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Spain and Latin America's Southern Cone
By Luis Martín-Estudillo, Roberto Ampuero
Vanderbilt University PressCopyright © 2008 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
Democratic Culture and Transition in Chile
(Translated by Anna Guercio)
When discussing the Chilean democratic tradition in the years prior to the military coup d'etat, many understood this tradition to be a highly fragile one, having suffered dramatic interruptions, in 1891 for example, when a rebellion by Congress's conservative majority, in alliance with the navy, toppled the constitutional government of President Balmaceda, or during the instability of the 1920s, which culminated in the dictatorship of General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo between 1927 and 1931. In any case, for most of its history, independent Chile has enjoyed relative political stability, putting it in stark contrast with the rest of Latin America and with Spain itself. This is why Argentinian general José de San Martín, in a letter to a Chilean friend from his exile in the north of France, could say that Chile was the only country that "knew how to be a republic and speak Spanish at the same time." The pronouncement, as you can see, implicated Spain and the Spanish-speaking republics of North, South, and Central America. The question that many Chileans have often asked themselves, above all those in the cultural sector and in the social and political sciences, is whether this stable republican condition, linked to what some early twentieth-century essayists called "Estado en forma," has deep, solid roots, if they're somehow anchored in our intellectual and ethical consciousness, or if it's all been simply a historic mirage. That is to say, we ask ourselves if our old democratic pride, the product of what has been referred to as the "Chilean exception," was truly warranted or really just an oasis, a ceasefire, almost an accident, in the middle of an enormous desert patrolled by either barbaric warlords or by vaguely learned ones. The coup by General Augusto Pinochet, followed immediately by institutional collapse and repression charactered precisely by such barbaric ferocity, was, among other things, an intellectual scandal, the spectacular fall of all manner of illusions and widely held myths, foremost among them the myth that Chile possesses a strictly "professional" military, one utterly subject to the primacy of civil power.
The myths of Chilean democracy, like all myths, have had their variations, their conflicting versions and inversions. To a large extent, the country's civil society, from the center to the right, constructed the legal scaffolding and foresaw all the legal maneuvers needed to justify that coup d'etat. This work was carried out within the context of the Cold War, and it was precisely the Cold War phenomenon that pushed Chilean politics out of its purely national and local coordinates. The narrow electoral victory of Salvador Allende put an end, perhaps forever, to the remote, naive country where nothing, according to wide-spread belief, ever happened. After those elections the first Sunday of September, 1970, in Chile, in the country were nothing ever happened, everything began happening—internal and international conspiracies; interventions, one, by the CIA, and the other by the world's leftist fringe—and I have now come to believe that the intellectuals, at least in those first moments, found themselves disoriented, adrift, without direction or a clear frame of reference. What happened among us was not—and was very far from being—the October Revolution, or the Chinese communists' Grand March, or the arrival of a group of bearded guerillas in Santiago. It was an electoral process like all those prior, a civic colloquium with which we were well-acquianted, intimately familiar since infancy, with a winner, moreover, who secured only 37 percent of the votes cast, but nevertheless, based on political circumstances that some thought lucky and others perverse, that mediocre outcome at the ballot boxes, incredible as it may seem, had profound revolutionary consequences. The country with groundhog dreams, as nineteenth-century historian and essayist Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna liked to call it, suffered a rude awakening. Not everyone immediately grasped the dangers of these circumstances, but I've now reached the conclusion that the principal actors, all along the political spectrum, had grasped them indeed. I was then director of the Chilean embassy in Lima, and I had to travel to Santiago in October, a month and a half after the elections and a few weeks before the presidential transfer of power. I've quoted more than once the first thing that Pablo Neruda said to me when I went to visit him one morning at his house in the foothills of San Cristóbal, in the northern region of Santiago. Remember that Neruda, up until nine months prior, had been a candidate for the communist party presidential nomination, revealing that his personal perspective and political outlook were not merely that of a lyric poet dedicated to the exclusive contemplation of the clouds or his own belly button. So then, I climbed up to his library, located in the highest part of the house, and one of the first things that the poet said to me, after hello, was: "I see only black." Nothing could have been clearer: the intuition of a lyric poet who had, after decades, entered the political arena, pointed to imminent danger. It strikes me, even when I don't recall the exact words, that he detected an extreme polarization, a feeling of hatred and war in the air.
