Sunday, November 27, 2016

ALLENDE (Allende en su laberinto, 2014) and THE BATTLE OF CHILE (1975-9)

Santiago, Chile: September 11, 1973 
La Moneda, the Chilean presidential residence in Santiago, is an Alamo of the Latin American left. President Salvador Allende made his last stand there against a military coup on September 11, 1973, as chronicled in Patricio Guzman's documentary and dramatized in Miguel Littin's 2014 movie. Guzman and Littin are near contemporaries, born a year apart, who both went into exile after the coup d'etat. Both are biased in Allende's favor, though neither The Battle of Chile nor Allende in his Labyrinth -- the latter borrows its title from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel about the death of Simon Bolivar -- is a hagiography of the socialist martyr. The fictional Allende played by Daniel Munoz seems testy and stubborn and prone to speaking of himself in the third person ("Allende does not surrender!") in his determination to be a martyr, while the real president documented by Guzman seems suicidally naive in his determination to carry out a socialist revolution against massive resistance without resort to force. Either way, there's pathos in the image of an aging academic in his sweater donning a combat helmet and firing a machine gun in futile resistance but epic courage.

Allende was the rare Marxist to win power by election, and wanted to prove that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means. Guzman's three-part documentary (I've only seen the two parts aired on TCM last week) is subtitled "the struggle of an unarmed people" and from all appearances the deck was stacked against Allende and his movement. Allende did not win a majority of the popular vote in 1970 -- he led the three-candidate field with approximately 36% -- and was chosen by the country's senate. But his fate was sealed almost from the start by the fact that his Popular Unity coalition never won control of the Chilean legislature. Conservatives and relative moderates could block many of his initiatives, but in turn they never had enough votes to impeach Allende. As Guzman stresses at every opportunity, the U.S. (under Nixon and Kissinger) opposed Allende from the beginning and provided both moral and material support to both the legal and the military opposition. The coup that toppled Allende was the second attempt of 1973, following a small but lethal uprising by a rogue unit that June. The first part of Guzman's documentary closes with ultimately dramatic footage of these soldiers firing directly at a cameraman as that brave man films his own murder. The anti-Allende majority in the legislature refused to declare a state of emergency after the coup, denying Allende the power to purge the military and other institutions, while many in Chile felt that Allende himself had far overstepped his constitutional bounds. The latter viewpoint is not taken seriously by Guzman and isn't addressed at all by Littin, and watching these films only launched me into a labyrinth of history without guiding me to the end.

The Littin film focuses exclusively on Allende's last day and presumes knowledge that only Chileans or specialist historians outside that country will possess. So I recorded the Battle episodes to get more context, and while Battle of Chile is a powerful piece of documentary propaganda it begged as many questions, if not more, as it answered. While I can't believe that a military coup or Allende's death -- the consensus is that the president killed himself as troops stormed the palace -- were justified, constitutional objections to his measures or his alleged refusal to abide by high-court rulings against him can't just be dismissed as the dishonest carping of conservative or bourgeois "mummies." Nor can I dismiss workers who went on strike in 1973 as stooges for the "mummies" as readily as Guzman does, no matter what damage they did to the Chilean economy and Allende's position. Guzman seems satisfied that Allende was always within the constitution because he was the duly elected president, and he refers to Allende's supporters as "constitutionalists," but Battle refuses to engage constitutional questions objectively. You could believe from Guzman, if not from Allende himself, that a constitutional election only provided a pretext for an extra-constitutional transformation of society. Allende deserves a fuller treatment of his character -- and may have gotten it in a 2004 documentary -- then either film gives him. Littin doesn't give us much sense of what he stood for other than occasional remarks about "comrades" and "workers." The main thing I got from Littin's film was that Allende chose death over exile to deny the coup plotters and the eventual dictatorship -- Augusto Pinochet was military chief of staff at this time and Littin shows Allende repeatedly asking where Pinochet is until he learns that the supposedly loyal general is leading the coup -- any pretense of legitimacy via a peaceful handover of power. In that sense Allende lost the battle of La Moneda but won the battle of history, at least on film. But while Battle is a fascinating film that also seems eerily prophetic of the polarization of the 21st century U.S. in its man-on-the-street interviews and clips from Crossfire-style TV shows, and Allende can't help but be dramatic, my real recommendation is that you find some reputable, nonpartisan book for the real story.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your writing and providing missing historical information regarding Allende in his Labyrinth. I enjoyed the film but knew that it was one-sided.