OCT 2001

Pinochet and Me
by Marc Cooper

New York: Verso, 2001.
143 pages.

For years to come, special commemorations and prayer services will undoubtedly take place throughout the United States every September 11. On that date, Americans will remember the thousands of lives lost when terrorism and death visited our soil.

September 11 should already be familiar to us, though. For it was on that date in 1973 that the Chilean armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a bloody military coup that ushered in a long night of social, economic, and political repression in that country. Why, you may ask, should an event that occurred a continent away hold special meaning in the United States? Because, as recently declassified government documents confirm, it was our president (Nixon), our Secretary of State (Kissinger), our spy agency (the CIA), and our tax dollars that destabilized the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and helped orchestrate the military takeover.

Journalist Marc Cooper, in the 2001 release Pinochet and Me, provides a first-hand account of the Chilean coup. Serving as translator to Allende at the time, Cooper barely made it out of the country with his life (two of his fellow Americans and personal acquaintances, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, did not; the story of their deaths is told in the movie Missing). Cooper has returned to that country several times since, both to write articles and to visit relatives of his Chilean wife. In this engrossing book, Cooper—a contributing editor to The Nation and a journalist whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone—describes Chile during the Allende years and in the decades since.

Cooper first traveled to Chile in 1971 as a 20-year-old activist and observer—one of many young American leftists drawn to witness the Allende government’s great social experiment. (Ironically, as Cooper notes at the end of the book, Ronald Reagan was indirectly responsible for his arrival in Chile; for it was Reagan, then governor of California, who issued the executive order expelling Cooper and other anti-Vietnam War activists from the California State University system). Allende, upon assuming the presidency, had nationalized Chile’s greatest natural resource and source of export dollars, the copper mines (80 percent of which were owned by U.S. corporations). He had also doled out parcels of land from large estates to previously landless farmers, constructed sturdy houses for shantytown-dwellers around the capital, and provided a half-liter of free milk daily for all children. For these moves, Allende was regarded as a hero by workers and students but vilified by wealthier members of society and foreign capitalists.

Cooper became acquainted with Allende in mid-1972 when, after a stint in the Presidential Press Office, he landed a job as Allende’s translator. In his book, Cooper remembers Allende fondly as "a hectically complex and contradictory figure—romantic and rebel, revolutionary and parliamentarian, Socialist and mason, physician and master politician."

It was also during the Allende presidency, in early December 1971, that Cooper first heard of Pinochet. The general’s name surfaced in the context of a series of events that presaged the coup: First, a terrorist bomb exploded in Santiago and knocked out the power grid; then thousands of wealthy Chilean women took to the streets and banged on pots and pans protesting an alleged lack of food. ("What theater of the absurd!" Cooper writes. "Here were the best-fed, best-clothed, fattest, and wealthiest people in Chile, many of whom controlled and owned the still private-sector food distribution system from top to bottom, claiming hunger.") At the same time, right-wing youth descended on the capital city, smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails. The Army, under the direction of General Pinochet, was called upon to keep the peace.

Cooper looked up an acquaintance named Christian Pinochet, a young member of the Socialist Party, and asked if he was any relation to the general. The answer was: "He’s an uncle. And he’s an asshole." Regarding the praise heaped on General Pinochet by the socialist press for halting the right-wing vandals, his nephew sneered: "Don’t believe a word of this shit. My uncle is no democrat. He’s a fascist."

Indeed, Christian Pinochet understood his uncle’s nature. For it was General Pinochet who led the September 11, 1973, military assault on the country’s port cities and the capital, and imposed seventeen years of dictatorship on the nation. During Pinochet’s rule, thousands of suspected leftists were killed or "disappeared," political dissent was violently repressed, wages dropped significantly, many workers were evicted from their Allende-era homes (the tenants that replaced them, not surprisingly, were mainly family members of the military or police), and the country’s economy was pushed to the brink of collapse. Even many members of the middle and upper classes, people who had initially welcomed Allende’s overthrow, came to hate and fear the military government that replaced it.

In 1988, Chileans were presented with a plebiscite: they were to choose between keeping the military government or replacing it with a civilian structure. The tally was overwhelmingly in favor of civilian rule but, in Cooper’s words, "that in no way ended Pinochet’s model. ... The Senate would continue to be packed with appointees, the secret police and the military would remain protected by amnesty, the archaic and pro-military judicial system would be left intact. The military budget would remain autonomous and untouchable. The new elected President would not be able to remove any top military commander for eight years." In addition, Pinochet would remain commander of the armed forces through 1998, after which he would become a senator-for-life.

The final installment of Pinochet and Me, written during Cooper’s December 1999-September 2000 visit to Chile, focuses on recent attempts to bring Pinochet to justice for dozens of kidnappings and murders of civilians. Pinochet’s legal odyssey began with his October 1998 arrest in London on charges by a Spanish court of human rights violations against Spanish nationalists in Chile. After spending 503 days in detention in London, Pinochet was released on grounds that he was too sick to stand trial, and returned to Chile. Just days after his homecoming, however, the general found himself stripped of parliamentary immunity and slapped with more than 100 charges of murder, kidnapping, and other crimes. (In July 2001, after the publication of Pinochet and Me, the 85-year-old Pinochet was again excused from standing trial on medical grounds, but remains an indicted criminal.) The legal actions against Pinochet reverberated throughout the armed forces and dozens of former and active military officials were charged with similar crimes. "After nearly disappearing from public debate," Cooper writes, "Chile’s unresolved human rights history has been unceremoniously thrust front and center. Some of the guilty, those who fearlessly strutted the boulevards only a few months ago, are now being brought to justice."

Cooper’s book is as much an exultation of democratic socialism as it is a denunciation of military dictatorship. Twenty-eight years after his initial idealistic sojourn, he remains devoted to Allende’s vision of Chile as a workers’ paradise. "For many millions around the world," writes Cooper, "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."


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