"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.
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).
Yet rather than crack down on these would-be revolutionaries, Allende treated them as errant children. Which in fact many of them were: Allende's own nephew was a prominent MIR leader, while his two daughters, as well as all three of his mistress's daughters, were MIR members, busy renting safe houses and hiding arms caches even as Allende himself was trying to assure panicked middle-class families that his government's forced nationalizations and land seizures wouldn't affect them.
"The MIR," argues Haslam, "though too small to make a revolution, was just large enough and sufficiently well-placed, socially as well as politically, to provoke counterrevolution." On that point even the Russians agreed, with Soviet ambassador to Chile Yuri Pavlov stating, "It was well understood in Moscow that although the CIA had a lot to do with the coup d'etat, it was not the main reason."
But even as reports of military maneuverings openly circulated, Allende refused to declare a state of emergency, to abandon his democratic principles. Among Haslam's archival discoveries is a bitter conversation between Castro and East German agents: Just weeks after Allende's death, Castro wrings his hands over the contingent of combat troops that secretly stood at the ready within Santiago's Cuban embassy. Despite Castro's pleading, Allende had spurned Cuba's offer of protection as inimical to the Via Chilena. That's a conversation Castro has no doubt revisited with Hugo Chavez in the years since.
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Allende's true legacy is an unorthodox one, and it's here that Guzmán's film, so engulfed in the past, is ultimately frustrating. Allende is gone, but his protégé Ricardo Lagos is Chile's current president. And while Chile's present-day ruling Socialists may have made their peace with both a market economy and the multinational corporations Allende thundered against, in the process they've helped give their country the highest standard of living in Latin America.
Even President George W. Bush has learned to sing the praises of Chile's socialism, citing its private-account social security system as a model for his own proposed reforms. Though the actual merits of Chile's program may be debatable (paying upward of twenty percent in management fees should give immediate pause), the very comparison itself is not only telling, it's evidence of the hard lessons learned by Allende's closest followers. Putting aside their cinematic notions of storming the barricades, trading in their Che Guevara T-shirts for a seat at the boardroom table, may not have been easy. But in eschewing glib slogans and self-indulgent poses, they've created a prosperous, democratic society the rest of Latin America -- left, right, or center -- can still only dream of.
Salvador Allende screens Saturday, February 12, at 4:00 p.m. at South Beach Regal 18, 1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. For a full schedule of the Miami International Film Festival see www.miamifilmfestival.com