Resistance to dictatorship and piercing the immunity of the General.
There was a 9/11 before 9/11. It was at least as momentous to the people of Chile as the one that is more familiar to North Americans. On September 11, 1973 the democratic dreams of all Chileans of goodwill were brutally destroyed when a coup d'etat overthrew the democratically elected government of the democratic socialist Salvador Allende. In the nightmare that unfolded, with the savage imposition of military misrule under General Augusto Pinochet, it is estimated that at least 3000 people were murdered or "disappeared" and at least 30,000 were tortured (see the Valech Report, on torture and political imprisonment). Pinochet's subsequent 17-year rule was marked by suspension of civil liberties, an enormous number of detentions without trial and the almost total curtailment of freedom of speech and association. At least 1000 books were banned outright. The illegality and contempt for the rule of law even extended beyond Chile's borders, as various leftists and officials from the Allende government were hunted down and murdered as part of Operation Condor. At the time of his death in 2006, Pinochet faced more than 200 criminal complaints and many of his subordinates had been convicted of horrific crimes.
With the films The Battle of Chile and Missing forever etched in my mind and the Clash's song Washington Bullets a favorite in my iPod collection--"Please remember Victor Jara in the Santiago Stadium"--I was prepared to be shocked all over again by watching the 2008 documentary film The Judge and The General. That film depicts the efforts to successfully prosecute General Pinochet and asks how a society and a legal system confronts the dirty deeds of a once-powerful political leader who continues to enjoy considerable support. This year I planned to add to my understanding of that seminal event in the Americas, the overthrow of Allende and its aftermath, by reading Carmen Aguirre's memoir, Something Fierce. I had not got around to reading it when the Canada Reads Contest for 2011 took place on CBC Radio and TV. Those of you who follow books in Canada will know of the controversies that erupted when one panelist weighed in with her inflammatory remarks about authors of two of the books in contention. For our purposes, I would just like to touch on the comment that Carmen Aguirre is a "bloody terrorist." When asked whether she considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist as well, the panelist replied in the affirmative. I note in the latter regard that she echoes the views of the long-time federal Conservative MP Rob Anders, who notoriously dissented from the vote in the House of Commons to grant the great Nelson Mandela honourary citizenship. The South African leader, who has surely been instrumental in saving many lives and transforming his country into a democratic state, was an eminently suitable candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1993.
Of course, proffering such a view in the midst of the chatty, lightweight but often pleasant enough deliberations of Canada Reads is like lobbing a live grenade into a War of 1812 re-enactment for tourists. (I pause here to ponder the question as to why, if populism is the goal, panelists must be celebrities?) In a proper debate on such a subject, someone claiming that Carmen Aguirre or some of the other courageous exiled Chileans hoped to participate in the resistance to the gruesome Pinochet regime, would have to explain herself and put forward a theory on what resistance, if any, is considered acceptable. Terrorism certainly applies as a description of the situation in Chile for the 17-year duration of the Pinochet regime, as the illegitimate military government that toppled the elected government created a state of terror that involved massive human rights abuses. Individuals had to possess considerable courage to attempt any peaceful protest, particularly in the first years after the fall, because beatings and arrests leading to torture were not unusual. Thousands of Chileans were forced into exile. The peaceful civil disobedience campaigns that Mahatma Gandhi conducted against the British colonizers in India could hardly be expected, in the Chilean context, to lead to anything but injury and death. In fact, I asked Carmen Aguirre about how Mahatma Gandhi might have fared under Pinochet. She replied by quoting him, from his book Nonviolence in War and Peace: "... where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence ... I would rather have India resort to arms in defence of her honour than that she would, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour." Aguirre adds that many people from all walks of life resisted Pinochet. For Canadians to understand the context in which she and many others engaged in resistance, she suggests we imagine the following:
The U.S. military (including the army, the navy, the local and federal police forces, the FBI and CIA) is brought by the elite of the country and a foreign superpower willing to offer logistical and financial support, and overthrows its own government. It bombs the White House, killing the president and other members of the government. It then institutes a murderous, brutal regime ... The constitution is thrown out, a state of emergency, curfew and martial law is instituted, between 50 to 100,000 people are killed, 700,000 are tortured, 20 million are exiled and a group of economists are brought in who drive the economy into the worst collapse in its history within a couple of years. This is exactly what happened in Chile.
