Pinochet Noir

Marc Cooper was living in a small apartment in downtown Santiago, working as an English translator for Chilean president Salvador Allende, when the fascist forces of General Augusto Pinochet seized power on the morning of September 11, 1973. Everything was chaos and gunshots. The presidential palace was bombed, and Allende reported dead. Suddenly Cooper—an enthusiastic American supporter of "the world's first freely elected Marxist head of state" as well as a card-carrying member of Chile's Socialist Party—found himself "fair game for a military dictatorship that considered people like me a 'foreign cancer.' " He eventually fled the country, but has remained engaged with Chile's dour fate, returning continuously over the years as a journalist and an empathic participant in political sorrows. Many of Cooper's friends and fellow reporters were tortured and "disappeared" during Pinochet's reign of terror, which ended officially in October 1998 with the general's arrest in London for multiple human rights violations.

In Pinochet and Me, Cooper's judicious prose issues forth from the lime-sprinkled sinkhole of Chile's collective amnesia, attempting to construct a besieged and busted-out past. The author sets a defiant language against the obliterating shadow cast by Pinochet's regime; he struggles to breathe remembrance into a decades-long nightmare of civilian death, imprisonment, and exile. "Collective memory in Chile has been erased," Cooper writes, "as if the internal magnets of historical retention that reside in any national body politic had been given a massive jolt of electroshock." Such jolts were delivered with an all-too-literal regularity during the "homicidal spasm" that racked the country. In one chilling passage depicting a conversation with a friend who had been recently victimized in one of Pinochet's torture centers, Cooper lists an inconceivably gruesome sample of techniques utilized by the police: "Electrodes in the nose, the mouth, the vagina. Live rats inserted in the vagina. The rape of children or wives in front of their loved ones. Broken fingers, shattered ribs, smashed legs and elbows. Mock executions and real ones." A page later he writes, "Peace and quiet is only found in the cemetery."

This book, heartbreaking and infuriating as it is, performs a necessary act of retroactive political magic, conjuring humanistic truth and consequences on a state-sponsored stage of atrocity. Cooper traces the irruption, implementation, and grinding brutality of Pinochet's machinery of fear. That he is able to shape this history, with its legacy of social and psychological fragmentation, into a testimony at once so personally moving and universally instructive is a testament to the clarity of his compassion.

Marc Cooper remembers Chile’s nightmare of civilian death, imprisonment, and exile.
photo: Bonnie Spolin
Marc Cooper remembers Chile’s nightmare of civilian death, imprisonment, and exile.

Cooper's narrative moves in chronological fashion, hewing close to the grit of his own experiences in Chile. This tactic lends the book's early passages a sense of heady, sometimes excruciating suspense, as when Cooper recounts his escape from Santiago, a city crackling with gunfire and creepy-crawling with Pinochet's secret police. "To go onto the street was to risk arrest or execution," he writes, holed up in a friend's home. "We had no access to any information except what the military broadcast over the radio. The phone lines were now dead."

Cooper makes palpable Chile's atmosphere of paranoia and persecution, and he renders feelings of public disillusionment and personal despair with deep emotional honesty. Such honesty derives, not paradoxically, from the razor's-edge restraint with which Cooper depicts dire circumstances; this unsentimental approach serves only to heighten the urgency. "I remember getting up at 4 in the morning and shaving off my beard," he writes, recalling the first hours of Pinochet's coup. "I remember opening up my wallet and taking out my union card, my Socialist Party membership, my ID from the Moneda, and setting them ablaze."

The latter half of Pinochet and Me focuses on the lingering social and economic effects of the dictator's counterrevolution. Here the book's tone becomes more elegiac, as Cooper tells of Chile's protracted slide into civic limbo and free-market capitalism. As the nation's industry and social services are increasingly privatized, once-vibrant political coalitions that flourished under Allende become fragmented, undercut by bureaucratic chicanery and systematic threats from Pinochet's ubiquitous henchmen. And fueled by a newly unleashed economy, a wholly different kind of class consciousness takes root: The banality of conspicuous consumption supplants more noble aspirations. From a 1998 visit, Cooper reports that many motorists, stopped at police checkpoints for using their cell phones while in motion, were only palming toy or wooden replicas, while "other middle-class motorists bake with their windows closed pretending they have air conditioning." Most haunting are his descriptions of momios, or "reactionary mummies"—once-aware citizens now living in a sociopolitical vacuum, wandering in a voluntary daze of denial.

While Pinochet's atavistic figure broods over the whole of Cooper's memoir, it is hardly the most fearsome thing about it. More than anything else, Pinochet and Me indicts the intertwined forces that allowed such a dictator to grasp power and then hold it for such a long time: greed and complicity. Without the backing of U.S. intelligence operations hoping to open the door for deregulated foreign markets, Pinochet might never have seized power. Cooper's book makes a convincing argument that the only thing that reliably trickles down in a capitalist economy is self-delusion and a kind of alienated avarice that depoliticizes the citizenry.

In 1998, The New York Times credited Pinochet's coup with transforming Chile into the "economic star of Latin America." It's Cooper's claim that what we now see in Chile "is the consolidation of a new global model . . . that, in some form or another, is being proposed for us all." If this is indeed the case, then one might be encouraged by recent developments in Chile itself, where, subsequent to Pinochet's arrest, Cooper witnessed a political reawakening. A series of international indictments of Pinochet, along with damning revelations of CIA involvement with the dictator, are leading to an acknowledgment of Chile's horrifying past. Cooper writes that he never imagined that Pinochet's arrest "would eventually become the catalyst to what now seems a recovery of Chile's collective consciousness and dignity." One need not remain a momio forever.

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