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Marking 50 Years since Chile’s Coup

It’s been a good year for rugby, despite how much it hurts to admit it as an Irish rugby fan. Supporters have been absolutely spoiled. This isn’t just owing to the massive, heavyweight match-ups but also comes from a blurring (an exploding, in some cases) of that boundary of supposed ‘tier-one nations’ versus lesser-known ‘tier-two nations’. But of all the upsets (Portugal-Fiji) and matches going either way (France-Namibia), I think there was only one eighty-minute game which managed to steal my attention from start to finish. On the 30th of September, Nantes hosted the first ever South American derby in a world cup: Chile v Argentina. 

Playing the South American derby, Chile’s first international test match was also against Argentina. In 1936, the result was the same: just as then, Argentina won a resounding victory. The Chileans, determined to prove their place on the international field, fought for every inch. Today, some players have quit their jobs, even sacrificed personal relationships to beat the world cup. A booming rendition of the Canción Nacional set the pitch for lung-busting carries, selfless tackles, heart-pounding breaks. It wasn’t enough.

I start with this game of rugby because I think it captures something about Chile and their fight for certain values. This includes the current nation, not just its rugby team. There is a similar self-critical but determined struggle underway in the country to challenge cynicism about its past and, despite impairments, strive for improvement. 

This September, Chile marked the fiftieth anniversary of an infamous coup – arguably the acme of this struggle for values. Elected President by the Chilean Congress in 1970, Dr Salvador Allende was murdered, his administration and the democratic process were betrayed and dismantled by General Augusto Pinochet and his soldiers.

The shame of this episode cannot be borne exclusively by the domestic perpetrators, with the overthrow having been anticipated and even partially orchestrated by foreign powers. The kidnapping and subsequent murder of Chile’s General, René Schneider, who bravely resisted pressure to involve the military in politics, was criminally endorsed, consecrated by Henry Kissinger and the United States security apparatus. More than 40,000 people were to be executed, disappeared, interned, or tortured until democracy was restored in 1990. The Chilean people and their representatives were not permitted to choose their own future. Instead, their government was to become a ventriloquist for irrelevant Cold War politics and a laboratory for ‘neo-liberal’ Chicago Boys ideologues. 

The process of unearthing sinister crimes continues to this day. Just this summer, new evidence arrived which finally demonstrates that Pablo Neruda – Chile’s second Nobel Prize winning poet, and confidant of Dr. Allende – was likely poisoned to death by the bacterium clostridium botulinum. Do not believe the apologists and reactionaries: Pinochet’s coup was not just about economics.

During a conflict about a decade after events in Chile, Mrs Thatcher made the curious claim that Pinochet’s regime was a key ally for Britain in fighting Galtieri’s Argentina. One regime of extrajudicial murder and thuggery required to defeat another regime of extrajudicial murder and thuggery. Apart from the ignorance of the claim itself (Chile, Pinochet or not, would always have been eager to agitate against Argentine expansion), the greater damage was an overwriting of a richer tradition of shared values between the UK and Chile. The official campaign in Britain for Chilean independence, the closeness between both countries’ maritime culture, Chile’s uniquely anglophile political tradition; these nuanced bonds – not to mention the small but courageous campaign for solidarity with Chile – became subordinate to an alliance with a jumped-up despot.

The British effort for solidarity with Chile is, in itself, an apt illustration, a sort of photographic negative, revealing an instance of brief resistance to the slow decline of internationalist values in Britain. Apart from a brief resignation by cabinet minister Eric Heffer over British military exports, it was largely through the individual efforts of MPs Judith Hart and Neil Kinnock that the anti-Pinochet campaign, including support for victims and exiles, was sustained in both Westminster and Brussels. 

This era was also witness to some last vestiges of a radical, internationalist tradition in the British labour movement. Perhaps most famously, Scottish workers at the East Kilbride Rolls-Royce factory flatly refused to work on jet engines intended for export to the Chilean Air Force (the airmen of which bombed Santiago into submission in 1973). 

Conciliatory though these acts were, the values of internationalism they espoused did not easily track vertically. In what could have extended the effort of solidarity from the factory floor to the highest courts, the UK arrested the elderly Pinochet in 1998 citing human rights violations brought forth by Spain’s highest criminal court. In response, Thatcher came up with another painful ironism. The investigations into Pinochet were “circumstances that would do credit to a police state”, she said while giving credit to a police state.The entire affair ended up setting major precedent not only for British law but general legal theory on state immunity and national-universal judicial boundaries. This was the first major arrest of a former head of state, in a foreign court, for international crimes. 

Britain could have secured the best example since Nuremberg of a former despot tried on the basis of universal human dignity, rather than laws protecting a specific nation’s citizens. After three separate rulings, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Pinochet was not immune from state prosecution as accusations against him were so heinous. He nonetheless could not be tried for acts taking place before 1988. 

In March of 2000, the Home Secretary set the ageing dictator free from house arrest. Upon his arrival at Santiago de Chile airport, having been released on the basis of ‘ill health’, Pinochet miraculously stood up from his wheelchair to the elation of his supporters.

The internal struggle going on in Chile, a struggle to unearth and overcome its history, can be interpreted as a fight to preserve certain values and oppose others. The events in Santiago were never outside the purview of the UK and its own values: this struggle extended internationally. The old and modern fight for certain values in Chile was never just spectated. It always reverberated through to Britain. That old metaphor of Donne’s applies similarly to values as it does to ‘men’: no value is an island, entire of itself – they always inform a larger conversation, a struggle which implicates us all.

The upshot of all this is an obligation of sorts. A participant in this history, there is so much the UK can both contribute to and learn from this anniversary of reflection. Chile reveals to us how the UK was changing as a country, what different people aspired for it to become, and now allows its inhabitants to reflect on how the country was in fact changed. Archives and collections about the UK’s response, such as those exhibited this year by the People’s History Museum and London School of Economics, are crucial in this process. By no means are the lessons purely theoretical; there is a practical, prescriptive bent to these matters. For example, I can picture how many activists campaigning for similarly abused and displaced peoples in modern conflicts may take inspiration from the example of the Chilean Solidarity Campaign, in particular from their independence and third-way persuasion against the influence of invasive political forces. 

The path of Chile’s democratic reconstruction has come from the painful but thorough re-examination of its own recent history. There has been a refusal to bury past crimes, instead pursuing them on the basis of the values of democracy and free expression. Chile is a model for mature self-examination. We could all learn from Chile’s critical time of reflection and re-evaluation.

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