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Active participation needed to make political system work

Like most Americans, I mutter with some regularity about the failings and stupidity of our government on all levels. At almost the same time when I hear of some particularly gross or lethal action on the part of another country, I shake my head and say to whoever is nearby, ‘Aren’t you glad we live here and not there.’ The idea being that for whatever our faults, we still provide the standard of good government for the rest of the world.
It’s a comforting thought. Someone once said, ‘God protects little children, drunks and the United States of America.’ An appealing concept, but true? I don’t know. Surely the same laws of politics apply to us as to the rest of the world. Maybe we have just had a spectacular run of luck.
I can remember as recently as 1968 when U.S. Army combat units were deployed to control the streets of a number of U.S. cities in response to civil unrest by black Americans who felt the deck had been stacked against them for too long. We got through that crisis as well as a number of others. Taken all in all, we have had more than 200 years of moving forward, but on a number of occasions the possibility of failure was very real.
One can point to other nations that should not have failed but did. Germany, long a center of European civilization, sought to find its way after the disaster of World War I and in the process elected Adolf Hitler and his Nazis to power then followed them into the bowels of hell.
During a recent trip, I became familiar with a more contemporary example of the failure of a nation to respond to economic and political currents, thus creating a national disaster. The nation is Chile and for almost 20 years, beginning in 1970, its politics were lost in confusion and violence.
Chile is the long, thin backbone along the west coast of the bottom half of South America. The Spanish first arrived there 500 years ago and quickly went about suppressing the native culture as they created another colony in their Latin American empire. That empire was destroyed through internal revolt in the early years of the 19th century. Chile got its independence in 1818 (unlike what I said in my food column Jan. 30), the independence movement led by a man with the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins, Spanish mother and Irish father.
Unlike what happened on the North American continent, there was no United States of South America. The former colonies just went their separate ways. Some of the new countries thus created were more successful than others. The general feeling developed that, despite a number of political shenanigans, Chile was the most successful of all.
All kinds of quotes attest to this perception. Chile has ‘ … long been the most successful county of Latin America’ and ‘Their republican success offered an inspiration’ and so on. Right through to the second half of the last century, Chile was noted for stability and slow but steady economic growth. Chileans got used to the idea of hearing how well they were doing.
But at the same time, Chile followed two social patterns found in almost every other Latin American nation. The first was to have a small, close-knit ruling class that had the money as well as the power. At the other end of society was a huge mass of poor people with the ones at the absolute bottom being called in Chile by the tragic name ‘rotos’ ‘ the broken ones. The middle class was few in number and not really important politically.
The second of these patterns was for the military to become the protector of nationhood. As such, they felt that if it appeared the civilian authorities weren’t doing their job, the armed forces had the right to step in and take control. Neither pattern would serve the nation well in the year’s ahead.
What happened next might be termed a cautionary tale lest anyone think their nation has a get-out-of-jail-free card. In the 1960s, Chile had a reformist president who pushed through the legislature a number of laws implementing change but which pleased few people. Folks on the left felt they didn’t go far enough and, on the right, the feeling was they went way too far.
The 1970s began with the election of a radical leftist Salvador Allende to the presidency. A determined man, it was the fourth time he had run for the office. He was a Marxist; that’s a man with much the same agenda as the Communists but who seeks to reach his goals without relying on a gun to get his way.
Many Chileans, along with the United States, panicked. We were in the midst of the Cold War and sought to prevent any spread of the influence of the Soviet Union. President Nixon began to use the CIA to mess in Chilean politics. We do not appear at our best in this story but, although we contributed to the confusion, in the end, it was Chile’s own disaster.
We backed a coup aimed at keeping Allende from taking power, but it failed and he assumed the presidency. Next, despite his razor-thin margin of victory, Allende began to act as if he had the broad support of the nation to carry-out radical social, political and economic reforms. His goal was to change Chile into a socialist state, something like Hugo Chavez is now trying to do in Venezuela.
He got off to a flashy start, but things quickly went downhill and the economy tanked with government overspending and mismanagement. The situation was not helped by Nixon’s interference. Spiraling inflation took hold, and goods became scarce as people began hoarding. This was followed by social unrest and political violence.
By 1973, many Chileans believed Allende should be removed from office by force. Once again the United States became involved. The first attempt at a military coup failed, but a second effort under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet succeeded.
Two months ago, my wife and I sat on benches in front of Chile’s presidential palace and listened to a description of the coup. That night I looked at a photo taken Sept. 11, 1973, showing the same building under attack by rockets and strafing runs from Chilean Air Force fighters not 30 yards from where we sat. Allende died that day, probably a suicide.
The military quickly took power, and most people felt the country would rapidly return to civilian authority. But this was not to be. Pinochet consolidated his authority into absolute power and then held onto it for 15 years. He suspended the constitution, banned all political parties, closed all media that did not support him and eliminated civil rights. Worst still, some 30,000 citizens fled the country, tens of thousands of Allende supporters were fired from their jobs, huge numbers of people were detained and tortured, and at least 3,000 civilians were murdered by the secret police.
One of our guides said to me, ‘I grew up in that period, and every so often I’d wake up in the morning to gunfire as the secret police ran around the neighborhood with shotguns and pistols, chasing someone they thought was plotting against the government. It was crazy. They were psychotic.’
Slowly at first and then more quickly, it dawned on people that this cure for radical leftist politics was worse than the disease. After a period of prosperity, the economy once again tanked with the currency devalued and the banking system coming apart. Pinochet eventually got things on a more even keel economically, but by that time there were armed left-wing military groups attacking the government. Finally, in 1988, the political center and left joined forces and were able to force a vote which began the ouster of Pinochet. He didn’t go quickly but, in the end, the dictator and his apparatus were pushed completely out.
I have compressed a good bit of complex history lest this column become a university lecture, but the essentials of the tale are here.
Today, Chile is trying with some success to forget Pinochet. There were efforts to bring him to justice but, in the end, he beat them by dying of old age. Scars remain. The father of the current president was tortured to death by the secret police. The father of another of our guides emigrated to Australia one step ahead of the general’s agents.
Memories remain even as the economy booms and the whole nation seems embarrassed to recall how quickly their political system lost its way and dissolved.
Perhaps we all need to remember to recall that the only constant is change and then seek to make sure our political system continues to work by actively participating and working toward positive growth.