She adds that she has only changed the number of casualties and exiles to the per capita equivalent. (One might perhaps call the death of Allende one of assisted suicide in the context of a brave leader intending to fight valiantly to the end for his country's ideals, notwithstanding the desertion of the military to the generals who were intent on a coup d'etat. Tapes have been located in which we hear Pinochet indicating that while an offer of a plane to take Allende to another country was to be made upon receiving word of unconditional surrender, "the plane falls in midflight.")
Chileans inside Chile faced a somewhat different reality than did those in exile and many chose, eventually, to engage in forms of resistance that did not involve arms. The difficult question, though, of what strategy of resistance to pursue against the military dictatorship is not one that someone looking on from the outside, such as Canadians other than those with Chilean roots, can easily assess. It is a highly dubious proposition in any event that individuals like Carmen engaged in terrorism by bringing "goods" across the border and into Chile. It was only because of such courageous actions of resistance by those residing inside and outside Chile that the dictatorship ended as soon as it did.
There are many wonderful parts making up Something Fierce. As Aguirre is a playwright and an actor in Vancouver, it is no great surprise that this, her first book, is filled with many dramatic moments in which the tension just drips from the page. We see the world through the young Carmen's eyes, as her mother and stepfather take her and her sister away from their secure and somewhat comfortable but perhaps unexciting home in Vancouver, back into a Latin America fraught with danger and violence. But on the plus side, the young Carmen is happy to encounter once again the "human heat" that animates the passionate, at times exotic, world of the countries she and her parents come to reside in: Peru in the grip of the war with Shining Path guerillas; Bolivia under the latest dictator; and Argentina in the desultory and still-dangerous time after the war between Britain and the Argentine generals. There are deft descriptions of the poor and wretched as well as the more affluent members of these countries. Indeed, after the overthrow of democracy in Chile in 1973, the U.S. under President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger backed military or civilian dictators throughout Central and Latin America, while just two countries--Venezuela and Costa Rica--practiced free elections.
Aguirre is adept at weaving together the disparate elements of the complicated lives of the family members as they establish themselves in the different "beachheads" for revolution through subterfuge. They know that discovery of their true identity in the police states or quasi-police states they move through by stealth will lead to a handover to the not-so-tender mercies of the Pinochet gang. Despite the considerable danger, there remains time for immersion in local cultural activities and the plugging-in to American pop culture, such as Michael Jackson's Thriller, John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease and jeans from Carmen's father. A profusion of love affairs reveal that the heart of the young revolutionary isn't always primly and puritanically devoted to the cause of social justice. The portraits of Bob, the gringo Canadian willing to come to fight for justice in foreign lands and of his hippy, unconventional feminist mother--Mami--are deeply affecting. We see Bob descending into helpless rage at the frustrating circumstances he finds himself in, unable to use his energies productively for long stretches. We see Carmen experience what she calls "The Terror", reliving in her mind the traumatic raid she and her sister endured when she was five, scarring her profoundly and leaving her guilt-ridden. We are privy to the high personal cost of the resistance to Pinochet, but also the justifiable pride that standing firm gives the rebels. After a return to Canada, Carmen at 18 decides for herself to recommit to the cause and ventures back to Argentina to continue the struggle with her husband. A particularly poignant moment in the book occurs near the end when the narrator, a slightly disenchanted and older woman, meets up with "Alejandro", now her ex-husband, but still her companero. The two sum up the gains and the losses of their wondrous time in the resistance. Alejandro suspects that he will never be able to tell the story of his revolutionary past to those close to him in his new life, who might think he went too far.
Having completed Aguirre's very fine memoir, I thought it would be useful to compare her experiences with those of Heraldo Munoz, who lived through the same time period as the "revolutionary family" from Canada in his memoir: The Dictator's Shadow. I will discuss that book in the next issue of LawNow.
Robert Normey is a lawyer with the Constitutional and Aboriginal Law Branch of Alberta Justice in Edmonton, Alberta.