THE CHILEAN SUPREME Court last year handed down a ruling stripping the 88-year-old former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, of immunity from prosecution for his part in the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of 19 political dissidents. In the reign of terror accompanying the September 1973 coup d'etat that dislodged and destroyed the legitimately elected president, Salvador Allende, some 3,000 political opponents were killed.
I first met Allende in a crowded Plaza Bulnes near Santiago's Presidential Palace in the early 1950s. An estimated 10,000 Chileans had gathered to hear the man whose administration was to become the target of Pinochet's coup that triggered 17 years of hurt and humility, pain and panic. The Marxist contender painstakingly outlined his policy for social, economic and agrarian reform. He was pitted in the upcoming presidential election against a former army general, Carlos Ibàñez del Campo, whose marcha de hambre(hunger march) had ignited the disadvantaged clamouring for a leader who would lighten their economic burden, create employment and lift the economy.
At the time, I was editor of The South Pacific Mail, Latin America's oldest English-language weekly newspaper, but I attended that rally in another role, foreign correspondent for the Copley News Service, a California-based news-gathering service. Copley had displayed perspicacity when it cabled me that Allende would loom large in the Chilean political scene sooner or later and that a personality piece was wanted.
The first thing that struck me about my subject was his charisma. Of only medium height, he was nonetheless a man of imposing stature. His chiselled features seemed compatible with determination and commitment. He was a riveting orator who clearly held his audience in thrall, using verbs and adjectives like scalpels. He outlined patiently what he called the camino chileno (Chilean way) to socialism, which would employ peaceful means and democratic elections to gain power rather than pursuing bloody revolutions such as left-wing extremists were then pursuing in other Latin American countries.
I threaded my way through the crowd until I stood close to the speakers' platform. Nobody seemed to mind the presence of a gringo busily taking notes except Allende himself. He stared briefly at me through cyclopean-type spectacles without once losing his cadence.
As I listened to Allende unveil his policies, I formed the view that they were far too radical for a polarised Chile to embrace without increasing disharmony – despite his oratorical skills. I could not shake the feeling that he stood too close to the social issues, the very structure that supported him so passionately. His commitment to social reform made it difficult for him to see the horizon, which was so often obscured by his unremitting lunge for the future and which, at the time, propelled him too far ahead of the reformist elements in the community who would otherwise back his program. This was to be his tragedy – a tragedy that led to his death some 20 years later and which left such a stain on the Chilean psyche.
Allende used words with emotional accuracy. He involved his audience. He made revolutionary goals sound imminently achievable, although, to the detached observer, they would appear unattainable in the political climate that prevailed.
After almost an hour, the finale was approaching. Allende swung a pendulous glance out over the crowd and finished his speech with a flourish of upward thrust arms, shouting "Viva Chile". He stepped down from the platform, his aides sheltering him from the enthusiastic crowd. As he passed me, he paused for a moment.
"What newspaper are you from?" he asked in a friendly way.
I told him The South Pacific Mail and Copley News Service in California.
"Your American readers are very suspicious of me and my reform program. Will your reporting further that suspicion?"
"Not at all," I said. "You put your policies very clearly and concisely. But I have to say that I think your grasp will exceed your reach."
"That you are too far in front of the voters, no matter how much they may agree with you about social and economic justice."
The crowd was pushing and shoving, clearly puzzled by this interlude with what they must have seen as a gringo interloper. His aides were gently moving him towards the kerb. "Perhaps we should talk some more," he said over his shoulder and waved his hand in something like a half salute.
ALLENDE LOST THAT electiion as he had lost the one before and would lose the one after. But he was indefatigable. Although he was seen in many political circles as an all-time loser, Allende joked about his three unsuccessful tilts at the presidency. He said that if he lost the 1970 election, he would insist that this inscription be carved on his tombstone: "Here lies Salvador Allende Gossens, future president of Chile."
Born in 1908, Allende was a doctor by profession. He was first elected to the congress in 1937 as a deputy for the port city of Valparaiso. He was a youthful 29. Allende, like his contemporary, Martin Luther King, had a dream – a vision that engaged the intellect and captured the commitment of his supporters. But his dream, like King's, was a poignant one that led ultimately to a melancholy end.
Some weeks after our encounter in Plaza Bulnes, I contacted Allende and suggested he have dinner with me and two or three other foreign correspondents to discuss his plans for change. He readily agreed and a few nights later we gathered at the elegant, old-world Hotel Crillon in downtown Santiago. Allende brought no aides with him that night. There were only four of us present and he clearly felt at ease. He spoke freely and confidently about his policies and, no doubt cognisant of the nationality of the majority of his small audience, commented frankly about US President Dwight Eisenhower, who was then serving his second term. Allende made it abundantly clear that he preferred Adlai Stevenson who, he said, would better understand the aspirations of Latin America. Ike, on the other hand, believed in the free-market system, opposed price and wage controls and kept government firmly out of labour disputes – none of which Allende would countenance.
Allende was passionate about the need for agrarian reform in Chile. He called the land Chile's "nourishment for hunger". Years later, he was to introduce land reform measures that were eventually usurped by extreme left-wing groups who pushed the reforms over the edge and wrote the first chapter in the decline and fall of Salvador Allende's administration. But this night he was buoyant, relaxed, filled with expectation and confidence.
