It Could Never Happen Here

Salvador Allende and Gen. Carlos Prats, both victims of Pinochet
Today on a CBC Program called “The Current”, Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean playwright (Death and the Maiden), novelist and poet, exiled in the 1970s, talked about his experience during the regime of the brutal, sadistic, thieving US-supported fascist dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet, and his sense of what his country has been through and is going through now in the shadow of Pinochetís recent death.

You can listen to Dorfman speak on the CBC site. Scroll down to Part 3. Heís an extremely articulate man, and what is so engaging is that he speaks so emotionally (even in English that Latin fervour and joie de vivre is evident). We in the cold Anglophone nations need to learn to speak this passionately and unhesitatingly.

He tells the stories of the two people who dared breach the cautious protocol of compromise that allowed Pinochet a full military funeral but no state funeral. Despite the horrors that this man unleashed on his country, his opponents and supporters generally kept their distance from each other and avoided extremes of action or rhetoric. But two people did not: The grandson of Pinochet unleashed a tirade against the current government and spoke in glowing terms about what his grandfather had done to “save Chile from the Communists”. And the grandson of General Carlos Prats, the army leader who supported Pinochet only to be betrayed and assassinated by him, patiently made his way among the throngs of mourners until, upon reaching the coffin, he spat on it.

In his remarkable telling of these stories, Dorfman brings home three important lessons from this tragic period of Chile’s history that we would be well-advised to heed:

  1. In order to be able to make a transition from a despotic regime to a democratic one, it is essential that the people themselves be empowered and in control of the overthrow and rebuilding of their nation. Other countries can and should help, but democracy can never be ‘imposed’ by outside nations.
  2. The Chileans believed that the kind of ruthless dictatorship common in many Latin American countries could never occur in their peaceful and democratic nation. They were wrong. Corrupt, criminal, repressive dictatorship can happen anywhere.
  3. The existence of truly international law and global consensus about a regime’s atrocity can bring justice to a nation seemingly unable or unwilling to achieve that justice for itself. Many Chileans were unwilling to acknowledge the extent of Pinochet’s criminality because to do so they would have had to admit to (at least unknowing) complicity. It was the UK & European courts, not Chile’s, that finally charged Pinochet with war crimes and, although Pinochet ultimately cheated justice with his death (kinda like Slobodan Milosevic and Ken Lay), that combination of global consensus and initiative finally gave Chileans the courage to charge Pinochet themselves.

Dorfman also makes the point that people only seek revenge when there is no opportunity for justice. Revenge is always the last resort.

And he concludes that the only way to eliminate the spectre of torture and terror forever from our planet is to eradicate the underlying root causes of it ñ inequality, poverty, greed, corruption, scarcity and human misery.

I had never heard of Dorfman, but he spoke so eloquently, so expressively, that I am rushing out to buy one of his books. Have a listen. Powerful, inspiring, and important stuff.

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4 Responses to It Could Never Happen Here

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Right around the time that I was starting to think (for myself) about politics, I had the good luck to run across Dorfman’s _How to Read Donald Duck_, followed by _The Emperor’s Old Clothes_. Amazing, eye-opening stuff… I had never been made to consider supposedly harmless and inoffensive cultural products in the light of ideology. Things were never the same.

  2. cindy says:

    Another person. Another nation. I always thought it was a big mistake that the trial of Saddam is in his own country. I sensed that ‘something’ would go wrong. Just before new year the world withnessed the wretchedest justice handed out very publicly. On the flip side, perhaps what happened to Saddam is a lesson to the world, and most of all to Bush and future US administrations (under Bush, US still does not recognize the international court, plus created division among EU member states, especially a few of the former east-block nations). Saddam should be penalized for his crimes. The international court in the Hague would have given him much fairer treatments as a human being. Pinochet was lucky. Saddam not.If democracy is the message Bush wants us to believe, then let’s start with human decency. If there is/are human beings openly displaying contempt towards another living creature (in this case Saddam), then the whole process of the trial of Saddm is a mockery towards democracy.

  3. Martin-Eric says:

    The point about people seeking revenge when there is no opportunity for justice seems to be the root of most uproar currently shaking various countries. Average people feel they are on the loosing end of economic and social deals; they feel that whatever balance democracy and law should have created and maintained is no longer there; they loose their trust in the institutions and the police. This is where countries reach a point of no-return, where the populace no longer worries about the eventual consequences of their violence; they want resolution to the injustice they feel and, not finding it in the institutions, they take matters into their own hands. You then get results like the French riots, the chaotic relocation of New Orleans flood victims, etc. I really don’t like where this is heading.

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