Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 209 | Diciembre 1998


Latin America

Pinochet Under Arrest The End of Voluntaristic Democracy

It is not only finances and stock markets that have been globalized. So have the law and the struggle against impunity, as the Pinochet case shows. How do Chileans view it? We offer here the very suggestive and personal reflections of a Chilean academic and keen observer concerning the “failure” that is hidden behind this colossal and unexpected triumph of justice.

José Bengoa

Finances and stock markets are not the only things that have globalized. Law and the struggle against impunity are beginning to be universalized too, as the Pinochet case proves only too clearly. But how do Chileans view this? The following is a very suggestive, very personal reflection on the "failure" behind this colossal triumph of justice.

Yesterday the English daily newspaper the independent dedicated its entire first page to a British-US citizen's account of the 10 days he spent in Chile's National Stadium 25 years ago in the Santiago of 1973. Today, one week after Pinochet's arrest in The Clinic, the ridiculously expressive name of the London hospital where the former President of the Republic of Chile finds himself "under arrest," the BBC of London, famed throughout Europe, and listened to worldwide thanks to satellite, dedicated over an hour of their programming to us, to what we Chileans are and what we have been.

To be subjected to this explosion of reflections about the small country I happened to be born in, as I look out the window upon the ancient buildings of this colonial university of Cambridge, is an indescribable experience to which I can only react by scribbling down a few pages of my reactions. The fact is that reality is sometimes much stronger than desires.

I feel as though I have lived through a decade of voluntarism, of invented realities, of a search for a normality that didn't exist. No one here is saying what we wanted to achieve through this Chilean-style transition to democracy; nobody is talking about those dreams of "turning the page"; nobody's saying anything about just doing whatever it takes to live with impunity and get on with it. And the reason nobody's saying anything about it is that it's a lie; because, goddamn it, it's not true that we can have a nation-building project until we settle accounts with the fact that what we are and have been as a society has been profoundly affected right up to today by those events that are once again filling our TV screens. We Chileans must have something Greek about us, because in this situation it is destiny itself which, like the winged and taloned Fates, is coming after us, shattering our dreams of normality, of democracy, of reconciliation formalized before its time in some Mass in the Votive Temple of Maipú.

One's life for the homeland

What is a country without a set of symbols? Could anyone possibly believe that a country is a group of friends, or a piece of land, or a government? Or, as the old oligarchs believed, a group of families? An Englishwoman wrote some years ago that nations are constructed by imagination, they are "imagined communities." They are symbols, a set of symbolic expressions: they are nothing and at the same time everything. The theme is so absurd that millions have given their "life for the homeland." And not one of them really knew what it meant. In the end everything is reduced to the capacity of a collective to imagine itself well enough.

In the world's imagination, Chile is still an important issue, and not for its economic successes, which have neither enchanted nor disenchanted anyone, because nobody forges a nation out of a marketplace. It's no accident that the Alameda de las Delicias [the capital's main boulevard], backbone of the city and the country, is lined with men on horseback, with swords or Constitutions in their hands. In short, it is lined with people who filled the country with symbols: from the one who said "let he who is valiant follow me" [naval officer Arturo Prat Chacón, as he went down with his ship in the 1840s] to the one who prophesied that "the broad Alamedas will open" [President Salvador Allende in the 1970s]. Of course millionaires whose names are no longer even remembered left their fortunes stamped on some now decaying mansions. We must acknowledge it: we Chileans don't have these shared signals anymore. And that's why our idea of country, of nation, of a common society, has become weakened. Many today would not give their "life for the homeland." I should have said: we wouldn't give our life for the homeland. Which is a real shame.

How do they see us?

Someone in Chile might ask, How do they see us? It would be asked in a worried tone, after ten years of trying to brush up our image domestically and abroad. It has even been the title of numerous business conferences over the years. How do they see us? And politicians often ask themselves, Will they believe that we're doing all right in this transition to democracy? The President has been obliged, as part of his self-assigned tasks, to travel incessantly to project a dynamic image of a country that has put the past behind it, is looking enthusiastically towards the 21st century and possesses among its many attributes (in addition to its mountain range, wine and women) a solid economy that will enable it to present a "verónica" [the bullfighter's stance with cape extended in both hands] to the Asian crisis.

