Revolution and Evolution

A Miami Film Fest documentary about Chile's Salvador Allende carries a contemporary message

"I have been through this," writes Chilean novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman in his new essay collection Other Septembers, Many Americas. Indeed for Latin Americans of a particular political stripe, September 11 occupied an ominous slot on the calendar long before 2001. "Ever since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup," Dorfman continues, "the malignant gods of random history have wanted to impose upon another country that dreadful date, again a Tuesday, once again an 11th of September filled with death."

Of course for Dorfman the connection is more than symbolic. With the United States government having acted as one of the prime backers of that 1973 coup, and with its chief architect, Augusto Pinochet, now finally facing trial for the resultant bloodletting, there would seem to be more than a little accounting at hand. Or as former Secretary of State Colin Powell has admitted of Chile, speaking with his characteristic tact: "It is not a part of American history that we are proud of."

Still, when it comes to Latin America, uniformed strongmen, deposed presidents, and troubling questions of U.S. involvement are all too common. What has so much of the continent buzzing over Pinochet's looming trial is neither the denouement of a notably vicious dictator (even in a field where the bar has already been set high) nor the details his testimony may reveal about the thousands of "disappeared" activists. In fact the true frisson surrounding Pinochet doesn't even arise from the man himself, but instead from the figure he overthrew, President Salvador Allende.

Allende with Castro: Nixon's fears of a "Santiago-Havana axis" were far from hysterical
Allende with Castro: Nixon's fears of a "Santiago-Havana axis" were far from hysterical

That much is clear from the moving documentary Salvador Allende, the latest work from Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, which screens this weekend as part of the Miami International Film Festival. Guzmán has spent his adult life making movies that attempt to reckon with the three years of Socialist Party leader Allende's presidency, the hopes it inspired throughout the Latin American Left, and the equally intense fears it created among those who saw merely a better-dressed version of Fidel Castro -- a school of thought whose ranks included, not least, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

This is more than just a theoretical matter: Substitute Venezuela's Hugo Chavez for Allende, and then ponder Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's cryptic confirmation-hearing remarks that Chavez was a "negative force in the region," one she found it nigh impossible "to find something positive" about in light of his authoritarian moves and his ties to Cuba. Guzmán's film may be as prescient as it is historical.

To that end, while Guzmán gives us plenty of talking heads reminiscing over their Allende years, the heart of Salvador Allende is composed of period footage that speaks to what made that president so alternately revered and hated. As Guzmán explains in a voice-over while panning past mass rallies with workers fervently jabbing their fists into the air, Allende's impassioned belief in a Via Chilena, a Chilean road to socialism through the ballot and democratic institutions, "convinced the broad Left to avoid violence" and incited a "state of love" in his followers.

Thankfully, though, Guzmán isn't afraid to let his camera contradict his heart, cutting to disturbing scenes of Allende and a visiting Fidel Castro (who left Cuba to roost in Chile for nearly an entire month in November 1971) laughing it up together, and then taking turns at target practice with an AK-47. These are moments that make Guzmán's subsequent interview with then-U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry, who recalls Nixon's fears of a "Santiago-Havana axis," seem less than hysterical.

Cambridge University professor Jonathan Haslam explores that notion further in The Nixon Administration and the Death of Allende's Chile, to be published this spring by Verso Books. His subtitle, A Case of Assisted Suicide, isn't going to win him too many friends among Ariel Dorfman's crowd, but thanks to his research in freshly opened Soviet-bloc archives, it's a more than fitting description.

In the wake of his September 1970 election, Allende embarked on a doomed balancing act, with his Popular Unity coalition of predominantly Socialists and Communists winning the presidency with just 36.3 percent of the vote. The Right took 34.9 percent while the centrist Christian Democrats won 27.8 percent. However you spin those numbers, they were hardly a mandate for radical social change, let alone a green light to embark down Allende's "peaceful road to socialism." With bands of armed left-wingers and Cold War machinations thrown into the mix, it was a formula for wholesale civil strife, which is precisely what unfolded. In fact it's a testament to Allende's shrewd political skills, his ability to placate forces across the ideological spectrum, that he was able to stay in office as long as he did.

As Haslam shows, the intelligence archives of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and the Italian Communist Party are all filled with teeth-gnashing reports on Allende's inability to rein in his own party's militants, not to mention the young headline-grabbing hotheads of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), whose bank robberies and rash street actions had even Castro himself dismissing them as "play-acting at revolution" (not that he stopped shipping them guns).

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