Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Why is the question of General Pinochet still an important issue for Chileans today?
It is an extremely important issue for the international working class and for socialists. Here we have a ruthless dictator who imposed extremely savage repression on the Chilean working class and the poor for 17 years. His military regime refused to allow trade union activities, banned strikes and shut down the parliament. Nobody really knows how many people died during his regime. We do have figures of about 3,000 disappeared people but we don't know exactly. So from that aspect it is extremely important that Pinochet should be put on trial, even in ruling class terms.
It is also important for socialists to learn the lesson when there is a political problem. With the Popular Unity government of the early 1970s, which was overthrown by Pinochet's coup, the leadership tried to reform a society that could not be reformed. Pinochet, as a member of the ruling class, killed the revolutionary movement through savage repression. He was executioner for the ruling class. There was an extreme polarisation in Chilean society, and I think the highest point of the class struggle in Chile was the formation of the cordones industriales (industrial belt), where the working class developed a completely different alternative to Popular Unity. That is the reason why the Chilean ruling class conducted the military coup. Pinochet was the man responsible for the creation of the Dina, which was a very secret police force. If you were a well known trade unionist or member of any of the Popular Unity political parties you were executed on the spot. He ran the Dina day to day--I think there is documentation of that in the US but they don't want it out in the open.
Pinochet is a typical example of ruling class violence against the revolutionary movement. If the ruling class cannot rule through parliamentary means they will use violence. That is the reason why it was important to mobilise in this country, to try to put pressure on this rotten Labour government. I say rotten because Jack Straw doesn't even want to show Pinochet's medical results--it is a state secret. The ruling class played this legal game from day one when he was arrested. I was very pessimistic because I have known the ruling class at first hand, but on the other hand it was necessary to resist. It was very strange that after 20 years eventually the Chilean situation came back into the political arena. So there was a level of excitement because during the demonstrations I met my old comrades. In a way Pinochet's arrest reactivated many of the Chileans. A lot of Chileans had given up on politics because the defeat was enormous.
How has Pinochet's arrest affected the political mood in Chile?
After the military dictatorship there was a transition to democracy where reformist political parties and the ruling class tried to say this is a new era, we have to forget about the past. They tried by every means not to talk about the past. It was a really strange situation--people had to forget that there was a military dictatorship, that there was repression and political pressure. They wanted to have this smooth transition to democracy but with the Pinochet arrest the whole thing blew up, because it is pretty impossible for a nation to forget something on that scale. It is impossible to forget because in human terms there are still families searching for disappeared people and families who are in exile. The idea of forgetting is part of the whole ruling class propaganda in conjunction with the reformist political parties.
When Pinochet was arrested people began to question again, the new generation asked what happened. The old generation began to talk again, because there had been some kind of superficial amnesia. With the arrest of Pinochet people internationally began to talk about Chile again. The news was constantly there. Reformism again became a political issue, nationalism again became a political issue and people began asking about the alternative to reformism. We organised two meetings in London--one in Spanish and one in English--to try to gather Latin American people, Chilean people and British people to discuss reformism. If that was happening here I can imagine that in Chile the impact of the arrest was tremendous, and I can imagine people began to talk about politics again. The new generation who were told that nothing had happened, that they should forget and go forward, began to question again. When we organised a meeting at the University of London, there was a Chilean girl who was about 18 years old who had recently arrived in Britain, and she said that with the Pinochet arrest people began to talk. She began to ask her parents what happened, and the parents had to engage in political discussion. That is only one example of how the Pinochet arrest brought up the issues of reformism, repression, parliamentary democracy and Popular Unity.
The mainstream Chilean newspapers began to talk about Allende, they began to talk about the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. I'm pretty sure that with the arrest of this man there was an initiation of questioning and of political discussion.
The cordones were the seed of dual power where workers went beyond reformism
What is your reaction to the recent election of Ricardo Lagos as president of Chile?
A political commentator in a Chilean newspaper was saying that the Lagos government will follow the line of the 'third way', like in Brazil with Cardoso or Argentina, and they were talking about Britain and the US. I don't really know what the 'third way' is. The only thing I know after living in this country for nearly 24 years is that with the so called 'third way' we are working harder, we are privatising more and more basic public utilities, the NHS, the railway system and so on. I presume that it is an ideological justification for privatisation.
