Review- Constable and Valenzuela, “A Nation of Enemies”

Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela, “A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet” (1991) – Constable and Valenzuela come perilously close to “both-sidesing” the Chilean dictatorship in this, still one of the principal popular works on the Pinochet regime. They clearly disdain the regime. But they do this “more in sadness than in anger” thing towards the regime’s critics and predecessors where they make it seem like their actions made a horrifying reactionary dictatorship inevitable. You hear a lot about how mad Chilean housewives (of a certain class status, anyway) were about lines for cooking oil and about the fecklessness of the revolutionary groups running around both Allende and Pinochet’s Chile. They even manage to get some digs in at the mothers of disappeared dissidents who protested the regime, talking about how they liked the attention, as opposed to the majority of the mothers!

On the one hand, some of this is useful corrective in an effort to make sense of what’s become a scare story on the left and increasingly an inspiration on the right (never thought I’d live to see the day when American reactionaries were so desperate as to model themselves after Latin American sleazeballs, but ok). The Allende regime and those around them made avoidable mistakes, though the authors emphasize the mistakes of harshness or incompetence versus the fatal mistakes of leniency towards the coup-plotting elements in the military. The bravado of the revolutionary groups like the MIR did little other than provoke- they were incapable of doing much more than harass the military regime once the coup began. Though the communist party paramilitaries damn near got Pinochet, and I’m not convinced by the authors’ assertion it wouldn’t have done any good if they had…

If there’s a lesson here… well, who’s to say there is one? There’s a certain portion of the population that’s going to hate and fear any amount of power going into the hands of people traditionally beneath them, no matter how peacefully and democratically. Those people are going to be disproportionately powerful, and in the case of Chile (and certain other American democracies) is probably big enough you can’t just deal with them militarily. In short, the left needs a practical politics to manage these things, not just a visionary politics of where we are headed. Here, the Allende people actually seemed to have some good ideas, but… when the CIA is actively undermining your economy and stirring up the basal hatreds of the bourgeoisie, experimenting with computer-aided economic planning isn’t going to help with that…

I don’t know. This book provoked many thoughts and feelings that I’ve yet to sort out entirely but it’s been a while since I read it so I felt compelled to review before I forgot about it. It’s all very well and good for a journalist from the Times and an academic State employee to be smug about pure, nonideological “people power” in the early 1990s but I’m not convinced that’s what actually got rid of Pinochet — and damn sure not convinced it brought him to justice — and I’m still less convinced it’s what’s needed now. Anyway… it’s a reasonably informative book but I think we need a new and updated standard. If nothing else it’s been twenty-five years. Anyone have anything to recommend? ***

Review- Constable and Valenzuela, “A Nation of Enemies”

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