2000, ISBN 1 85984 785 4
The first time I went to Chile, while General Pinochet was still under arrest in Britain, it seemed wise while I was in Santiago to read books about him discreetly. Early on the hot, clear summer mornings, I would cross the screeching road outside my hotel, pass through an elaborate wrought-iron gate, and walk up Cerro Santa Lucia, a steep wooded hill in the centre of the capital. At every entrance to the park there was a desk and attendant where pedestrians were required to sign a visitors’ book, in the thorough manner of Chilean officialdom, democratic and otherwise. I would feel a faint prickle of anxiety about providing my full name and country of origin while a casually-dressed man on a worn chair paid the columns of signatures varying degrees of attention. But then I would be in, with my zipped-tight rucksack of anti-Pinochet polemics: the trees would close over the ascending path, the path would split into a maze of loops and shady dead-ends, and ornamental terraces and battlements would open out in all directions, populated only by gardeners.
They were usually too busy to stare. The absent ex-dictator would have approved, I used to think, of their uniforms and sweaty diligence, flicking the smallest accumulations of dust from under the hot benches, with palm fronds instead of brooms. All the same, I took precautions. I sat on the remotest terrace. I dressed tourist. I kept a guidebook open at all times, with whatever I was really reading concealed inside. And, feeling rather foolish, I looked up frequently from the pages, as if one of the General’s once-feared helicopters would at any moment come throbbing out of the Santiago smog, which blurred the great grey grid of the capital below from its western shanty towns to the Andes.
Instead, the hill filled up with modern Santiago. There were backpackers taking photographs of each other, and stiff Chilean businessmen taking lunchtime strolls. There were middle-aged men in muted English tweeds, and younger ones in American campus clothes. There were kissing couples much too young to remember the 1973 coup, or what followed, or President Salvador Allende’s ‘Chilean road to socialism’ before all that, which Pinochet so bloodily blocked and reversed. There were almost certainly people up here in the sunshine, above the city’s honking traffic jams, who had supported the General, or were among the third or so of the country that still did so; but it was hard to tell. It felt like being in Geneva, everything tidied and settled. I would begin to let my bookcovers show. Until the day’s first pair of mounted policemen came trotting round the battlements.
For visitors of a certain cast of mind at least, it is not really possible to forget 1973 and all that when you go to Santiago. The coup in particular is still there in the city centre streets next to Cerro Santa Lucia, in the straight dark boulevards down which the tanks came, in the heavy stone government buildings the snipers occupied, in the sunstruck squares where civilians ran for cover, in the shrapnel holes, not quite smoothed away, on the thick columns of the Presidential palace where Allende was surrounded, bombed by tiny-looking jets flashing overhead and brought out dead. All these events except the very last have been on worldwide television many times – and since Pinochet’s British arrest in October 1998 and subsequent troubles, all over again – in juddering, iconic black and white. The political experiences of Chile in the 1970s have long acquired symbolic weight abroad (at home they remain understandably more concrete) according to ideological taste, either as the obliteration of a brave left-wing experiment by right-wing conspirators, or as the necessary purging of Soviet toxins from the body of a strategically important state. People said similar things about the Spanish Civil War. Santiago even looks a bit like Madrid.
Reading foreign memoirs of the Allende and Pinochet periods occasionally feels like looking at actors’ autobiographies: as if Santiago’s palms and snowcaps were simply an appealing stage set, Chile’s traditionally vivid politics offered good crowd scenes, and the rises and falls of these two particular regimes were just great productions, to take part in and then move on. Of course, this unfairly ignores the idealism that drew activists from abroad over the Andes, and the good things they sometimes did for Chile, and the suffering some of them endured. Being imprisoned and tortured after years of healing the local poor, as the British doctor Sheila Cassidy infamously was in Santiago in the mid-1970s, is not to be dismissed by someone sitting in the British Library. But others’ accounts of minor experiences and escapes from Chile can appear a bit melodramatic, and secure diminishing returns.
