A look at Chile’s history

Five books which examine the unique legacy of the South American nation

Published - December 29, 2021 10:42 am IST

On September 11, 1973, Ariel Dorfman hiding in a safehouse, saw on television a live transmission of a group of soldiers burning books including one he had co-authored with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart, Para Leer al Pato Donald or How to Read Donald Duck, a book which was called the “handbook of decolonisation” by John Berger. The sardonic assault on Disney’s comics and how they insidiously promoted a world vision and values inimical to any and all revolutions had touched a raw nerve in the Chilean right wing, says Dorfman. Published in 1971, it caught the ire of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military junta after he overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende in a U.S.-backed coup in 1973. He ruled over Chile till 1990, dividing the country, which led to thousands of Chileans being forced to go into exile or face death. Human rights abuses, killings and torture of dissenters —more than 3,000 people died in political violence —were rife during his brutal reign. After years of polarisation, things have turned full circle in Chile with the election of leftist Gabriel Boric as the youngest President of the country. The 35-year-old, who was a fiery student leader, told supporters after the win over far-right candidate Antonio Kast that he would fight the “privilege of the few”, nurture democracy and promised curbs on Chile’s neoliberal free market economy. Mr. Boric faces a long hard road ahead —according to the United Nations, Chile has one of the world’s largest income gaps with 1% of the population owning 25% of the country’s wealth.

How did Chile arrive at this point? Pinochet’s Economics: The Chicago School in Chile by Juan Gabriel Valdes tells the story of the economists of the Pinochet regime, known as the “Chicago Boys”. Trained at the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, these economists “took advantage of the opportunity afforded them by the 1973 military coup to launch the first radical free market strategy implemented in a developing country.” Quoting Isaiah Berlin, Valdes writes that the type of neo-liberalism that emerged in Chile under military rule was intolerant, accepting neither the reconciliation of interests nor of values. “This was an obsessive concept, dogmatically pursued.” The introduction of the neo-liberal model caused a significant fall in real wages, a dramatic rise in unemployment, and a decade-long deterioration in social services, particularly health and education, points out Valdes. “The huge gap driven between rich and poor during this period” is the most “onerous legacy for democracy in Chile,” and which Mr. Boric aims to dismantle.

A Nation of Enemies – Chile under Pinochet by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela explores how Chile, once a stable democracy, gave way to a “culture of fear” and a rift that widened dramatically during the Pinochet era. Chile is often known as the land of poets, being the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, but its novelists like Roberto Bolano ( The Savage Detectives, 2666 ) and Isabel Allende ( The House of the Spirits , which follows four generations of women leading up to the coup against Salvador Allende) et al are well-known in the English-speaking world thanks to translations.

Bolano’s By Night in Chile , written before he passed away as he awaited a liver transplant in 2003, is the deathbed musings of a Chilean priest upset with many things in his country, from the Roman Catholic Church to the Pinochet regime. Isabel Allende began writing only after fleeing the regime through the mountains and ending up in Venezuela.

One of the most audacious attempts, however, to record what was going on during the Pinochet regime must go to Chilean film director Miguel Littin. Exiled like many others, he returned to the country disguised as a Uruguayan businessman and filmed across its length and breadth. Gabriel Garcia Marquez records this harrowing tale of near misses and lucky escapes in Clandestine in Chile . At one point, Littin even manages to shoot inside Pinochet’s office. When he finally flies away, he dreams that the dictator will soon be “dragging behind the 1,05,000-foot donkey’s tail of film we had tailed on him.”

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