This is the trend of social democracy around the world. Because of the popular discontent with conservative governments, eventually a semi-populist government is elected, like in this country or in Germany. But for me it is a continuation of the previous government--how to manage capitalism and how to squeeze the working class and the poor sections in society. To give a concrete example, I was reading in the paper that in order to combat crime the Lagos government was proposing to increase the police force. Jack Straw talks about curfews, so there is not much difference.
Where did Lagos and his political allies stand in relation to Pinochet's regime?
Do you think that if Pinochet had been extradited then the right would have won the election?
We should be angry because Pinochet will go back unless something extraordinary happens, he will be a hero of the right and there will be a carnival of reaction. I don't think the argument put by people like Norman Lamont and Margaret Thatcher--that Pinochet is the hero of the Chileans--is correct. He is the hero of the ruling class, he is the hero of the reactionaries in Chile and the hero of the reactionaries here. It will be a bitter blow for those people who are still searching for their relatives. It is a bitter blow for every socialist around the world and also for the international working class, because this man represents a system which is an international system.
I don't think that with the arrest of Pinochet in London there could have been a military coup in Chile. The coup happened in 1973 because there was a revolutionary movement from below. It was partly that the Popular Unity was confused, paralysed the struggle and compromised with the ruling class. But below, an alternative was developing, there was an embryo of dual power and the cordones industriales were that seed where workers went beyond the mild classic reformist programme. That is the reason why there was a coup.
How has the issue of Chilean nationalism been used in the last 18 months?
Judging from the ruling class press, they played with this nationalism. Lagos was talking about the sovereignty of Chile, that a foreign power was intervening in the internal affairs of Chile, and therefore was hurting the pride of the nation. It was a combination of the language of the reformist and the language of the reactionary. Lagos was asked what were his priorities and he replied, 'My priority is to govern for all Chileans', the typical politician's answer--for the rich Chileans and for the poor Chileans, for those military who tortured the working class. We're all Chileans and therefore we should go forward rather than thinking about the past. They tried to play the line that the nation was hurt. The old generation of Chilean workers didn't believe that--they know pretty well what Pinochet's regime did.
I think there is a similarity with South Africa and Argentina, where the repression was worse than in Chile. After the transition, nobody was prosecuted. In South Africa they set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where you told how many people you killed and tortured and then you were given an amnesty. In Chile they didn't even set that up. All the Popular Unity parties went along with that. With the transition to democracy, in order to go forward, you should at least put those responsible on trial for torturing and killing. Instead it was let's forget that we had 17 years of repression, now we are all Chileans and we should look forward.
But on the demonstrations there was a funny situation because the reactionaries who came from Chile were protesting in favour of Pinochet, we refugees were protesting against Pinochet and both groups had the Chilean flag. Which tells you that within the Chilean community reformism is still there--in the shape of some kind of nationalism. We in the SWP, instead of singing the Chilean national anthem, sang the Internationale, which was a gesture of working class unity.
What do you think will be the outcome if Pinochet returns to Chile?
With the arrest of Pinochet the memories of his regime are at the forefront. I am not sure whether the ruling class will put Pinochet on trial in Chile. They have said that if Pinochet was released from Britain the Chilean court could launch a trial. But the new president is not talking about that. How it will affect the consciousness of the Chilean working class I am not really sure. Even for myself as a Chilean, it was not that I forgot completely, but it wasn't in my mind constantly. I didn't spend all my time thinking about Popular Unity, the dictatorship and Pinochet. But when he was arrested the whole thing flowed so rapidly--memories and anger and resistance. The Chilean workers and peasants are going to be really angry if Pinochet goes back. The new generation will ask questions--why was he arrested in London? The bourgeois press doesn't give the facts, so it is up to the old militants to explain the exciting years of Popular Unity from below, not the strategy of the leadership.
Through the struggle we must learn our history, whether the ruling class like it or not. People engaged in demonstrations or strikes are going to talk about what happened between 1970-73. The arrest of Pinochet opened up again the question of reformism, the question of the alternative, the question of the cordones. One day I was having a glass of wine with Chileans I met on the recent demonstrations and we were talking about the excitement of those years. How long this kind of discussion will last will depend on the struggle. If there are strikes or demonstrations people will definitely talk about Popular Unity, because there is a dialectical development of politics.