Marc Cooper spent ‘27 months’ there during and immediately after the Allende Government, he tells us on the first page of his memoir. For less than a year and a half, in 1972 and 1973, he was one of the President’s translators. He was also, he admits, ‘a sort of “social tourist”’: an American in his early twenties, with ‘a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket and a head full of theories about social change’. He fled on a United Nations plane eight days after the coup. He is now a middle-aged liberal journalist of substantial American reputation. For the first third of this slim book, his tone alternates between fond self-mockery of his youthful passion for Allende and a bristling defence of ‘that momentous point’ in the history of Chile and indeed the world: ‘For many millions around the world, Chile briefly shined as a beacon of inspiration. It gave life to the notion that, perhaps, radical social change and resulting improvements in the lives of common people were possible through democratic, peaceful and legal means rather than through the violent and often treacherous turns of armed revolution.’
Now everyone from Tony Blair to Tony Benn agrees with that. Less convincing perhaps is Cooper’s claim that Allende ‘had few counterparts among politicians of the 20th century’. (How would Gandhi rate, you wonder, against the bold but doomed Chilean reformer?) As evidence, a description quickly follows of Allende, with ‘rakish bodyguards’, racing around the rich end of Santiago in a convoy of tiny Fiats, and stopping for provocative cappuccinos.
In his preface, Cooper explains that most of the writing here was done soon after the events to which it refers, and he has deliberately not revised his more reckless statements. This is honest, and can be very revealing about the times he describes. But it also indicates a confidence that his fervour is worth revisiting as a thing in itself; there is little detail here about the actual policies of the Allende Government, from free milk to vast nationalisations, from rural land reform to the provision of cheap consumer durables. There is much more about the style of the regime, as viewed by a ‘radical’ outsider: the rallies, the radio broadcasts, the sense of urgency and significance attached to minor political acts like turning up for meetings or reading the papers. Thus Cooper’s kitchen in his rented flat in Santiago has ‘the look of some war room’. We first meet him and his fellow foreign activists, fired up on café con leche, ‘hunched’ at the table, ‘poring’ over headlines about an imminent visit from Fidel Castro.
Hurrying into the city centre in the hope of a lift to the airport to greet the Cuban leader, Cooper has his first piece of writer’s luck. He pauses to take a photograph of some Young Socialists putting up a banner, and is challenged by one of them. At first he is angry, but then the man apologises and they start talking. It turns out that his father is a senior bureaucrat, of a prosperous family with French origins: ‘“My family . . . has some importance in Chile,” he said proudly. I asked what his family name was. He paused for a moment and then answered. “Well, it’s not that famous. It’s a name that Chileans might know. But not you foreigners. My name is Pinochet. Christian Pinochet.”’
In fact, there is almost a page of Pinochets in the Santiago phone book. And Cooper does not immediately reveal whether Christian is a relation of the General, himself apparently just a career soldier at this stage in the Allende Presidency. Yet a pattern to the book is set. The author rushes about trying to contribute to the Chilean revolution, and instead finds portents of its collapse: a Government rally that implodes into name-calling between socialists, Communists and those in favour of violence; a premature coup attempt; and the suppression of riots in Santiago using soldiers. Their Commander, the next day’s papers record, is one Augusto Pinochet. Cooper asks his contact in the family if he knows him. ‘He’s an uncle. And he’s an arsehole,’ Christian says. Cooper points to all the favourable press coverage, hailing the General as a protector of the revolution. ‘Don’t believe a word of this shit,’ Christian says. ‘My uncle is no democrat. He’s a fascist.’
