Sunday, September 15, 2013

Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat

This review was first published in Irish Left Review.

Salvador Allende’s last speech may well have contradicted the perfunctory process of an expected historical epilogue. The mere fragments of time prior to the initial horror unleashed by the military coup on September 11, 1973 may have annihilated the actual era of the Unidad Popular; however it ensured Allende remained an integral part of Chile’s collective memory. Of greater fortitude than nostalgia, Allende’s revolutionary process has managed to retain its relevance beyond the conformity of time.

‘Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat’ (Pluto Press, 2013) goes beyond the expected portrait of Allende as president of Chile, delving into an understanding of his life as a committed activist whose ideology was garnered both from Marxism as well as a profound insight into social inequalities. Despite a relatively privileged background, Allende’s upbringing in Tacna and later in various areas of Chile enabled profound perspectives through an observation of colonial processes, workers’ resistance, popular movements and the contradictions assailing Chilean society. Dispelling the critique of Allende as utopian, Victor Figueroa Clark demonstrates that, far from the multitude of generalisations associated with Allende, Chile’s political process with Allende at the helm was of tangible importance for the left on a global level, as well as for current Latin American governments who have embraced a perpetual struggle against imperial exploitation.

Allende’s life may be perceived as a series of experiences culminating into a profound concern for society and freedom, to the point where the definition of freedom becomes at times a source of controversy. Despite US intervention in Latin America proving detrimental to socialist progress, Allende’s respect for freedom of opinion went beyond the norm. Parallel to his insistence upon flexibility within socialist ideology in order to attain ‘unity of thought’, future dissent was also tolerated, departing from the trend of maintaining revolution through force and opting for revolution ‘as a profound and creative transformation’.

Foreign exploitation was instrumental in shaping Allende’s consciousness and ability to form perceptions beyond the confines of his immediate surroundings. His military experience evoked a primary contradiction – while expressing a certain affinity to the entity, unlike other socialist leaders such as Fidel Castro, Allende was also perceptive to the injustices carried out by the military, resulting in his decision to embark on another career which heightened his sense of perception of inequalities. Allende’s role in the medical profession propelled him into direct contact with the ramifications of inadequate access to healthcare, later declaring “I won my bread sticking my hands into pus, cancers and death”. Allende’s perception of healthcare and poverty was not isolated from the political concept – his revolutionary transformation of society through socialism addressed the limitations and deprivations experienced by Chileans.

The insistence of finding ‘a Chilean solution to Chilean problems’ – a view also shared by the Chilean Communist Party, was heightened by Allende’s years of activism since university. His aim to transform Chilean society through embracing socialism was not solely dictated by an adherence to classical texts, as evidenced by his years of activism and later political career. Departing from an earlier relevant affirmation regarding the role of man in society following his return from internal exile in Caldera: “Man is only part of the social whole; therefore his life should be at its service, that is, at the service of his fellow men”, Allende maintained the obligation of fulfilling his duties towards society, embarking upon criticism of policies of detriment to Chileans in terms of welfare, health and education. Prior to his electoral victory, Allende was pushing for national control over Chile’s natural resources – denouncing imperialism not only through a projected national interest at governmental level, but also through a genuine interest in the workers’ plight, thus allowing the workers to distance themselves from the role of spectators.

The book portrays Allende’s electoral campaigns in a similar vein – authenticating the process of resistance between the leader and the masses. His victory at the helm of the Unidad Popular represented decades of indefatigable effort to build the necessary groundwork to build a socialist revolution in Chile through non-violent mobilisation. Allende’s electoral programme, including land reform, the transformation of the judiciary, nationalisation of industries and social reform battled an entrenched structure which had served imperial interests for decades, leading to a fragmentation of unity within the left with the main factions urging a continuation and strengthening of the socialist revolution through armed resistance countered by a sustained challenge to institutions through popular control. The destabilisation of the country by the CIA-aided Chilean right wing played out the contradiction between freedom of speech and destruction, later dissent was deconstructed into patriotism by the leaders of the military coup, in an attempt to justify the collapse of the Unidad Popular and the death of Salvador Allende under circumstances still disputed, despite testimony alleging suicide.

