A Tale of Two Chiles

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Chile still has lessons for us today.

'Working class scum... ignorant peasants... children of whores...' So we were greeted by the snarling mob of rich Chileans as we arrived at the court in September 1999. Dodging their spit, we were told how our families had deserved to die. I've never felt such vitriolic class hatred before or since.

A decade after the end of his brutal dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet was finally facing legal sanction. In what was to prove an uncharacteristic moment of principle, home secretary Jack Straw had concluded that he was fit to stand trial on murder charges filed by a Spanish judge.

Hundreds of Chileans, many tortured and exiled by Pinochet's regime, had turned out with their supporters to mark the occasion. The police forced us to walk single file through a picket of pro-Pinochet bigots. If we were to believe the rumours, they were a particularly expensive rent a mob - apparently they'd been flown in by Concorde for the day.

I was with a delegation led by Sergio, a trade union shop steward who now lives in Coventry. He had been a student lefty in Chile when Pinochet's military coup was launched on that fateful 11 September in 1973. He was one of an estimated 150,000 socialists, trade unionists and activists to be tortured by the regime (more than 3,000 were killed). With remarkable bravery, he had given himself up to the torturers to secure the release of his partner.

The Chilean government recently published a 1,200-page report by an official commission on torture. It detailed evidence from over 30,000 survivors, who recounted the regime's use of electric shock treatment, water submersion, sexual abuse, and humiliations such as forcing prisoners to drink their own urine and eat their excrement.

Pinochet's right wing defenders like Margaret Thatcher regularly bleat about how he is too unwell to stand trial. Putting aside his suspiciously Lazarus-like recoveries, do they honestly believe his henchmen ever displayed such concern as they ripped the fingernails from their captives' hands? As they listened to their screams? Pinochet is not being asked to endure such agony - just to be held accountable for the brutality committed under his command.

That these crimes were committed is not in doubt. Thus the labyrinthine series of legal challenges to thwart his trial - both in Britain and, since New Labour reverted to type and cravenly let him go, in Chile - have pointed to his age, his ill health, the status of international treaties and, most ridiculously, a presiding law lord's scandalous allegiance to Amnesty International. (It's interesting to note that a stated support for human rights is considered a conflict of interests in our legal system.)

But Chile's Supreme Court last month deemed him fit to stand trial for ten murders or 'disappearances'. If house arrest in his luxurious coastal ranch is not quite the fate he deserves, at least it gives Margaret Thatcher something to worry about now that she has bought her beloved son his freedom.

Pinochet may need the friends. A recent investigation by the US Senate discovered at least $8 million held in his name at Riggs Bank. He is alleged to have evaded tax and siphoned off public funds. Many of his supporters, perhaps naively seeing him as a selfless class warrior, seem disappointed that he might share their penchant for grasping self-enrichment.

When Sergio came to Britain as an asylum seeker in the 1970s, he says it was a matter of pride for the labour movement to welcome a Chilean leftist. And still today, the story of the self-proclaimed Marxist Salvador Allende and the coup that deposed him is relatively well known. So why does Chile remain such a potent symbol? It cannot just be the level of repression, for the 1976-83 dictatorship in Argentina - where the military's 'dirty war' massacred some 30,000 people - was even more horrific.

Chile posed one of the pivotal dilemmas for a generation radicalised by Vietnam, civil rights struggles and labour unrest. Allende had followed the rules of the game in what was considered a stable parliamentary democracy. He got elected, he compromised repeatedly (even inviting Pinochet into the government), and still big business and its supporters mobilised the military against him. There were two conclusions you could draw from its ruthless response - either the working class needs to deepen its challenge by taking grassroots economic control and disarming the state, or it needs to avoid doing anything that threatens fundamental change. Three decades of betrayals have been built on the latter explanation.

The US's role in the coup has also rightly become notorious. Declassified documents have testified to President Nixon's attempt to 'make the economy scream' through an 'invisible blockade', and the CIA's plotting terrorist acts to provoke a 'coup climate' and its training of the Gestapo-like Dina agency.

But while the role of Cold War imperialism is important to understand, it is not the whole story. The US was unable to stop Allende coming to power initially, despite its best efforts, and it was a home-grown ruling class that prosecuted the 1973 bloodbath. And Operation Condor - the coordination of South American military regimes to track down, torture and kill leftist opponents - was certainly supported by the US, but it was initiated in Chile.

Recognising that the world's biggest imperial criminal has accomplices (who pursue their own self-interest alongside it) does not diminish its crimes - but it could help us to understand them better.

Sergio, like anyone who has suffered torture, will never be free of its memory. But he also took something positive from his ordeal, something that I will always find inspiring. While he was being tortured, prisoners were kept totally isolated from news of the outside world. Pinochet's thugs wanted them to feel atomised, powerless and alone.

Inevitably people became traumatised and depressed. But one day Sergio heard a radio mistakenly left on by a guard. The news reported that British engineers had refused to touch weapons parts intended for the regime. In hushed whispers Sergio spread the news around the camp, news of a small act of solidarity that showed that the world had not forgotten - that even amid the unimaginable horror there was still hope. And so he, and many others, found the strength to fight on.