Hope Comes to Chile

by Saul Landau

The Progressive magazine, May 2000


Chile, November 4, 1970.

I filmed Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (the father) as he placed the red, white, and blue sash of the presidency across the shoulder of the incoming Socialist executive, Salvador Allende. Then Frei gave the bespectacled doctor the Latin al7razo (hug). The brief swearing-in contained promises to uphold the law and the constitution. Then came the parade, Allende standing and waving from the convertible limo, bodyguards running alongside military officials on horseback.

Chile, March 11, 2000.

I watch Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (the son) as he places that presidential sash across the body of the incoming Socialist executive, Ricardo Lagos. Then come the a/orazos, the oaths, the glad-handing-just as in 1970. Socialists and progressives around the world again begin their expectant watch, albeit with a bit more skepticism.

In the early 1970s, socialists flocked to Chile to help Allende carry out basic reforms. They promoted the first significant social democratic experiment in the post-war world. Allende endured for three conflictridden years, despite a heavy CIA campaign to "mash up his good order" and a banking-credit squeeze that would have destroyed any struggling Third World nation. He planned to hold a plebiscite on September 11, 1973. The voters of Chile would have him continue or leave. But it never happened.

On that fateful day, Chilean workers and millions of their backers felt the painful shudder of loss as they watched the tanks surrounding and bombarding the Presidential Palace.

Then came seventeen long, dark years of military dictatorship. The obsequious, moderate Augusto Pinochet, who joined the plot at the last minute, outperformed the most zealous fanatics. His forces executed or "disappeared" 3,197 people. Tens of thousands were tortured, hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Pinochet destroyed the constitution, the parliament, the political parties, the trade unions, and the free universities. His soldiers made bonfires out of books that contained the word "Marx." To fix Chile's economy in a way that would curry favor with the world's richest and most powerful, he brought in the Chicago Boys-the disciples of Milton Friedman. They taught their free market philosophy, which, after ten years of austerity imposed on the working class, showed impressive growth figures. Though real wages declined steadily during the Pinochet years, the free market model finally thrived under the culture of dictatorship.

Times have changed-for socialism and for Pinochet.

Missing at Lagos's inauguration is the eighty-four-year-old general, who returned from England one week before, after spending 503 days under arrest. A Spanish judge had ordered British authorities to detain him and then asked for his extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, genocide, and terrorism...


Saul Landau, the Hugh O. La Bounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State University Pomona, is the co-author, with John Dinges, of 'Assassination on Embassy Row" (Pantheon, 1980) and is a senior fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His new film, "Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos, " will be ready for screening in June.

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