Allende’s revolutionary legacy stands in contrast to that of other Chilean leaders such as Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin, who endorsed the coup and granted it legitimacy. The neoliberal experiment unleashed upon Chile –marked by torture, execution, disappearances and exile in an attempt to annihilate all traces of Marxism and deter future revolutions in Latin America failed to surpass the power of collective memory, despite the various frameworks outlining the fragmentation of Chilean society.

However, as the book argues, Allende’s legacy and steadfastness to his principles of non-violence lent credibility and concrete proof of his last uttered convictions to the people prior to the bombing of La Moneda. The immediate dissonance of certain decisions can now be interpreted, and correctly so, as a testimony of steadfastness and unwavering triumph which does not descend into the politics of compromise, as evidenced by Allende’s speech at the United Nations, denouncing intervention in Chile and acknowledging the ramifications of facing unbridled turbulence in the name of sovereignty without adequate support – occurrences which echo Fidel Castro’s certainty that Allende would lead the next revolution in Latin America, effectively exposing imperial fears of socialist domination in the region following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

The electoral power of the Unidad Popular as viewed decades later enables the reader to differentiate between the power of the masses and the reality reflected in Congress, with both camps struggling for unity while assaulted by different forms of subversion orchestrated through CIA involvement. Allende’s vision for Chile’s socialist and democratic progress might have withstood a chance, had Congress adopted Allende’s earlier philosophical declaration regarding the significance of unity of thought, which would have bestowed the necessary dynamics between political representation and the people. Allende advocated against violence and humiliation, acknowledging the frail boundary between both scenarios which can also be interpreted as a metaphor for Chilean resistance in the aftermath of the coup. It is the alternative, embodied by Allende and portrayed so effectively in this compelling biography, which transcends symbolism both through a historical interpretation of events, as well as the sustained struggle for freedom against all forms of imperial exploitation

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Former head of DINA Manuel Contreras denies torture and disappearances in dictatorship era

Interviewed by CNN Chile at the Penal Cordillera, former head of DINA Manuel Contreras denied the routine practice of torture and disappearance of socialists during the dictatorship era, adding that he vouched for the organisation as he had never ordered torture.

As Chile commemorated the 40th anniversary of the ruthless dictatorship which fragmented the country into divergent memory frameworks, Contreras sought to contradict the evidence of committed atrocities either by vehemently denying the confirmed facts by seeking to demean the credibility of torture survivors and evidence relating to the desaparecidos, or else projecting blame upon other forces of the dictatorship, such as the air force. The Valech and Rettig reports were also disregarded with Contreras simply claiming he was not ordered to impose torture practices upon detainees and that no one died while in custody.

It is estimated that over 1200 sites were turned into detention, torture and extermination centres during the dictatorship.

According to Contreras, the desaparecidos can be located at the Cemeterio General in Santiago, adding that all bodies were taken to the Servicio Medico Legal prior to burial in mass graves. The practice of disappearing the bodies of murdered socialist militants into the sea was also denied, with Contreras claiming that 'DINA had no ships or aircraft or helicopters', thus striving to impart the assumption that there was no collaboration with other powerful structures within the dictatorship. The desaparecidos, according to Contreras, 'died in combat'.

The Chilean Ministry of Interior dismissed Contreras' interview as 'having no significance or relevance', adding that the imprisoned general imposed destruction upon Chile, reminding people that his rhetoric has been dispelled by the Chilean courts.

The remarks uttered by Contreras elicited outrage in social media, compounded by the fact that right wing supporters clamoured online for the freedom of former military offices, who they described as political prisoners.

DINA's covert operations manual, known as 'Secreto 28', instructs agents to take advantage of instances when people believe the law is not being violated, as it allows further freedom to infringe. The 108 page document instructs DINA to violate the law and ensure that all traces of such violations should be appropriately concealed in order to avoid the possibility of implicating the state and authorities.

