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Arts and Culture

Story of a Death Foretold

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Posted on Dec 13, 2013
Bloomsbury Publishing

By Marie Arana

To see long excerpts from “Story of a Death Foretold” at Google Books, click here.

“Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973”

A book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

“I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson once rued, “in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world.” He meant the Cold War and its all-consuming obsession with the Soviet Union. More emphatically, he meant the military quagmire in Vietnam. But repercussions of the obsession were being felt elsewhere. LBJ didn’t live long enough to see what Latin Americans consider the most nefarious detonation of the U.S. war against communism, when on Sept. 11, 1973, bombs from British-made Hawker Hunter jets pounded the presidential palace of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile, as the CIA’s Operation Fubelt unleashed a fierce coup, ousted a democratically elected government, and left President Salvador Allende sprawled on a red couch with part of his skull gone.

By then, the war on communism, which had swiftly replaced the war on fascism, was well into its 25th year. Washington’s efforts to curb left-wing initiatives in Latin America had already culminated in a flurry of U.S.-backed military operations. By 1954, Operation PBSuccess, overseen by CIA director Allen Dulles, had toppled the democratically elected but inconvenient government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. In 1961, Dulles’ deputy for plans, Richard Bissell, mounted the catastrophic Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. When Cuban soldiers foiled the CIA-backed brigade, shaming the United States and embarrassing President Kennedy in the process, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secretly initiated Operation Mongoose, a calculated campaign of terror to assassinate Castro and bring Cuban communism to its knees. Four years later, in Operation Power Pack, LBJ himself ordered 42,000 U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic to rid the Caribbean of the pesky “revolutionary” regime of President Juan Bosch.

All these preliminaries to what Latin Americans call “that other September 11”—whose 40th anniversary was quietly, even inconspicuously, marked two months ago—are recounted in Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s fascinating, if haphazardly organized, “Story of a Death Foretold.”

We know, after a belated autopsy of Allende’s remains, that the president opted to end his own life rather than die at the hands of his assailants. As mortars and missiles slammed into La Moneda’s walls, Gen. Augusto Pinochet—a former student at the U.S. Army School of the Americas—screamed to his soldiers that there would be no negotiations. The raid, he said, had to end in unconditional surrender. If the army managed to capture Allende, the general added, they’d fly him out of the country, “but the plane falls in mid-flight.”

When the army swarmed into La Moneda late that afternoon, Allende’s populist experiment was stilled forever. Pinochet took power and ruled the country for 17 more years. Chilean intelligence operatives swept through the country in what became known as “the Caravan of Death,” executing Allende’s loyalists. With U.S. oversight starching their resolve, Pinochet’s agents proceeded to “disappear” more than 100 of Allende’s followers and dump their corpses in Argentina, so that they would seem victims of common crime. Eventually, the web of murder and torture that became the infamous Operation Condor reached across the globe, wreaking revenge on Allende partisans who had managed to flee. Gen. Carlos Prats, a critic of Pinochet, was bombed to kingdom come along with his wife as he started a car in Buenos Aires; Allende’s ambassador Orlando Letelier was blown up with his American assistant on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Guardiola-Rivera is not new to this difficult history. A senior lecturer in law at the University of London, he has studied the 25-year run-up to the Chilean coup carefully. A relatively young Colombian, he is considered a fresh, bold voice on the politics of the region. His previous books, “What If Latin America Ruled the World?” and “Being Against the World,” are, like this work, commendable for their originality and research. But “Story of a Death Foretold,” like the Garcia Marquez novel it echoes, also runs the gamut from logic to passionate rage.

It’s not hard to see who plays the villain. The book marshals a damning case against Washington, the CIA and what Guardiola-Rivera calls the Import-Export coalition—the joint U.S.-British economic engine that has dominated Latin America for 200 years. The idea that history does not take place in South America—a notion as old as John Locke, espoused by America’s founding fathers, and hammered home most famously by Henry Kissinger—would have the world believe that Latin Americans are hopelessly childish, perhaps less than human, and therefore better governed by the coalition.

Guardiola-Rivera depicts a continent held in virtual submission, languishing in invisibility, its natural resources extracted, for centuries, at the Import-Export coalition’s whim. He reserves his harshest criticism for President Richard Nixon, who, even as the flames of Watergate engulfed him, worked indefatigably with Kissinger to bring down Allende. Why? Because Allende was dangerously independent, irredeemably leftist, irresponsibly anti-business, and—perhaps worst of all—because he openly thumbed his nose at the United States.

With its Manichaean view, Guardiola-Rivera argues, the Nixon administration hardly considered the subtleties of Allende’s political philosophy. True, Allende had visited Castro, befriended Che Guevara, won the Communist Party’s vote (along with that of its poet-candidate, Pablo Neruda), but Allende had also carved out an “ism” all his own. He had rejected the Cuban model as too extreme, Che’s revolution as too violent. He was adamantly against armed struggle. Winning the presidency on Sept. 4, 1970, he vowed to overturn Chile’s harsh economic injustices. He put forward a doctrine of “geo-economic sovereignty” and self-determination: a U.S.-free future, in which Chile would make its way alone. “The United States must realize that Latin America has now been changed,” he said, during one of his campaigns. Once in office, he would try to prove it so.


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