From here, the story accumulates momentum like a thriller, in economical, slightly over-excited paragraphs which unerringly place the protagonist at the centre of the action. Cooper learns of the coup early on the morning of 11 September 1973, as the sun is catching the jacaranda blossom, from a pro-Allende taxi driver who tells him: ‘The fucking fascists are overthrowing the Government.’ His flat turns out to be right across the road from the headquarters of Pinochet’s junta. He burns his Socialist Party card, but is told by someone with military connections: ‘Cooper, you’re fucked. Your apartment has been raided and they’re out looking for you.’ More swearing and coffee-drinking. Cooper hears Allende’s defiant last words – a fixture in almost all Santiago coup narratives – on a crackly radio in a friend’s living-room. They all cry ‘for I don’t know how long’.
Just over a week later, Cooper is on a plane crossing the Andes with a high-school swimming team returning to Texas. His escape is excitingly and unsparingly described as the piece of skin-saving it was, complete with begging embassy phone calls. He is not arrested or tortured; he spends the time cowering indoors, living on junk food and rumours, as the curfews descend outside and opposition to the new dictatorship fails to materialise. And from this quick stripping-away of his faith in Chilean politics grows the latter two thirds of the book. This is altogether more ambiguous and rewarding.
Unlike many writers about Chile in the 1970s, Cooper has been back. Not just recently, but in the years between the coup and Pinochet’s arrest in Britain, when Chile was no longer such a cause abroad, and the coup footage was no longer being shown on television, and the offices of the left-wing Chilean solidarity organisations were closing or moving to pokier premises on the outskirts of Stockholm or London. He is interested in how his former ‘beacon of inspiration’ has become a beacon to others with rather different politics, the favourite economy and welfare system and the model society of Thatcherites everywhere: ‘a place where idolatry of the market has most deeply penetrated’. The place, perhaps, where the current order of things was first anticipated.
If you drag yourself away from the bullet holes and gloomy arcades of old central Santiago, and head east towards the mountains, a different city soon asserts itself. Almost from the foot of Cerro Santa Lucia, the land rises steadily upwards. The air freshens. There are fewer Latin American-looking palm trees and more European-looking firs. And behind them stand rank on rank of new pale office blocks and apartments, lawn sprinklers swishing between them, new dual carriageways humming below. Every second car seems to be a Mercedes, every pavement seems swept and hosed. There are whole streets of restaurants, as pristine and international as the ones in Canary Wharf. There are golf courses, electric gates, maids with downward gazes doing the shopping in the midday heat. Up here in Las Condes, La Dehesa, Vitacura and the other spreading suburbs of the Santiago rich, more than a decade after Pinochet’s reluctant restoration of democracy, the beneficiaries of his dictatorship are pretty plain to see. An enormous Army base, with plush accommodation and men with very modern guns patrolling among the topiary, acts as a reminder of how this new Chile was underwritten by the military. Between 1973 and 1990, without the awkwardness of elections, and with the authority derived from a complete apparatus of state security, Pinochet was able to give his country over to economic theory. He had little or no prior interest in monetarism, trade-union neutering and privatisation, but by the early 1970s, in British and American think-tanks and Chilean universities, this emerging right-wing programme had advocates eager, in fact desperate – with Allende-style socialism, in their view, about to sweep a world destabilised by the oil crisis and Soviet subversion – to see unfettered capitalism put into practice. Chile made an ideal laboratory: it was a small economy and society, already quite modern, urbanised and used to receiving economic prescriptions from abroad. Moreover, Allende’s overthrow had taken place against a backdrop of strikes, shortages and corrosive inflation (again the parallels with troubled richer countries suggested themselves), though some of the chaos was the work of the coup plotters. Almost any subsequent economic ‘reforms’ by the Pinochet regime could be made to look like progress.