President Sebastian Piñera condemned the human rights violations which occurred during Pinochet's era; however he expressed the opinion that both sides of the political spectrum should assume responsibility, adding that Salvador Allende's government 'broke the legality and rule of law'.

Meanwhile in Santiago, activists are determined to continue the struggle for the memory of the desaparecidos. It has been reported that Santiago will be 'bombarded' with thousands of photos bearing the faces of Chile's desaparecidos in various places, including the notorious detention and extermination centre, Cuartel Simon Bolivar.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Further indictments against DINA agents for disappearances of socialist militants

Juan Aurelio Villaroel Zarate
Judge Leopoldo Lanos from the Santiago Court of Appeals has indicted nine DINA agents and other accomplices for the disappearances of Juan Aurelio Villaroel Zarate, Clara Canteros Torres and Eduardo Canteros Prado.

Manuel Contreras, Carlos López Tapia, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, Juan Morales Salgado, Marcelo Moren Brito, Rolf Wenderoth Pozo, Eugenio Fieldehouse Chávez, Ricardo Lawrence Mires and Jorge Andrade Gómez have been charged with the murders and disappearances which occurred in July and August of 1976.

Clara Canteros Torres
Gladys Calderón Carreño, Rufino Jaime Astorga, José Friz Esparza, Hermon Alfaro Mundaca, Orlando Inostroza Lagos, Pedro Bitterlich Jaramillo, Claudio  Pacheco Fernández, Eduardo Reyes Lagos, Orlando Torrejón Gatica, Orlando Altamirano Sanhueza and Carlos López Inostroza are being charged as accomplices.

Juan Aurelio Villaroel Zarate, aged 55 and affiliated to Partido Comunista, was detained by DINA agents on August 13, 1976 and taken to Villa Grimaldi. His presence was witnessed by another detainee prior to his permanent disappearance.

Clara Canteros Torres was detained by DINA agents on July 23, 1976 and taken to Villa Grimaldi. Aged 21, married, and a mother of two children at the time of her detention and disappearance, Canteros was a militant of Juventudes Comunistas. Her uncle Eduardo Canteros Prado - a militant of Partido Comunista, was detained on the same day and transferred to Villa Grimaldi.

Eduardo Canteros Prado
DINA denied involvement in the kidnappings and disappearances of both Clara and Eduardo Canteros, despite testimony from former detainees claiming that both of them had been held at the notorious torture centre.

On March 21, 1990, the remains of three disappeared people were discovered in a former military site at Fundo Las Tortolas de Colina. The exhumed remains corresponded to Eduardo Canteros, Vicenter Atencio Cortes and Alejandro Avalos Davidson. The remains of Clara Canteros and Juan Villaroel were never discovered.

All three detentions and disappearances formed part of a DINA plan to eliminate all traces of formidable opposition to the dictatorship by targeting socialist and communist leaders, in order to weaken the structure of resistance.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Review: Remembering Pinochet's Chile. On the eve of London, 1998

Remembering Pinochet's Chile. On the eve of London, 1998
Steve J Stern
Duke University Press, 2006

As Pinochet's tangible presence receded from the Chilean political structure, a vibrant memory legacy erupted, challenging dictatorial impositions and awakening the struggle for historical memory. The volatile political environment following the disintegration of the dictatorship created a complex memory framework fighting not only the imposed oblivion, but also an ingrained process through which memory became an essential part of the collective experience on both sides of the political spectrum. In 'Remembering Pinochet's Chile. On the eve of London, 1988', Steve J Stern explores the national experience of the dictatorship, fragmented into several memory camps beyond the usual distinction of memory versus oblivion, depicting the diverse ramifications of collective memory and the induced oblivion in return for complacency and indifference, thus extracting the fight for remembrance promulgated by the marginalised opposition to the dictatorship.