We can state with neither pain nor glory that all these efforts to export a bold and attractive image have gone into the dustbin in these days of discussion in front of the clinic-jail. A cleaning lady in my university college, learning that I was Chilean, looked at me with a condescending and slightly embarrassed expression. She tried to show that she had no reason to think I was of the same ilk as the gentlemen reposing in The Clinic. She laughed, looked at me out of the corner of her eye, but then moved away. The image of the successful country that the local business class tried to present in these past ten years has been once again called into question. As I am told they say in the countryside when someone dies, "Pinochet gave him to me, and Pinochet hath taken him away."
The person Scotland Yard arrested in the clinic imposed, literally by blood and fire, the export-based economic model, the never highly praised social market economy, and it will be he who will present it with its main challenge: the redestroying of the country's image. Every time a Chilean delegation sets out from Pudahuel or Merino Benítez, it will have to think about what its line will be on what everyone in the world knows and wants to know about what happened in Chile. Before selling an apple or whatever else, it will have to explain the inexplicable.

Operation "Clinic"?

Like it or not, he's still the dictator. No one proposed that he come to England. He chose not to get the visa that would give him diplomatic immunity. He interned himself in The Clinic, even though he could have as easily gone to Santiago's Las Condes Clinic, also with British doctors and technology. He gave the most arrogant interview possible to journalist Anderson of the New Yorker in a London hotel. He sparked the greatest fury possible in Argentina by revealing how Chile aided the British during the Malvinas war, which Thatcher reiterated. Latin American unity has once again hit the skids. The capacity to muck up the country's image has been boundless.

He's done it. At 82 he is showing that he has the country dangling and is capable of doing in the illusion of the transition to democracy. "I the Supreme one," Roa Bastos would say. The supreme one in a perverse calculation. We wonder, but after having suffered 25 years we can assume he doesn't make too many slips.

He accepted the transition as long as it suited him and he put up with it. When he saw that the game was getting dangerous he decided, who knows whether consciously or unconsciously, to "kick over the game board." When bad chess players see that they are losing, they get angry and kick the game table, knocking the pieces to the floor. Just like the international press, Pinochet doesn't sense the subtle differences between yesterday's socialism and today's. In his eyes, turning power over to a socialist would be the demonstration of his personal failure.

Pinochet has determined that he's going to put an end to this sort of transition that began with his defeat 10 years ago. First he feinted to the right and left, shaking the hand of Andrés Zaldívar, a Christian Democrat who lived in Madrid, exiled by Pinochet himself. The gestures continued. A few weeks ago, one of Pinochet's daughters told a celebrity gossip magazine that the right had been "ungrateful" to her father. What gets brewed in the family stewpot is usually closer to the truth of the leader's real political sentiments.

What made him come to London? the local press asked. Might it possibly be his need for limelight? Is it a reluctance to leave the world scene? Might it be a combination of astuteness and betrayal, such as he has demonstrated throughout his life? What he is betraying now is everything that supposedly made up his greatest work: the pacted transition to democracy, the new image of Chile as a successful country, all that and perhaps all that together.

Failure of voluntaristic democracy

Independent of this conspiracy theory, Pinochet's episode in The Clinic brutally expresses the failure of a generation, one I am part of and feel solidarity toward, which tried willingly and willfully, to resolve our past problems and get our country—a realistic, possible country—back on its feet. In short, it tried voluntaristically, and today we can add, with a heavy heart, artificially.

As a generation that lived through the dictatorship and reflected on what was happening and on the possible solutions, we sought—I repeat, sought—to be different than we were, not to seem like what we had been, not to look at ourselves in the mirror, but rather to break it. We didn't deeply examine the origin of our rage, the rage of those on one side and the rage of those on the other.

We didn't realize the uncompromising nature of social power in Chile. Deep down, we wanted to accommodate to what had happened. We all, myself included, made an act of contrition, proper to our Catholic culture, with the Church's blessing. We closed our eyes and said, "Let's turn the page." And now, the world, the BBC of London (which we have always looked on as a source of serious and appropriate reflection), the influential newspapers, the people in the street, are all telling us with extreme brutality: you Chileans are just a bunch of Third World savages, because you haven't resolved the one most important thing: justice in society. You are savages who don't belong to the decent world, because your president-dictator-sick person-prisoner is free to travel around the world with impunity.