Or so the theory went. In fact, when Cooper first crept back in 1975, Chile was probably poorer. In a cycle soon to be familiar in Britain, Allende’s winter of discontent had been succeeded by ‘shock treatment’, as the over-confident postgraduates now running the Chilean economy called it. Inflation was still rising, but consumption had collapsed. Unemployment was at unprecedented levels. Cooper finds Santiago eerily spotless and silent, full of half-built social housing abandoned in 1973. Church soup kitchens try to stand in for the old welfare state. He meets a broken old man in a café who used to be a minister under Allende, listens to him whisper about being strapped down and beaten, and quickly takes a train back to Argentina. This section of the book is sparse with its descriptions, as if the author was too scared most of the time to take out his notebook. When he returns to Chile in 1983, his confidence begins to reawaken: the economy is in trouble again, crowds at football matches are suddenly chanting against Pinochet, the capital’s shanty towns ‘seethe with resistance and rebellion’. Cooper thrills at the fresh graffiti, the black rings on the roads from burning tyres, the whiff of tear gas among the tin shacks and stone-throwing crowds. This, you sense, is the confrontation he half-wished for in 1973. He reaches for the language of noble struggle (‘streets of fire’ and the like), and caricatures Pinochet’s remaining supporters as uniformly wealthy and complacent. Yet it is all premature: like Franco, Pinochet outlasted many of his enemies. Through the mid-1980s, he sent trucks with water cannon and wire mesh windows onto the streets by day, and secret police by night. He was shamed neither by the Church at home nor by governments abroad. And gradually, by dismantling state education, pensions and healthcare, he forced Chileans to internalise the qualities he considered important: cold self-reliance, aspiration to wealth and respectability. He made them good citizens of the global market.
By the time he stepped down, this was probably too late to change. The Chilean Governments since 1990 have challenged the order they inherited to about the extent that Tony Blair has undone Thatcherism: here and there, on constitutional matters and in a general loosening of social prohibitions. But as a left-wing Santiago academic said to me last November, as we tried to avoid being run over by privatised buses beneath a billboard for an American computer company, ‘we’re still living in the landscape he created.’ Cooper’s last two chapters have a defeated air. There is some quite justified gloating at Pinochet’s 1998 arrest – the London Clinic, where he was awoken by armed policemen to the outrage of Thatcher and others, shares its name with a notorious Santiago torture centre of the 1970s. And had Cooper still been writing last December, when the General was arrested in Chile as well, his conclusions might have been more optimistic.
Yet what linger most strongly here are the portraits of modern Chileans living by compromise. Cooper perfectly captures the small material gains and large social costs of the new entrepreneurial Chile:
As I enter the living room of Cecilia’s three-bedroomed, 950-square-foot home, I feel like I need a coat of vaseline to squeeze in. Her house, her microwave, stereo, three-year-old used car, the private school tuition for her three kids, are all leveraged on several lines of credit. Her husband makes a couple of hundred dollars a month working in a government highway toll booth.
Cecilia is 35, from a family of Communists. She is still ‘a staunch leftist’, but ‘never talks about politics unless she’s asked’. She is officially unemployed; actually, she works for several banks, going from door to door in her dusty outer Santiago suburb, offering lines of credit. The interest rate is 75 per cent. Elsewhere in the capital during 1998 and 1999, Cooper comes across people carrying fake wooden mobile phones for show, and schoolchildren sticking patches from posh academies they have never attended on their rucksacks. His slightly lofty disappointment sighs from the pages.
He may overstate Chile’s transformation by Pinochet, as he may exaggerate the country’s earlier appetite for Allende. This is after all a memoir and polemic, not much more than perceptive diary entries really, linked by short and subjective explanations of the general background. It is not a history book. Cooper says close to nothing about the Chile beyond Santiago, the long fingers of desert and foggy coast and cold forest where two thirds of the population live, which is a bit like seeing the Russian Revolution purely in terms of Moscow and St Petersburg. He virtually ignores the country before Allende’s election in 1970; had he not, he might have noted that, like every capital, Santiago had been rife with social climbing and materialism for centuries. But we all have our oversights. On my first visit to Chile, when I went back to the airport to take an internal flight, I was in the departure lounge trying to look like a backpacker when I noticed something about the news-stand. It was stacked with books critical of Pinochet.