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September 13, 2005

Anniversaries in September

September 11 meant something before 2001. Before 2001, the eleventh of September stood for the US and its relationship to the rest of the world.

On September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende - the popular, democratically elected, socialist president of Chile - was overthrown in a coup backed by the United States of America. The government of the US objected to Allende's nationalizing of Anaconda's and Kennecott's copper mines. The move was very popular among Chileans. Why should the rich in the United States profit from the resources and labor of Chileans?

Would anyone even ask such a question nowadays?

Henry Kissinger said, famously, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people." We didn't. The Chilean military, with financial and technical assistance from the CIA and US armed forces, took over on September 11 1973. Augusto Pinochet took power, and held it for decades.

There were many deaths in the week after September 11. Known opponents of the coup were rounded up, shot, disappeared. Many of them were loaded like cattle into the boxing stadium in Santiago.

One of them was Victor Jara.

Victor was a star. He was a singer-songwriter, a popular performer in the South American left music tradition called Nueva Canción. New Song. Singers reflected the life and aspirations of the people. At Allende's swearing in, the banner above his head read "No puede haber una revolución sin canciones." "You can't have a revolution without songs." Victor wrote about his life, the daily struggles of workers and peasants. He wrote about his parents' difficult marriage, straightforwardly of alcohol and bitterness in La Luna Siempre Es Muy Linda, more romantically (if tragically) in Te Recuerdo Amanda.

This week I hear his Caminando in my head, sweet and soft and relentless.

They arrested him at the university where he taught. At the stadium, he tended to the injured. He fed the hungry and comforted the grieving. The soldiers took men and women, a few at a time, to be tortured, beaten.

They recognized him. An officer gestured to him, pantomimed playing a guitar, a question on his face. Victor nodded. They led him to a table in the middle of the stadium. They placed his hands on the table.

They smashed his hands with their rifle butts, over and over again. The crowd watched in horror.

The soldiers - our proxies -laughed at him. "Sing now, you son of a bitch!"

Victor rose, looked at the soldiers.

And then turned to the crowd in the stands, and said "let's sing for the comandante, compañeros!" He lifted his broken hands like a conductor, began to lead the crowd in song. They sang Venceremos, the anthem of Allende's Popular Unity Party. One by one the detainees raised their voices to join his.

It's hard to know what happened next. Some versions of the story say that Victor was killed on the spot, with one jerk of a machine gun. Others tell of more beatings, torture, and then the bullets. A friend spied Victor's body in a pile of corpses, and Victor's wife Joan quietly arranged for a proper burial.

I used to walk by a small stone on a street in Washington, DC, where a car had once exploded. September 21, 1976, and Allende's defense minister Orlando Letelier had been in exile for three years, working at the Institute for Policy Studies. An agent of Pinochet's spy agency DINA placed a bomb in his car, parked at Sheridan Circle. The bomb killed Letelier and a co-worker, Ronni Moffit. The stone has a bas-relief of the two. Their IPS co-workers keep vigil there each year.

DINA was set up with the aid and direction of the CIA. The CIA director in those days was one George Herbert Walker Bush.

I tell myself sometimes that there will come a time when the people in my country wake up. I tell myself that we will throw off the blinders, the television numbness, that we will at long last see the bonds of blood that connect us to our victims, that we will hear their songs in our heads sweetly and relentlessly. I tell myself that the workers and the owners, the fearful people on the edge and the complacent ones behind the stucco walls, the black and white and red and blue will shake their heads, rub the sheen from their eyes and wonder how we could all have been so unfeeling, so ignorant. I tell myself that this nation's descent into snarling chaos will stop, that we will weep a desperate plea for forgiveness and then start to set things right.

And then I wake up. The rest of the world waits for us in vain. History is already passing us by.

It is now called the Victor Jara Stadium, Santiago, Chile.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 13, 2005 12:40 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Beautifully recounted. I feel that same sense of urgency regarding deperately needed change in the U.S.

My husband has been an admirer of Che Guevara since he was a teenager and had the following phrase by Guevara posted in his bedroom window: "Por ser màs libres, ser màs cultos."

Perhaps the recent series of cataclysmic events will finally provoke a change in attitudes. To my mind, the most urgent need we have is a major overhaul in our system of education. Besides getting rid of those damned standardized tests, and paying teachers more so that standards are higher, we have to eliminate that pseudo-subject called "social studies" which most U.S. children start in 6th grade and replace it with history.

My Italian in-laws were horrified to learn that I only took history my last 2 years of high school, and that because they were AP courses. I would never have learned about Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and Mexico--in particular, America's intervention in their histories--if I had not taken a Latin American history course at the university.

Shit, most Americans still don't understand our responsibility in the genocide of native populations in our own damn country. How are they supposed to have a concept of what the U.S. government has done in the rest of the world?

Yeah, I know. Thousands of progressive educators have been arguing the same thing since the 1970s and somehow, it got watered down as politically correct, and therefore not as "serious" as traditional narratives about U.S. history.

One small hope: that the continuing influx of immigrants from Latin American countries forces a change in historical and pedagogical perspective.