Later, on a different occasion with Neruda and some of his friends, I exchanged impressions with Luis Corvalán, then secretary general of the Chilean communists, and he told me something that worked out to more or less the same thing: "It's far more difficult to be in the government than to oppose it." And, above all, we might add now, more difficult for them, for those orthodox communists, who sought to exercise a moderating influence and who, after the fall of the Unidad Popular, were probably the most persecuted and beaten. All of this stems from one essential fact: the Cold War, which we had been accustomed to viewing as a conflict more or less removed from us, a drama played out on other stages, had arrived abruptly, dramatically, and relatively unexpected on our shores. In those same days of October, 1970, I met with Salvador Allende, then president-elect, in his modest home on Guardia Vieja Street in the Santiago neighborhood of Providencia. I came away with the strong impression of a man intensely worried, harried, not yet prepared to adopt a clearly defined code of conduct. For example, the following day he was obliged to attend a rally in the Plaza Victoria in Valparaíso and there were rumors circulating of a planned attempt on his life. "But, I said, as president-elect, I cannot go into hiding. I must take the risk and show my face." Two or there days after that conversation, when I was already back in Lima, there came the kidnapping attempt followed by the assassination of General René Schneider, the army's Commander in Chief, an event that revealed that all the apprehension, all the fear, was absolutely justified. In a few short weeks, the Chilean political climate had taken a radical, irreversible turn. While the left struggled to organize its defense despite scarce resources and evident internal divisions, the far right conspired shamelessly, aided by the government of Richard Nixon and his adviser, Henry Kissenger.
In the midst of this climate of latent civil war, it seems to me that the intellectual class, certain exceptions aside, did not possess a unified voice. There was a great deal of internal debate and it would be absurd to suggest that there was a united front of intellectuals, writers, and artists, such as existed, for example, in republican Spain. The difference was fundamental: Spanish intellectuals had been united since the outbreak of war. In Chile, on the other hand, there had been a tense period of waiting, accompanied by frequent, aborted attempts at various revolutions, but the possibility of war seemed less and less likely. It has been pointed out a few times that the process of Allendeism began with a serious crisis of the Cuban intellectual world, highly symptomatic and influential throughout Latin America. Poet Heberto Padilla's imprisonment and his subsequent, terrible self-indictment, obviously prepared and orchestrated by Cuban security organizations, was an unsettling occurence and provoked all sorts of distrust and guardedness. Allendeism, unlike Castroism, did not begin its march with the enthusiastic support of Spanish-language poets, philosophers, and artists. There was a dominant note of reserve, even if it was not made entirely explicit. Cuba's dogmatic excesses, seen even by those who would have preferred not to, must have had a substantial impact, although neither declared nor well-studied, on the Chile of the Unidad Popular. After the military coup d'etat of September 1973, the political consciousness of cultured people would have had to readjust, to be brought up to speed, to relearn the feeling of modern democracy, before they could participate powerfully, enthusiastically, imaginatively, in Chile's transition.
Today I can see a prehistory, an era of weak germination—incipient, sparse—followed by a more defined, solid history. There is a period of catacombs and another of emergence in the air. I'm reminded of meetings in the choir house at the University of Chile, directed by Mario Baeza, of the exchange of books that might be considered dissident, of conversations in church yards, of one or another public reading. In the Plaza of Mulato Gil de Castro, in Lastarria Street, Nicanor Parra read some of his "jokes to disorient the poetry police." This would have been in the early 1980s. Parra belonged to that well-defined species of writer that had felt uncomfortable, relatively marginalized, during the three years of the Unidad Popular, but afterward he had morphed, gradually, not from the first, into an increasingly resolute critic of the military leaders. So then, the poet responsible for Poems and Antipoems, at a predetermined moment in his long reading at the Plaza, announced from the podium that he would read a censored sonnet. He approached the microphone and held his tongue for the approximate length of time it would take to read fourteen ten-syllable lines. When he finished, there came an eruption of laughter and applause. The poet, a consummate actor, had considered well his effect. On another occasion, during a two day conference attended by sociologists, historians, and writers, he read a legal writ regarding freedom of expression. It was a revolutionary text, intensely provocative, and seemed like it must have been written just a few hours prior. Then he offered some historic background: the text was dated 1817 or 18, signed by General Bernardo O'Higgins, and it referenced the newborn republic's founding degree regarding freedom of the press. At the very same time, modern day soldiers, under the superior command of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, had march in tribute before the statue of Bernardo O'Higgins in the Alameda. At that time, there was no one in Chile who could have prohibited the reading of one of his classic decrees.
In those days, you could attend performances by the Teatro Ictus, with Nissim Sharim and Delfina Guzmán in the leads, which took up the issue of Chilean dictatorship without hesitation or minced words. These were little theaters, fresh catacombs, and their symbol, the drawing of a fish, an "ictus," doubtless alluded to this, as well as giving name to the group. After each show, the first christians would take the stairs on Merced up to the street, inspired, charged up against the authoritarian system. I am certain it was not in vain, that those intellectuals and artists exerted influence over the collective conscience, but it all took time, a fairly long ripening process and a lot of patience. The young people, who aren't always so good at waiting, began to adopt risker modes of defiance, and their parents, while often in agreement with them, were forced to ask and then beg that they exercise more caution in the face of the authoritarian monster.