The New Yorker journalist interviewed him in a hotel before he went into The Clinic, and was told, cheekily, that he liked to shop in London, that he liked to walk though the city, go into Harrods and have a cup of tea. This is what the little respected but countenanced millionaires of Arab, African, Asian, Yugoslavian/ Macedonian countries say and do, all those expelled from the Western World's collective image of the world of civilized people, of people who get along with each other.

What good is it that Marks and Spencer supermarkets are full of Chilean red wine? Does anyone really believe it possible to counterbalance impunity with fruit and wine on the scale of justice? How could a democratic government imagine that merely flying around the planet in a plane with a bunch of businesspeople selling products was enough to change "Chile's international image"? We all committed the sin of arrogance. Some more than others, but at the end of the day, the entire country appears plagued by impunity, branded by a horrible destiny, and incapable of looking at itself in the mirror, at its true image.

September 11, 1973: Cultural profundity

The Pinochet affair is the end of a self-intentioned dream, a self-fulfilled prophecy, a wish that tried to come true and failed because life is much stronger and imposes itself on any possible kind of voluntarism, of willfulness. We realize now, once again, that what happened in 1973 was very profound, not only for Chile but also for the world, for many people throughout the world. There can be many interpretations, but there is no doubt that Chile of the 1970s was a hope, one of the last hopes before falling into this fin de siècle desperation, this desperation of cynical postmodernism, of techno-youth with little sense of future in their skinheads.

Chile was a symbol for the generation now in its fifties as much as Spain was for the previous generation. They, our parents, the Nerudas and Hemingways, ended up marked with "Spain in their heart." They didn't have enough years left to wait out Franco's forty. Many of them died before the old tyrant handed over power. But there was no surrender. It was the next generation that surrendered, the Felipe Gonzálezes who didn't experience the war and had no commitment to it. That wasn't so in our case. It was the same actors who, in an act of will that I still respect, but that is coming to a close, changed their positions. They said, "Let's reconcile!" And now I see on television, I read in the papers, that nobody believed us Chileans. Quite the opposite, we have ended up the "fools of America," rich on the outside, stupid on the inside.

Today's reading

That image has set the clock back. History is being repeated, but each time with new nuances and different approaches. Today Salvador Allende appears closer than ever to European socialism and social democracy, which is again setting forth its differentiating alternatives. It is no coincidence that the England of Tony Blair and of Cook, the people who are putting human rights on the table, is the one that has "arrested" Pinochet. Enthusiasm for globalizations and for the hegemony of American neoliberalism has also run out. Europe wants to put some distance between it and the Pinochets. The traveler either didn't notice this change, or if he did he went anyway, for his own particular reasons.

The Chilean democratic left interpreted Allende's fall in the cold war framework. Many perhaps pushed their "renovationist" stance to extremes, as the contest between the two blocs came to an end. Since that reality impossible to transform, the fall of the Soviet Union and the famed Berlin Wall, part of the left read the past with redder ink than is currently in use. The enormous desire for social justice that led to the election of "Compañero Presidente" was perhaps forgotten in that reading. What I mean is that in many cases the "national characteristics" of the social and political movement that concluded with the Unidad Popular got obscured.

Many have insisted on the CIA's role in the coup, and many have critically analyzed what happened in the popular government—the political disorder, the lack of realistic plans, the verbalization of a radicalism that it was incapable of backing up and, above all, the inability to control the attacks from the system, from the other social forces, and particularly from the Armed Forces. The Chilean left, like few others, made a practical rather than theoretical self-criticism of all these matters. It dropped the level of demand, saying that it was only possible to carry out certain proposals in a democratic administration of the processes. Many reaffirmed their identity in the practical affairs of state more than they should have, forgetting about the old demands and proposals. Skillful pragmatism was shown in achieving a transition pact, but not in dealing with a conflict of the size that we had and still have in Chile.

"Chile's socialist utopia"

The Pinochet issue is symbolic or emblematic for the new stage of "globalization" getting underway. No one believes any longer in the neoliberal ingenuousness of the Pinochet-Thatcher double act. The practice of solving economic and social problems by firing workers from the factories and privatizing state activities has come to an end. The figure of Allende, "democratic and socialist," is coming back into the front line with the changing Europe being ushered in with the next century.

