Lessons of a Catastrophe
by Ariel Dorfman
The Nation magazine, September
It can't happen here.
Thirty years ago that is what we chanted,
that is what we sang, on the streets of Santiago de Chile.
It can't happen here. There can never
be a dictatorship in this country, we proclaimed to the winds
of history that were about to furiously descend on us; our democracy
is too solid, our armed forces too committed to popular sovereignty,
our people too much in love with freedom.
But it did happen.
On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military
overthrew the constitutional government of Salvador Allende, who
was trying, for the first time on this planet, to build socialism
through peaceful and electoral means. The bombing by the air force
of the Presidential Palace on that day started a dictatorship
that was to last seventeen years and that, today, even after we
have recovered democracy, continues to haunt and corrode my country.
The coup, however, left not only pain
and loss in its wake but also a legacy of questions that I have
been turning over and over in my mind for the past thirty years:
How was it possible that a nation with
a functioning parliament, a long record of institutional tolerance,
a flourishing free press, an independent judiciary and, most critically,
armed forces subjected to civilian rule-how could that country
have ended up spawning one of the worst tyrannies of a Latin
American continent that is not exactly bereft of murderous regimes?
And, more crucially: Why did so many of Chile's men and women,
heirs to a vigorous democracy, look the other way while the worst
sort of abuses were being perpetrated in their name? Why did they
not ask what was being done in the cellars and attics of their
howling cities, why did they make believe there was no torture,
no mass executions, no disappearances in the night? And a final,
more dire, challenge, one that is not restricted to Chile and
serves as a warning to citizens around our threatened world today:
In the coming years, could something similar befall those nations
with apparently stable democracies? Could the erosion of freedom
that so many in Chile accepted as necessary find a perverse recurrence
in the United States or India or Brazil, in France or Spain or
I am aware, of course, that it is intellectually
dangerous to wildly project one historical situation onto another
thirty years later. The circumstances that led to the loss of
our democracy in Chile were very specific and do not find an exact
replica anywhere in the contemporary world. And yet, with all
the differences and distances, the Chilean tragedy does send us
one central message that needs attention if we are to avoid similar
political disasters in the future: Many otherwise normal, decent
human beings in my land allowed their liberty-and that of their
persecuted fellow countrymen-to be stolen in the name of security,
in the name of fighting terror. That was how General Pinochet
and his cohorts justified their military takeover; that is how
they built popular support for their massive violations of human
rights. A few days after the coup, the members of the junta announced
that they had "discovered" a secret Plan Zeta, a bloodbath
prepared by Allende and his "henchmen." The evidence
of such a plan was, naturally enough, never published, nor was
even one of the hundreds of thousands of the former president's
followers who were arrested, tortured and exiled-not one of the
thousands who were executed or "disappeared"-put on
trial in a court of law for the conspiracy they were accused of.
But fear, once it begins to eat away at a nation, once it is manipulated
by an all-powerful government, is not easily eradicated by reason.
To someone who feels vulnerable, who imagines himself as a perpetual
victim, who detects enemies everywhere, no punishment to the potential
perpetrators is too light and no measure to insure safety too
This is the lesson that Chile retains
for us thirty years after the coup that devastated my country,
particularly in the aftermath of that other dreadful September
11, that day in 2001 when death again fell from the sky and thousands
of innocent civilians were again slaughtered. The fact that the
terror suffered by the citizens of the United States-which happens
to be the most powerful nation on Earth-is not an invention, as
our Plan Zeta turned out to be, makes the question of how to deal
with fear even more urgent than it was in Chile, a faraway country
whose sorrow and mistakes most of humanity could quickly forget.
What has transpired thus far, in the two
years since the disastrous attacks on New York and Washington,
is far from encouraging. In the sacred name of security and as
part of an endless and stage-managed war against terrorism, defined
in a multitude of ever-shifting and vague forms, a number of civil
liberties of American citizens have been perilously curtailed,
not to mention the rights of non-Americans inside the borders
of the United States. The situation abroad is even worse, as the
war against terror is used to excuse an attrition of liberty in
democratic and authoritarian societies the world over. Even in
Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries "liberated"
by America-and free now of the monstrous autocracies that once
misruled them-there are disturbing signs of human rights abuses
by the occupiers, old prisons being reopened, civilians being
gunned down, men abducted into the night and fog of a bureaucracy
that will not answer for them.
I am not suggesting that the United States
and its allies are turning themselves into a gigantic police state
such as Chile endured for so many years-not yet, at least. But
that suffering will have been in vain if we do not today in other
zones of the world heed the deepest significance of the catastrophe
the Chilean people started to live thirty years ago.
We also thought, we also shouted, we also
assured the planet:
It cannot happen here.
We also thought, on those not-so-remote
streets of Santiago, that we could shut our eyes to the terrors
that were awaiting us tomorrow.
Ariel Dorfman (www.adorfman.duke.edu),
the Chilean author, has recently published Exorcising Terror:
The Incredible, Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (Seven
Stories). His novels Widows and Konfidenz have recently been reissued.