Right wing rhetoric frames political violence as a necessity, with remembrance based on recollection which do not necessarily represent personal experience. Memory as salvation - the expression of a collective national sentiment as purported by Pinochet's adherents is detached from historical reality and fails to question the dynamics of Chile's left, such as whether violent revolution was favoured by Salvador Allende. The remembrance associated with the experiences of other harbouring similar sentiment indulges in a convenient dismissal of torture and disappearances. The fear of violence becomes displaced, projected onto the resistance incorporated by the militant left, in order to justify the violations committed by DINA.

Dissident memory, incorporating memory as rupture, persecution and awakening, involves a transformation of various struggles of the collective. An embodiment of contradictions between life and memory, existence is organised around memory, with different forms of expression contributing to the collective. While memory as rupture manifests itself as an expression of anguish, particularly in honouring the disappeared and executed, memory as persecution is characterised by an inevitable division of society owing to contrasting memory camps, in turn validating social commitment and values to promote solidarity through activism.

Stern also acknowledges a process through which a form of passive oblivion is inadvertently practiced. Using the metaphor of memory as a closed box, Stern describes a process of silence through which atrocities remain unchallenged. A lack of validation of a collective expression in the public sphere becomes prone to a form of idolisation of victims which shifts the focus from the actual issue of dictatorship atrocities and the quest for justice.

Despite the encompassing collective experience, other forms of memory remain obscured due to guilt and unintended complicity. Various leftist supports willingly presented themselves for questioning, others urged to comply by family members. The ensuing permanent disappearance rendered a guarded expression of memory, with remorse being less explicit due to the burden of guilt. Enlisted conscripts, among them former leftists, were also coerced to participate in arrests and torture - an experience which failed to safeguard against DINA retribution, such as in the case of Carlos Alberto Carrasco Matus who, upon confiding in his friend about the horrors perpetrated by the dictatorship, was forced to take part in arresting his friend. Both ended up prisoners in Villa Grimaldi - Carrasco was beaten with chains and murdered by DINA in Villa Grimaldi, while his friend was exiled and in 1990 testified before the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Besides Pinochet's insistence upon oblivion, Stern discerns another memory framework which negates atrocities through an intentional misinterpretation of history. Memory as indifference is established by recalling the alleged reasons as to why the coup was a necessity, while undeservedly attributing altruistic adjectives to a military which constantly proved its macabre character. According to an interviewee in the book identified as Colonel Juan F, the Chilean military possessed a 'socialist character' and was the salvation to Chile's future through its solutions of problems posed by a welfare system. Any failure was blamed upon the Allende era having produced 'mentally sick people', depicting a complete irrelevance to the deterioration of progress which rendered society irrelevant in order to justify political violence.

Measures were also taken to enable the military to distance themselves from the atrocities committed. A particular instance refers to the Calama massacres, where Colonel Eugenio Rivera sought to protect himself and his soldiers by placing the blame solely upon General Sergio Arellano Stark, in charge  of the 'Caravan of Death'.

The various memory frameworks have created a volatile coexistence shaped by elements in a constant struggle. Different experiences of life under Pinochet's dictatorship have provided the framework for the ensuing cultural silence battled by a quest for justice, memory and recognition of committed atrocities. Considering the split within Chilean society, the major obstacle to emblematic memory is its displacement due to persistent right-wing hegemonic narratives. Hence the projection of emblematic memory into the public sphere in order for the collective experience to escape fragmentation and isolation, which in turn strengthens the case for historical legitimacy. Chilean society is imbued with ambiguities - certainties mingle with doubt, the struggle for memory resisting certain narrations which, despite the relevance to the struggle, are perhaps perceived as blurring the divide between various forms of rupture, as in the case of conscripts who resisted implementing torture and suffered the same fate as left wing supporters. Stern's book serves as a compelling reminder of an incomplete sequence in the Chilean struggle, one that is partially dependent upon a dissolution of impunity in order to eliminate the process of selectivity and the peril of descending into various forms of oblivion.