And this is what listening for a whole week to the news, reading the papers, stopping for hours, ritually, in front of the door of Pinochet's clinic in London meant. It's the only thing I've had in my head: our main link to Western culture, to the West's decency, to what we could enthusiastically if pompously term "Western civilization," is that once, just once in our history, we put forward a model of justice that was comprehensible to the honorable people of the planet. We Chileans were capable of offering the world a dream: "the Chilean road to socialism."
The world isn't going to forgive any of us Chileans so easily: neither those who so violently ripped up the Chilean road to socialism, the Pinochets, nor those of us who have tried to forget that utopia. Neither those who tried to transform that relationship with the world into a purely commercial one, nor those of us who remained silent and now, at this moment, have little to say. But impunity is unacceptable. That sentiment is at the core of the culture of these countries.

Pinochet is a symbol that reaches far beyond the man, his decisions or even his responsibilities. He symbolizes the smashing of that dream. And the remainder of Chileans are not looked upon very kindly at this moment either, because they were not—we were not—able to assume this legacy, which in the end is the only decent piece of culture we have had and has differentiated us from other nations that have no pretension of decency.

At this juncture, the Chilean government has found itself incarcerated by history. It has come out in defense of the dictator-sick person-prisoner. There may be no other alternative. That conduct was decided ten years ago, when we emotionally said NO in the plebiscite and decided on that act of voluntarism, not fully aware, as is usually the case in people's histories, exactly how it could lead to democracy. Today, former compañeros now turned government officials, many of whom were exiled by Pinochet, can only say what they think in private. And so they sent some experts to London representing the "government of Chile" to try to save the general from the jaws of Scotland Yard. The image plummets further with every passing minute. We suddenly went from being an "export nation" to being a "nation that protects generals." Some understanding of the complexity of what is going in Chile may be possible, so long as our foreign auditors are willing to hear us out. But the minute they go their own way, they'll say, "Those Chileans!" Some will gently add, "Poor Chileans! Look at the mess they've gotten themselves in."

The meltdown of national identity

Few reacted in 1991 to the famous "iceberg" issue, a moment that most schizophrenically symbolized the voluntarism that a whole sector of Chilean society is pathologically suffering from. With the transition recently begun, there was a debate about what to take to the Seville Expo as the symbol of national identity. An iceberg was hauled out of the Antarctic, filmed, refrigerated, taken to Seville, observed by thousands of people, and ended its days melting quite away in the warm, dark waters of Guadalquivir. The idea had been to express the transparency of Chilean society, millenarian transparent ice, and, of course, of its business dealings, its merchants, entrepreneurs, government and all manner of individuals.

The idea was also to express that we don't belong to the hot, tropical Third World, to salsa-eating, cumbia-dancing and candomblé-worshiping Latin America. We were the "English of America," as we were told so often in school, as if to say: Look closely, my little Chilean, you aren't Indian like the other Latin Americans, you aren't dark skinned, you aren't this, you aren't that. You're part of the Western world, a graft of old Europe in America, nothing more or less than "beautiful Albion," Britain of kings and respectable people.

It could be said with black humor, with a keen sense of irony, that, just as our transparency and national identity melted down into the putrid waters of Guadalquivir, it could be no other than the renowned Scotland Yard police force that rudely disrupted our dreams of being the "English of America."

A future ethic or nothing

It would appear that what lies ahead of us is a much-needed radical self-criticism of our arrogant and unhealthy willfulness. We will have to be implacable in critiquing those who still believe in the self-defined image of a perfect democracy and who are bursting with pride about exporting asparagus to Taiwan.

The voluntarism of gambling with a transition is an expression of arrogance. The arrogance of imposed power, the lack of even a minimal acceptance of criticism. Criticism in Chile has become a sinful activity. The very issue of human rights has turned into a bother for many people, authorities included. Those who dare to insist on their claims for justice are often seen as old-fashioned people who should stop harping on such things. The arrogance of power has been invading many of the old left's spaces. This bell-tolling from London could wake up more than a few people.

What consequences for culture and for politics in Chile? I don't even dare think about them. But as they say in the countryside, "I don't believe in witches, but, hey, if they exist, they exist!" It shouldn't be possible to get out of this imbroglio with the same ostrich policies as in the last ten years. Faced with this ignominy, ethical attitudes impose themselves, principles that, as was said before, are defined by some parameter related to decency. Shortchanging commitments, "possibilism" in a desire to achieve results, has all collapsed amidst the laughter of a world that watches as Scotland Yard, in an act of offbeat surrealism, "arrests" a man who raped the dreams of humanity in the second half of the twentieth century.

This is what it occurs to me to say.

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