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History circling through Chile

On Sunday Michelle Bachelet was elected the new president of Chile, which is getting a certain amount of enthusiastic cheering from lefty-types like Amy Goodman and probably the left press here in the U.S. No doubt she’s preferable to the billionaire rightwinger she defeated, but she’s far from an inspiring politician, having been the Defense Minister during the past years’ build-up of the Chilean military, and having overseen the dispatch of troops to aid the rightwing takeover of Haiti during the past year.

But she does represent a curious bit of history, having herself been imprisoned during the 1973 coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. It was one of the first times I was personally aware of the hypocritic and vicious foreign policies of the U.S. beyond the already all-too-obvious horror of Vietnam.

I was in high school in Oakland at the time. KSAN-FM radio was a seminal underground rock station, long before corporations completely took over the FM bandwidth too, and had an awesome news department. Dave McQueen did much more than ‘rip ‘n read’ in those days. He really told us what was happening (KSAN also broadcast the street drug report regularly, as well as Scoop Nisker’s hilarious “Last News Show” that followed the insanity of the Nixon administration all the way to its inglorious demise).


On September 11, 1973, (yep, 9/11), the Chilean military overthrew the government with the active support and collusion of Richard Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Thousands were murdered, thousands more escaped into exile. (By the way, in an amazing film called 11-09-01, eleven filmmakers make short pieces on the topic of 9/11–each is 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame: Ken Loach made a great one about the Chilean coup as his contribution to this not-to-be-missed film.)

As the news broke that day, McQueen was on the air repeatedly telling listeners that this was a U.S.-sponsored coup, that there was a U.S. military ship off the coast of Chile coordinating some of the events, and so on. He was really pissed and made no effort to conceal his rage. I was completely amazed, especially since there was nothing like it on any other news source.

This was one of the moments that really shaped my political sensibilities, and made me a lifelong enemy of the U.S. state. I spent a couple of my early college years on the edges of a group called the Free Chile Committee, which turned out to be a largely U.S. Communist Party group. When La Pena opened in Berkeley, I was told the folks who were behind it were untrustworthy Trotskyists of the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR) who had helped toppled Allende by being “too radical”. By the time I moved to San Francisco in 1978 the dire factionalism was evaporating in the face of the seeming permanence of Pinochet. And I was quite alienated by the CPUSA folks, whatever group they were working through. And of course by then the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions were well underway, so poor Chile kind of fell by the wayside, and lost the attention it had had for several years. The dirty war in Argentina and Uruguay and Paraguay all made Pinochet feel like part of a larger problem of U.S. military domination under the guise of the cold war imperative to squash anything “left,” no matter how tepid.

Now we’ve come full circle in some respects. Bachelet and the Christian Democrat-Socialist coalition in Chile are not really so far from the policies of Allende, but, as we’ve learned over the years, social democrats and statists of all sorts eventually get reabsorbed by the logic of global business. Chile is one of the few countries with a free trade pact with the U.S., and is still a relatively close ally. Will Bachelet lead Chile into a broader alliance with the other quasi-left governments of the region (Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela)? Rather unlikely. But perhaps a new kind of real politics is emerging that will lead to a reshuffling of alliances, a gradual but important distancing from endless kowtowing to the U.S.

Empire is far from collapse, but Latin America does seem to have a greater autonomy at the moment. Given the dirty past, and the even dirtier present, what horrors are in store? What will the madmen running the U.S. government try to unleash on Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and the others? Will the Chilean gov’t. help or hinder the dirty tricks that are certainly already well underway? Given their uncritical support for the overthrow of Aristide in Haiti and the horrible behavior of UN troops there since then, I’d say Bachelet is a trustworthy partner of the wrong people.

P.S. Jan. 18: Wanted to also rebuke all the lefties for jumping up and down about Al Gore making a speech against Bush. So fuckin’ what?!? Remember this guy was nearly as bad quite recently.

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