Small Earthquake in Chile: Allende’s South America
This paperback edition, published 1990, seems now to have been remaindered. It is very necessary to run through the history of this book. It was first published “towards the close of 1972” (p. 344), as “Allende stumbled from crisis to crisis, walking close to illegality”. What happened after that is given in a final chapter “The Deluge … and After”, pages 345 to 384, added in 1989.
It is a little difficult to assemble all the events of the book into a context so hazy in my memory, to say nothing of remembering the situation in a number of South American countries as it was 31 years ago, with a last chapter added 14 years ago. Although the book is mainly about Chile, as the title implies, there are substantial chapters on Colombia and Bolivia, Peru is more than mentioned in passing and there is something about Ecuador. This leaves Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela unvisited and undiscussed. A feature of the 1970s, much less one of today’s, is the emphasis throughout the book on the population explosion. It is interesting to find that Horne’s only mildly exasperating companion and one of the book’s dedicatees, was Bill Buckley then-editor (I think) and certainly founder of National Review; his right-wing conservative views don’t greatly intrude. The other dedicatee is the charming, ever-helpful Nena, clever enough to become Director of Chile’s National Art Gallery just before the coup, and still be there at the end of the book (p. 346).
What is important about Chile (and here everyone seems to agree) is that it was politically the most stable and perhaps the most prosperous South American state, not without its poverty-stricken peasants (like everywhere else) and marginalised Indians (like everywhere else bar Argentina, where they’d largely been exterminated), but with a functioning democracy, regular free elections (though only those literate could vote – not a bad idea), an enlarging middle class and a free, diversified press with a relatively large circulation. Perhaps its most unusual feature, for a Latin American country, was the fact that the armed forces (of which the army had the least chic) did not interfere in politics.
Under these circumstances, what could seem more reasonable than a spot of land reform? Unfortunately, the person who took this on was Allende. Like most revolutionaries (though a fairly conventional politician originally and minister of health in 1940) he came from the middle class, a fact which still seemed to surprise his egregious friend and confidant, the nut-case intellectual Regis Debray, ex-friend of the defunct martyr Che Guevara, to whom he’d given just as bad advice. Allende’s rhetoric and nationalisation plans scared the middle classes, who left the country in droves. He intended to carry out most of his program within the country’s legal framework, which seems to have been sufficiently elastic to enable him to do so. However he, and apparently everyone else, expected this to provoke a clumsy attempted right wing coup, which he could then crush with “revolutionary violence” (p. 149). As for his democratic credentials, it is worth pointing out that he won the presidential election in a three-cornered contest with only a slender majority over the second of two other candidates to the right (36% to 35%), a situation reflected in the composition of the Legislature. Yet the impression given is that he was an improvisatory bourgeois amateur; such was David Holden’s estimate, which I must have read in Encounter in January 1974, an actor in love with a revolutionary part, rather than a serious leader who knew where he was going” (p. 357). In the 1970s, communism, let alone socialism, were far from discredited creeds, China’s Cultural Revolution was not perceived to be what it was, Soviet dissidents were isolated and samizdat-dependent and, worst of all, thanks to the subversion of the US intellectual left, the Communists could look forward to winning in Vietnam. Allende made no secret of his fondness for Communist regimes, his words and actions being more extreme than the official Chilean, Moscow-oriented Communist Party. Even more extreme were the bands of black-bereted guerrilla-activist MIR (Movimento de Izquierda Revolucionardia), one of which, led by Commandante Pepe, inevitably of middle-class origins, Horne and Nena visited (Ch. 9, pp. 192-228). They were busy ejecting well to do farmers to instal landless peasants, something I distinctly recall from an article in Encounter, possibly the one cited above. Allende had instructed the police (carabinieros) not to interfere in these activities – but nor did they if the farmers managed to get enough help to counter-eject the peasants. He was also following a policy of intervention in businesses, oddly enough using a law instituted by a previous regime, resulting in effect in creeping nationalisation. Of course, as might be expected, the economy was ruined, inflation reaching 10,000% (p. 241) and the original edition of the book ends with Horne predicting disaster.
The last, additional chapter briefly describes what happened. In July 1973 there was a half-cancelled, half-cock rightist coup, but it produced no spontaneous workers’ response, which emboldened Pinochet, quite late in deciding to participate, to carry out a proper one in September (p. 348), when Allende seemed to be no better prepared than in July, despite a large consignment of Czech arms from Cuba, disguised as a present of mango-flavoured ice-cream. Deserted by the presidential palace police and rocketed by the air force, the most trustworthy evidence is that Allende committed suicide with the automatic rifle that Castro had given him.
Horne is not one to canonise him, as leftists in the West have and he points out that the media castigation of Pinochet’s Chile has been completely disproportionate compared with the treatment of oppression in Cambodia, Cuba, Poland or Czechoslovakia (p. 361). It is certainly dispiriting to read of the amount of bloodshed there has been elsewhere on the South American continent; “It was a long time before I was forgiven by the Chileans,” Horne remarks, “for making the unacceptable comparison with Bolivia” (p. 355). The number of deaths the Pinochet regime was responsible for he puts “somewhere substantially less than 5,000” (p. 360). Nor does he think that any intervention by the CIA made much difference and perhaps was even counterproductive. Even its foreknowledge of the coup seems to have been sketchy and its expenditure on certain items seems almost laughable (p. 354). Moscow seems to have spent a good deal more. It is true that this evidence comes from an American official investigation (which “washed its dirty linen in public, in 1975, with great thoroughness”) and I suppose anyone is free to disbelieve it. Considering that Army coups have happened constantly over the whole of Latin America without the CIA being always held to blame, it seems a little odd to suggest that Chile was the only place its help was needed. I personally would not regard it as matter for condemnation if the CIA had been responsible for Allende’s troubles from start to finish, but the evidence from everywhere else seems to suggest that it is nowhere near that efficient.
Horne revisited Chile (having stayed away during the Pinochet regime because of his revulsion from the well-publicised instances of its use of torture) during a lecture tour he was giving in South America in 1987. Entering the country from Peru, he was favourably impressed by the contrast in cleanliness, order and signs of increasing prosperity. He gives credit in a guarded way to the adoption of laissez-faire economics pioneered by the “Chicago Boys”, the intellectual offspring of Milton Friedman, some years before Mrs Thatcher took them up here. He was granted a long interview by Pinochet who gives the impression of having stayed in power, not to enrich himself, or for fear of his own future, but to ensure that Chile would not be in danger of another left-wing takeover if he left too soon.