Posted by: SneakySnu at September 13, 2005 06:42 AM
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it is a good dream you have chris. it seems far away to me also. i see the very faint possibility that the rock could roll down the other side this time, that "public opinion" as shaped by the media could fall thunderously and very heavily against at least the current scoundrels. it is faint.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at September 13, 2005 09:41 AM
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sorry for going slightly off-topic, but bush just announced he "takes responsibility" if the feds did not come through as they should have:

what a load of crap. two plus weeks after the disaster -- involving nearly the same amount of time hearing the administration berate folks who questioned the federal response as "playing the blame game" -- and now, all of a sudden, he decides to look like a "buck stops here" president.

it goes without saying that he is not apologizing to the country for the destruction or his own unspeakable behavior, nor to families for the unnecessary deaths of their loved ones.

where are those FEMA barf bags when they are needed?

Posted by: Kathy A at September 13, 2005 10:00 AM
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That was a great post, Chris.

I knew that our gubmint got up to some shady stuff, but didn't know just what.

That's just one example of many, I know, but thanks nonetheless.

It is so sad, though.

Posted by: thingfish23 at September 13, 2005 12:08 PM
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This is the best post I have read all day. As a high school student in the early 1980's, I never once heard mention of this crap, or any other crap perpetuated by our government. Oh yeah, I maybe heard something from my "crazy" eight grade Spanish teacher who was passionate about Latin American politics but unfortunately could not make us suburban students share her passion.

The more I learn, the less I want to know.

Posted by: Deb at September 13, 2005 12:55 PM
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Wonderful essay. Yeah. That old, haunting fantasy. Maybe they'll just wake up.

Well. Not in this lifetime. But our work is still worth doing, even if they never wake up.

Posted by: dale at September 13, 2005 04:42 PM
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Thanks, Chris, I've got the Clash "Washington Bullets" in my head.

Posted by: Paul Tomblin at September 13, 2005 05:40 PM
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I'd take that over the real kind.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 13, 2005 05:42 PM
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You're a good man, CC, and I'd like to see our descent halted as well, but I'm afraid we're going to keep sinking - at least for right now.

Posted by: tost at September 13, 2005 09:23 PM
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Wonderful, haunting piece, Chris.

People do wake up, sometimes. The whole mass of them at once - well, that's a dream. I still dream it too. In fact, one of the three dreams that I've ever remembered past waking is the one where everyone - me, strangers on the street, family, politicians and reporters and tv preachers - woke up at the same moment to the consequences of our actions, "the bonds of blood," as you beautifully said. I woke with that dream-certain knowledge that nothing was ever going to be the same, that we were really going to try to fix things, finally. And then I woke up all the way and knew that it was only a dream, really only a dream. And I wept, and I never forgot it.

But one by one, people do get it sometimes. Back in the 80's, when Dad and I argued, dinners congealing at the table, about gay rights and Reagan's Central American policies, I never would have believed my father of today, who went to candlelight vigils in support of the neighboring gay church that some fuckhead threatened to firebomb, still proudly sports his "Vietnam Vet for Kerry" bumper sticker, and has lost patients from his optometry practice because of his liberal politics.

tost is right, we're sinking. I believe the only hope lies in individual revelations like my father's. I don't know how to encourage those except to keep talking, keep arguing, keep telling stories like yours above, keep relating when all we want to do is throw up our hands and walk away.

Posted by: Stephanie at September 14, 2005 04:48 AM
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Stephanie - There's always hope. (Chris, before you read this, you might as well start rolling your eyes. It will save time.) The 100th Monkey phenomena, while to some extent a popular myth, also points to something called transference. In essence, transference means that we have the ability to touch those around us without doing so in a physical way. Try this experiment. The next time you’re stuck in traffic, pay attention to how you feel. Are you getting angrier or more frustrated than the situation truly deserves? If you are, I’d suggest that you’re picking up the feelings of the people in the cars all around you. In essence, the traffic jam has created a negative feedback loop. Want to test this theory? Start smiling, singing, sending off as much positive energy as possible, then keep an eye on the folks in the cars nearest you. Any change in their demeanor?

So how does this all relate to the subject at hand? If enough people, a critical mass, if you will, put all their energy into positive change, emotion and thought patterns, they can actually change the people around them who haven’t made any such conscious decision. The current problem arises from the fact that we have far more people amplifying the negative than the positive, and we need to break that cycle before things can possibly change for the better.

Oh, and Chris, you can stop rolling your eyes now.

Posted by: tost at September 14, 2005 09:29 AM
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What a horrible story (beautifully told). And now the same thing is happening in Haiti. I had never heard that Kissinger quote but it is the de facto motto of the US government. It should be on our money.

Tost: I'll do that singing thing. It's like the joke about chicken soup. Couldn't hurt. In that spirit, I will also continue to blog at a site nearly nobody reads about stopping what Chris calls our nation's descent into snarling chaos.

Posted by: eRobin at September 14, 2005 09:52 AM
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Who you calling a "nobody," eRobin?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 14, 2005 10:55 AM
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Sorry, Chris, but I think you're the nearly.

And eRobin, in 5000 words or less, tell me who you are and how much you'll pay me to stay away from your blog.

Posted by: tost at September 14, 2005 09:15 PM
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chris ~ this is one of the most significant writings i have ever been privileged to read. this awakens even those parts of me that have been clouded to historical truth and political deception. this writing not only deserves but almost demands far more exposure than that of a personal blog (not to diminish the value of your personal blog). this piece brings me to tears and moves me and stirs me.

i do not always have time to explore other writings but i saw the recommendation posted on americanconscience to read this specific piece. i am deeply thankful i did.

thank you for writing it...

Posted by: diana christine at September 18, 2005 07:26 AM
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