Share this article

print logo



If it is memorialized at all, it will be as a footnote to what Henry Luce famously dubbed "the American Century" -- along with Phnom Penh, Guatemala City, Managua, Luanda, San Salvador, Dhaka, Dili, one more name in the crowded graveyard of the Cold War.

It is not the capital city of Indonesia in 1965 that I wish to recall here, the year Suharto destroyed the elected government of that country, murdering President Sukarno and 1 million people in the bargain. It is, instead, 1988, an ocean away, in Quinta Normal, Santiago, Chile.

"Jakarta," the men there told me -- they had seen the word painted on Santiago's walls again.

"Ya viene Jakarta" -- they had seen that on the walls 15 years earlier, in September 1973, just before another dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, another friend of American presidents, destroyed the elected government of Chile, burying President Salvador Allende and at least 2,000 others, torturing many thousands more -- making good, all in all, on the threat, "Jakarta is coming."

I was in Chile as an international observer for the plebiscite that would ultimately say no to the dictator. Pinochet himself had drafted the law providing for this referendum on his rule, but that was during the terror, when he could not have imagined that, as a journalist friend of mine once wrote, "History has a way of evading even the most ingenious plans for its cancellation."

Now, more than 1,000 observers from all over the world were in the country to offer history safe passage between the water cannons and military police stationed on city streets and the tear gas hanging in the wind.

The Chileans, it was said, had lost their fear by 1988, thus the electric feeling the weekend before the vote -- the march of more than a million souls anticipating the tyrant's fall, the cheekiness of a moviehouse that scheduled Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and announced it in big block letters on the marquee.

It was early October, spring in Santiago; the trees were flowering in parks where lovers met for long sojourns -- as they do throughout Latin America, because home is too tight with relatives, and hotels too expensive or too coarse.

In Quinta Normal, a working-class neighborhood, people belonging to any one of 16 parties in the No campaign were meeting openly for the first time since 1973, reviewing the responsibilities of the polling captains and others who would preside over the vote at local schools and churchyards.

In La Victoria, a neighborhood of the poor, people were preparing long poles of flammable rags, "mangas," for barricades, because from the highest levels had come rumors -- no, more than rumors, reports -- that Pinochet might cancel the vote with armed force when it became clear he was losing.

"La alegria ya viene," announced a slogan of the No -- "Happiness is coming."

In the meantime, neighborhood organizers were followed and harassed; La Nacion, a right-wing newspaper, published the names, addresses and phone numbers of people registered with the chief opposition party; police confiscated or destroyed ID cards of No partisans, rendering them ineligible to vote, and shot dead a boy who had shouted No to a group of Yes demonstrators and then refused to hand over his identification.

Almost every night brought blackouts to neighborhoods like Quinta Normal and La Victoria. Opposition party leaders of the left moved out of their homes and into a series of safe houses, and "Jakarta" was once more written on city walls.

Outside the wealthiest neighborhoods -- those that profited handsomely from Pinochet's dictatorship while the income of almost half the population plunged to poverty levels and almost half the children under 10 suffered from malnutrition -- the memory of 1973 was still vivid.

The men and women of Quinta Normal remembered how the general's troops rounded up citizens into Santiago's soccer stadium, then dumped their bodies into ditches that would later become the city's subway system. The matriarch of the family with whom I was staying remembered the night when soldiers entered her house and took away her son; and the day many months later when she finally found him in a prison, burned and beaten by the general's men.

The nuns, priests and bishops of the Catholic Church, the only institution not taken over by the military, remembered the "disappeared" on huge posters bearing women's photographs or lists of names in tiny type under the heading "Where Are They?"

The church people could cite chapter and verse of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report that detailed the CIA's organization and financing of the strikes and sabotage that began after Allende's election in 1970, and the meeting among President Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other top American officials in which Richard Helms of the CIA summed up the first step in the campaign that would bring Pinochet to power with the terse notation:

game plan

make the economy scream.

In the end, violence didn't win in Chile in 1988, with the whole world watching, but it won elsewhere in the 1980s, the cruel decade of Reagan time.

The 1980s are remembered in this country as the go-go years by those who struck it rich from mergers and acquisitions; as the years of disaster by those who lost the family farm or saw their factories close or their unions busted; as the coke years by smugglers and sybarites; as the plague years by anyone acquainted with AIDS; and the killing years by anyone acquainted with Latin America.

In Santiago on the day before the plebiscite, my group of observers was invited to a lunch for the Latin American delegations. Chileans who had been tortured after the coup and had just returned from exile were popping tranquilizers. Brazilians, Mexicans and Argentinians were discussing whether it was possible for them to resist the extortionary loan repayments and restructuring demands from First World bankers that were unraveling their economies. (They decided it wasn't; the risks were too high.) Nicaraguans were reviewing the latest toll of the hot wars in their region.

The contras, ragtag forces organized, sustained and paid by our country to roll back the Nicaraguan revolution, never would achieve a single military victory, never would gain a following among the people. But by 1989 a population exhausted from a decade of rape, kidnapping and murder at the contras' hands, and from a U.S. embargo that cost their poor country $3 billion, would vote to replace the Sandinista government.

It never seemed to matter that the embargo was declared illegal by the World Court, along with the U.S. bombing of Nicaragua's harbors and funding of the contras. Central America had been fantasized as a battleground against the Soviet Union, even as that country itself was dissolving.

By the 1990s the U.S. government would admit that it sponsored the death squads in El Salvador, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed and a million were made refugees in the 1980s. It would also admit that the CIA helped plan and carry out the war in Guatemala that killed 200,000 civilians. In the 1980s such assertions, by those of us who opposed the wars, were called controversial, even un-American.

I remember a celebratory march that spilled out of the Catholic university and into the street the day after the plebiscite in Santiago -- a festival of joy over a victory that would surely be compromised but was still so sweet. And I remember running from that celebration, blinded by tear gas and frightened that, packed as we were and fleeing down a side street, the merest slip and someone would be trampled.

At the decade's close, Pinochet was still in command of the Chilean military and, having guaranteed himself the position of senator for life, was settling into the role of elder statesman. In Washington, there were toasts to Ronald Reagan, who at home had called ketchup a vegetable in poor kids' lunches and abroad had called murder a freedom fight.

It was said that, without him, the rule of money would not have triumphed across the globe, Latin America would not be "on the road to democracy," and the Berlin Wall would not have come down, as it did in 1989. And so what is finally to be written in the political ledger of the 1980s? Perhaps that it was the decade in which terror was rechristened as victory.

Today, with regards to Chile, there is the smallest satisfaction of justice in that Pinochet is fighting extradition from Britain to Spain on charges related to the torture of prisoners during his dictatorship. With regard to the rest, there is mostly forgetting, though history may yet hold a few surprises.

Next week: Philosopher Paul Kurtz sums up some of the major changes in the 1990s and looks ahead to the new millennium.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, a native of Buffalo, is a senior editor of the Nation magazine. Her work has appeared there as well as in Harper's and other publications. She is the editor of "The Thirty Years' Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-1994," the collected work of Andrew Kopkind. Her book "Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art" is now out in paperback from the University of California Press.

There are no comments - be the first to comment