It was in those early years that there came to be something called the parliament of columnists. In a move born of opportunism, of the desire to attract more readers, of everything that was going on, the "establishment" press made space available for the publication of opinion columns against the dictatorship. And little by little, opposition magazines and papers rose up, finding their way through legal loopholes: Hoy, Fortín Mapocho, Apsi, Análisis. The dissident columnists' work was carried out in secret, but proved a substantial force in eroding the dictatorship's theoretical underpinings, based as they were on primitive anti-communism and the Cold War. We should now begin to study the extent to which the collapse of the eastern block, the fall of the Berlin Wall, contributed to the growing feeling in Chile that right-wing dictatorship was outdated, utterly unnecessary. To some extent, the critiques of "modern socialism" and those of extreme right-wing Pinochetism converged. It strikes me as no coincidence that certain similar types of books coming from Eastern European writers found exceptional success with Chilean readers during the eighties: works, for example, by Milan Kundera or Vaclav Havel. Their messages were transparent and the Chilean reader grasped and internalized them immediately. In other words, local circumstance facilitated swift schooling in the grand themes and dilemmas of contemporary world politics.
It seems to me that the Catholic Church played a fundamental role in these developments, and that the intellectuals, in some tacit way, frequently allied themselves with it. The Vicaría de la Solidaridad, for example, together with the Vicaría de la Juventud, created safe spaces for victims of human rights violations, but also for dialogue, controversy, and free contemplation. The Mensaje Magazine's monthly editorial and layout meetings, held in their offices on Almirante Barroso Street, just south of Santiago, provided another forum for broad discussion and exchange. Intellectuals of different generations and the most diverse ideological and religious stripes collaborated on the magazine and—via book reviews, commentary on public affairs, essays on philosophy or the social sciences—illuminated the road toward democracy reclaimed. At those meetings, theory and practice came together. On the eve of the Referendum, when a resounding no triumphed over Pinochetism, the extent of the information that reached even the most marginalized populations, unions, and parrishes of Santiago and the surrounding provinces was, frankly, remarkable. To have been on the board of editors in those moments is an unforgettable experience of the highest intellectual, ethical, and political order.
Here I am reminded of Matilde Urrutia, Pablo Neruda's widow, and of Francisco Coloane, the outstanding speaker who throughout his long life presided over the Chilean communist party, over masses and religious ceremonies whose political content, whose confrontational stance toward the dictatorship, was readily apparent. The Catedral Metropolitana was one of these sensitive spots. Listening to a sermon with the evangelical theme of charity, justice, or social solidarity, listening to protest songs at the foot of the high altar, and then walking out into a Plaza de Armas guarded by the regime's police—armed to the teeth—was an experience both unforgettable and difficult to describe. Those who stepped from inside in half-light, singing the Hymn of Joy, and the forces that were arrayed before the church door, with their helmets, their shields, their spears, brought to mind immediately, without further reflection, early Christians and Roman centurions. Even though many of these supposed Christians belonged to agnostic, secular belief-systems. There was an overriding emotion and conviction. No one could imagine, after attending one of those collective liturgies, that the dictatorship's days were not numbered.
And in fact, the final days of Pinochetism were rapidly approaching. The call for a referendum, provided for by the dictatorship's very own legal workings and reluctantly accepted by the regime, proved a decisive moment. On the Committee for Free Elections, an important, clear-thinking initiative started by branches of the Democracia Cristiana (Christian Democracy), there were fourteen members conscripted from various sectors of the democratic opposition, without excluding the odd representative from what we might call the liberal right. Also on the Committee was a small but active group of intellectuals and church officials. They did not preach that no as though it were fundamentalist propaganda, but rather sought to convince people to enroll on the electoral registers and to vote without fear, secure in the knowledge that the secrecy of their vote would be maintained and that there would be no danger of reprisals. At the beginning, the campaign adopted a fairly discreet tone and low profile, as if the very participants doubted their ability to bring down the regime at the polls. But there came about a curious phenomenon of collective contagion, separate from the opposition leaders' work with their electoral base. Even the communist party, which had at the outset been in favor of abstention, in the end succumbed and directed its militants to enroll and vote no. The appearance every day of that no for fifteen minutes on the screens of official television channels took on an air of conviction, a spark, a vigor that those long military years had crushed. It was a collective creation, a stage set by thousands, and the electoral result landed a conclusive blow. The days of the Referendum and the ones following reached unique levels of tension and drama. It seems certain that General Augusto Pinochet sought to reverse the damage through some obscure maneuver, the details of which remain unclear even today. But then came the grave warnings from Washington and the international community. And when General Mathei, at midnight on the day of the tally, declared to the press that the result for him was clear, that the no had triumped, we felt that the transition must be unstoppable.
Excerpted from Post-Authoritarian Cultures by Luis Martín-Estudillo, Roberto Ampuero. Copyright © 2008 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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