I left Chile in late November, just as the political parties prepared for their December congressional elections. Campaign posters hung from electric wires, clung to walls and glowed as bumper strips on cars. But the human excitement was absent.
In March 2000, I had attended Ricardo Lagos’ inauguration, the first socialist president elected since the Chilean military deposed Salvador Allende in the bloody 1973 coup. General Pinochet ruled with his iron fist for the next seventeen years.
Then, in 1990, after Pinochet, under pressure from US and European powers to relax his authoritarian grip, allowed Chileans to vote for free elections, he accepted the popular will and stepped down. Well, he only became commander of the Army and Senator for Life. From 1990, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists governed for a decade; the Christian Democrats claiming the presidency.
They had cut a deal with Pinochet and the military brass — which went beyond amnesty for the massive crimes committed under the dictatorship. Basically, the civilians agreed to look the other way at the past — just move on, so to speak.
Those who had suffered, well, they had no other place to go and would in time accept the “what happened, just happened” formula. The past was the past after all. The socialists of the future, like Tony Blair of England, didnâ€™t talk about nationalizing; they advocated privatizing.
Many of the once left wing radicals sneer with contempt at the very mention of the words Fidel Castro. They had re-emerged in 2000 as the ultimate in free marketers, or, in their own terms, “realists.”
But Chilean socialists knew that in their hearts of hearts they would come through once they had won an election in which the working classes delivered the votes. In 2000, the socialists put their candidate back into the presidency. Thousands of young people jumped in groups near the place where President-elect Lagos would soon speak:
“Bring Pinochet to trial,” they chanted. An impressive number smoked joints and some even blew the smoke toward the uniformed “pacos,” or cops, who had enforced anti-drug relentlessly up that point.
Chileans expected Lagos to issue in a new order, beginning with the prosecution of the criminal en jefe of the old order. Pinochet, the architect of the ancien regime, had recently returned from 15 months of house arrest in England and Chilean Judge Juan Guzman, emboldened by judicial rulings abroad, stripped Pinochet of immunity.
He opened a case against Pinochet for his role in “disappearing” hundreds of people. Many of those who had suffered torture or lost loved ones during the dictator’s long reign of terror felt optimistic. Under Lagos, they believed, the government would have the energy and will to bring the mass murderer and torturer to trial.
Were they naive, consaidering the fact that officials of the new government helped to cut the deal with British officials to get Pinochet released from his arrest order, so he would not have to face trial — anywhere?
In the ensuing post election months, Chileans grew disenchanted. The new government often created roadblocks instead of helping bring Pinochet to trial. The relatives of the 3,190 dead and the disappeared asked: “what help have we received from a socialist President?”
I visited with Hortensia Bussi de Allende, Salvador Allendeâ€™s 86 year old widow, and with their daughter Isabel, now running for reelection as a Socialist deputy. Both women cling to the old Allendista principles, but they have become a minority.
Modern Chilean Socialist officials, like their counterparts in Western Europe, focus on free trade economics and getting Chile into NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. They have done little to benefit the Chilean poor.
They also pressed Washington to secure F-16 fighter jets from the Pentagon and Lockheed â€“ so as not to offend Chileâ€™s testy Air Force officers. Despite brave statements from Lagos early on in his presidency, the socialist government has not tried to confront the military establishment, to make clear once and for all that civilian rule means 100% of decisions remain in civilian hands.
“Why,” asked Mrs. Allende, “has no one investigated the basis of the Pinochet family’s fortune?” She listed several large homes and estates belonging to the former dictator. Was she hinting that the government fears to confront any issue that might bring conflict with the military? The military can still demand its jet planes and the government makes noises about how they are needed for the protection of the patria.
In mid November, after Lagos had sworn eternal allegiance to Bush’s anti-terrorist campaign, US officials agreed to send the jets to Chile — but without the missiles attached to them. President Lagos complained that this failure to trust Chilean Air Force officers with advanced missiles insulted Chilean sovereignty.
Imagine, the US government feared sending its missiles to Chilean generals, some of whom are accused of torturing fellow citizens during the Pinochet years! The Pentagon, of course, feared that sending missiles to torturers might bring flack from liberals in Congress.
In the impending congressional elections, polls indicate that the Chilean right will gain significantly in its fight for legislative seats. Rightist candidates campaign vigorously in poor neighborhoods on populist issues; socialists brag about the performance of Chileâ€™s stock market. Yes, Chile has escaped the horrible fate of Argentina, whose foreign debt threatens to drown its economy.
But outside of Santiago’s pre-Columbian museum, I passed several pre-Colombians begging; other Mapuche Indians slept by the entrance, drunk, depressed or both. On Santiagoâ€™s crowded downtown streets people with cell phones glued to their ears, do business â€“ or pretend. Consumerism in Chile, as in the United States, tends to obscure the depressing signs and symbols of poverty.
â€œItâ€™s important to have historical memory in tact,â€ Mrs. Allende told me, â€œto remember the noble democratic experiment we had undertaken.â€ Some day, it might be tried again, I think to myself â€“ adapted of course to modern times.