Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Forty years later, the other Sept. 11 still sears

There were two reasons I cheered in November 1970, when Salvador Allende, a socialist, was democratically elected in Chile. Neither proved true in large part as a result of what Americans might call the "other" Sept. 11: that of the Chilean coup in 1973, 40 years ago today.

First and foremost, I thought the election of a socialist in Latin America, where I had lived for eight years, would at last bring profound social change where it was needed in a peaceful way. This would silence the two groups of naysayers of the day.

In one corner were those who thought defending democracy was worth a little and temporary dictatorship supported by overt or covert U.S. military intervention. Democracy was at the heart of Western Christian civilization (I think they capitalized all three), which was besieged by the Russian atheist hordes.

I was Western and democratic-minded, or at least I liked to speak out. I was Christian to the point of toying with becoming a man of the cloth. I was civilized enough to have a chancery in my head, telling me which fork to use and whom to seat where. The Russians seemed a brutish cabbage culture with a funny alphabet; their Communism might not be bad in principle, but atheism was, always!

Opposing those naysayers and what might be called my nurtured sympathies were those who were willing to bring about change at any cost. Let rivers of the oppressors' blood flow through the streets until at last only the disinherited could claim their right share of Earth's bounty and what they could fashion from it with worker muscles.

This, too, appealed to me. I had tutored children in the dirty, smelly appalling shanty towns of Buenos Aires that were so very appropriately called "Misery Villages" (Villa Miserias). I had wandered into fairly rough industrial districts as a volunteer to teach (of all the useless skills!) English, to rough-hewn men from a sweaty world of machinery, factories and unions.

In those days change was blowin' in the wind, wasn’t it? I had been moved to tears reading Maxim Gorky's The Mother, in which revolutionary characters distributed Bibles as fodder for workers' consciousness raising. The Latin American bishops' letter from Medellín a year earlier had practically blessed what some called a "Christian revolution."

My problem was with violence and dictatorship of the proletariat, which always ended up being anything but. I could not brook brute force and compulsion as the seed of a better world.

Allende's Chile squared the circle. Those Chileans went and elected (what’s more peacefully democratic than that?) a socialist (I didn't doubt the need for thoroughgoing change).

Oh, yes, you're wondering about my second reason to cheer. It was peevish glee at the presumptive ruin of the career of an international bureaucrat I thought had personally hurt my family. The man was Chilean, not a socialist and not likely to get along well with the new people in Santiago.

I was wrong on both counts.

Allende was blocked at every step (although to be fair, his sense of symbolism was sometimes a little naïve) and he died fighting Chilean army, whose Prussian uniforms at the time lent Santiago the air of a Hollywood set for a World War II film.

The general who followed him had coined in 1965 a name for an entirely new form of government, "the National Security State," a martial law rule that may have been Western, but was sorely lacking in civilization or Christianity. This kind of regime displaced, with U.S. approval (remember Nixon and Ford?), admittedly weak democracies in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay and later in Central America.

So much for peaceful democratic change!

The bureaucrat, you ask? He did fine and managed the political mambo with both Allende and Pinochet. Bureaucrats, like rats, are survivors.

So we come to 40 years later.

I think back and am left with a verse from the song by Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler, "Al otro lado del río" (On the other side of the river):

Sobre todo, creo que
no todo está perdido.
Tanta lágrima, tanta lágrima, y yo
soy un vaso vacío...

(Above all, I believe that
all is not lost
So many tears, so many tears and I
am an empty vessel ...)