Tuesday 19 October 2010

Chile: mine rescue stirs memories

For those of us whose political views began to be formed in the 1970s, watching last week’s coverage of the Chilean mine rescue was a strange experience. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have some good news at last from that benighted corner of Latin America. On the other hand, it was difficult to hear about the part played in the rescue effort by the Chilean military, and to see those familiar helmets and uniforms, without recalling the assault on La Moneda Palace, the torture of prisoners in the Santiago Stadium, and the hundreds who ‘disappeared’ after Pinochet’s brutal coup.

Instinctively, one was suspicious too of the smiling face of Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, used as we are to doubting the democratic credentials of Latin American (and especially Chilean) leaders, particularly when they are also right-wing billionaires. However, it turns out Pinera was elected in a transparently fair election (he even featured a gay couple in one of his election ads), making him the first democratically-elected right-wing Chilean leader in more than half a century. (Which is not to say that he's beyond reproach.)

At the same time, the sight of Bolivian president Evo Morales watching the rescue efforts alongside Pinera was a reminder of the complex and contradictory history of struggles for progressive change in the Americas. On the one hand, the presence of Morales was a sign of hope: here was an elected socialist leader, from an indigenous, working-class background, standing side-by-side with an elected Chilean conservative. On the other hand, it was difficult to forget that this was a man who has allied himself with authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and who, with Chavez, has cosied up to some of the most reactionary figures in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It seems that Morales regards US capitalism as the ‘worst enemy’ of humanity and the centre of the real 'axis of evil' in the world. Understandable, perhaps, given America's Cold War-era support for right-wing dictators in his part of the world. But this anti-American and anti-imperialist stance has led Morales, like Chavez, into some peculiar political contortions. Only this week, Morales criticised the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and the Literature Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa. Apparently the Bolivian president believes that both decisions are 'suspect' because the two men are 'imperialist' and have the same 'tendencies' as that other great enemy of the people, Barack Obama.

This attitude of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' - however reactionary and despotic the latter may be - has overtones of 'progressive' apologies for Stalinism in the 1930s. It doesn't matter that both Xiaobo and Vargas Llosa have stood up for progressive values of liberty and human rights: they have dared to criticise actually-existing 'socialism', whether in China or Cuba. So they must be 'anti-imperialist' and therefore anathema.

Of course, this double-think is not a new phenomenon on the Latin American left. After all, some of the great heroes of the Chilean left (and my heroes too, back in the day), such as Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, regularly visited Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and never uttered a word of criticism of those countries' regimes. The only difference between then and now is that today's Latin American far-leftists line up not with Stalinists but with reactionary Islamists.

Perhaps one day the people of countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile will get the truly democratic and reforming governments they deserve, free from the tyranny of caudillos, whether of left or right.

Anyway, time for a bit of political and musical nostalgia. Although I'm no longer sympathetic to its anti-Americanism or its idealisation of Castro, Guevera and the Sandinistas, this from the Clash seems appropriate:


Minnie said...

Thanks to you (+ Modernity), Martin, for that enlightening bit of background. Saw Piñero being rather impressive in i/view on Franco-German telly news the other day, and - being a cynical old hack - instantly began wondering. Seems he might be more of a pragmatist. The old dogmatic oppositions no longer work, so consensual approaches might win the day - I wish!

Martin said...

He's certainly a canny operator when it comes to the media - it'll do his re-election campaign no harm, of course (there's my cynicism for you).

The mine rescue aside, I suspect I'd find his policies pretty objectionable (I think some of the old dogmatic oppositions are still useful!) - but, as I say in the post, let's rejoice that he was democratically elected and can be democratically removed. That, for Chile, is a huge leap forward from the dark days I was writing about.