Why was 11 September 2001 chosen as the best day to fly planes into buildings – because 911 is the phone number for the US emergency services? The perpetrators can’t say because they are dead. Even if they weren’t, they’d doubtless ignore the annual coincidence with something no less terrible in its pointlessness – the military coup in Chile on 11 September 1973.
A year or so before then, I was travelling between the port of Valparaíso and Santiago on a bus that was suddenly surrounded by Chilean troops. As it turned out, they were playing a part in Costa Gavras’ brilliant film State of Siege, about an impending military coup in Uruguay. Much of it had to be filmed in Chile, where the elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende still survived.
But tensions were rising. Henry Kissinger, US President Nixon’s Secretary of State at the time, was quoted as saying: ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.’
As the CIA itself now brazenly admits, it went to ruthless lengths to prevent the election of Popular Unity in 1970, to undermine it once elected, and then to promote its violent overthrow.
Following the nationalization by Popular Unity of the giant (and largely US-owned) Chilean copper industry, ‘economic sanctions’ gave US corporations an official free hand. Leaked documents at the time showed that ITT, which controlled the telephone network and a substantial chunk of El Mercurio, the establishment newspaper, was actively coup-mongering. Ford, which made most of the buses, embargoed spare parts and brought the elongated country close to standstill. In a place overflowing with the most drinkable wine in the world, a shortage of bottles meant you had to have an empty one in order to drink any of it.
My daughter was born into a void of basic medical supplies. She needed a Chilean passport and an official photograph, to be taken in a designated government edifice. Its supply of photographic paper was, however, depleted. Hundreds of applicants coiled in a queue around an atrium that, within months, would serve as a theatre of torture for the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the secret police. My daughter began a penetrating yell that soon had her two-week-old visage imprinted on the last official piece of photographic paper.
Chile, Uruguay, Argentina – in the early 1970s the ‘Southern Cone’ countries of Latin America joined Brazil, Peru and Bolivia under a shroud of brutal repression, darkened by poisonous components from the US and corporate power. Many thousands more were murdered than on ‘9/11’, and still more tens of thousands were tortured, ‘disappeared’, dispossessed.
It is painful to recall now just how daunting the portents then seemed to be. And in aid of what, precisely? There followed a decade that is now accepted by almost everyone, and in almost every respect, as ‘lost’ to the people of Latin America – though the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile preferred to keep the copper industry ‘nationalized’ for itself.
In Britain I was asked to talk to meetings about what had happened in Chile. One question would often be: ‘But what can we do against tanks and guns?’ I had no answer, except to suggest that the trigger has to be pulled by someone – and that the denial of common humanity is both self-defeating and pointless.
What many people in Britain and elsewhere soon discovered they could do was secure refuge, or ‘asylum’, for those who fled for their lives from Latin America. Especially in Scotland, the labour movement kept faith – exiles were not just accepted but welcomed into local communities. A second generation has since then grown up in full awareness of its past, and it is they who are now planning to mark 40 years on from their 9/11 with an expression of respect and thankfulness.
During that time the people of Latin America learned what free markets and military dictatorships have in common (‘neoliberalism’). They have also come closer to realizing their shared ambitions than at any time in their post-colonial history. This ‘epiphany’ may be as fragile as any other, and still has a way to go, but is tangible enough.
For its part, the Minority World is now discovering where liberated markets truly lead, if only because they have collapsed. It may well be on the verge of discovering, too, just what they have in common with political repression. But, soaked in the blood of the ‘war on terror’, its governments have also come to treat ‘asylum’ as a term of abuse. A lost decade therefore beckons.
There’s more than mere irony in the recent prominent refugees from repression in the Minority World now looking to Latin America for asylum.