Foreign governments, he said, must understand that "we have an obligation through government to provide for the needs of our people: health, education, food, shelter, employment and so on".
And then the thrust: "We cannot expect our people to live in poverty while we underwrite high returns for investors in foreign lands."
Allende was often wrongly identified as a communist, an extremist with unrealistic ambitions. But he was strongly critical of the restrictions placed on individual liberty by the Soviets. Socialism for Allende meant an "organised people's movement to regulate principal sectors of the economy and to encourage small– and medium-size business", adding "by nationalisation if necessary".
But the New York Times correspondent would have none of this. "Where's the money coming from?" he wanted to know.
Allende surveyed his questioner with a look bordering on disbelief. "Chile is a rich country; rich in resources: copper – which is the wage of Chile – nitrate, timber. But we Chileans don't own it. None of it. As you and your readers well know, much of it is in the hands of foreign-owned or controlled consortia. To control our own destiny, we must have control of our own wealth. And our wealth lies in our natural resources."
The Time magazine correspondent intervened: "If you nationalise the US-owned copper mines, you will incur the opprobrium of the West, the distrust of investors everywhere. How would you deal with that? After all, I'm sure you will agree that Chile still needs and will for the foreseeable future continue to need foreign investment and the technology it brings."
"When Clement Attlee pursued a program of nationalisation in Britain, he gave it respectability. It is no longer sacrilegious."
"But with some exceptions," the reporter protested, "Britain's industries were mostly owned by Britons."
"It matters not. The strategy is the same. You nationalise with compensation, paid for by long-term government bonds."
"But," I said, "the success of such a strategy has always hinged on how long is long-term, what guarantees the bondholders have, and what provisions are made for inflationary erosion."
"These aspects will be fully considered at the time," Allende responded, leaving me somewhat dissatisfied with his answer.
Conversation drifted over Chilean politics, the Cold War and Fidel Castro whose revolutionaries then stood at the gates of Havana.
"Eventually, it is the way of all dictatorships," he observed. "And Batista is as bad as the rest of them. Castro? I don't know much about him. But you have to support his cause."
Allende then went to some lengths to point out that his government would not discard the "bourgeois gains" of the past but rather build on them "within a framework of democracy and pluralism".
The NY Times correspondent said: "Foreign investment may not be the panacea for Chile's economic woes but surely it would create jobs and transfer sorely needed technology."
Allende smiled and sipped from one of Macul vineyards' finest cabernets. He gave the impression that he had heard the comment many times before. "The import substitution that TNCs [transnational corporations] preach is nothing more than recolonisation. We must be able to and capable of placing all our economic resources at the service of the people. The TNCs practise financial strangulation and that represents perdition for the economically weak."
When talk switched to the forthcoming Chilean presidential election, Allende sought our views of the outcome. It was still almost a year out but our small group had varied opinions, ranging from a landslide for his opponent, conservative Jorge Alessandri, to a coalition government, to a narrow defeat for Allende. The candidate said nothing for a few moments, staring at a wine stain on the starched white tablecloth. Then he turned to me and said: "I often read your Diario ingles political commentaries. What do you think?"
"Well," I responded, "it's the enigma of the Cura de Catapilco." It was evident that I had hit a political nerve. Allende sat a little straighter and toyed with his glass, swirling the deep dark, purple-tinged wine so that it clung like straggly rain drops to the side of the glass. The Cura de Catapilco was a defrocked clergyman named Antonio Raul Zamorano who hailed from the region of Catapilco. He was a candidate who was given no chance of success but who was pulling a lot of support from workers and peasants. No one knew where his campaign funding was coming from but I had speculated that it suited the Right to have such a candidate running because most of the votes he attracted would come from the Left, from Allende.
"I think he's worth about 50,000 votes," I suggested, "and that might well be the margin that separates you from the presidency."
He said nothing for a few seconds, looking down at the table as if he were counting votes in his mind. When he looked up, he said: "So you think el cura will be my nemesis?"
"I hope not but I fear so."
He smiled in that disarming way he had. "Veremos (We shall see)."
A SHORT TIME after this cordial meeting, I had a request from Copley News Service for a detailed analysis of the Chilean economic scene. I filed 8,000 words, dwelling broadly on the obvious demographic dichotomy, the uneven distribution of wealth, the disempowered peasants and the like. The San Diego Union-Tribune gave the story front-page coverage in its Sunday edition. Other US papers followed.
As a result, the British ambassador – there being no Australian diplomatic representation at the time – received a call from the Presidential Palace complaining strongly about the article and insisting that he "call me to heel", as he put it.
Sir Charles Empsom spent a fruitless two hours or more trying to dissuade me from going ahead with part two of the story. When he saw he was making no progress with his proselytising, he reminded me that the Chilean Government could rescind my permanent resident visa and there was nothing he could do to help me in such an eventuality. He searched my eyes for some indication that I would ease his diplomatic burden by acquiescing to his urgings. But seeing I was obdurate, he brought the meeting to an end.
I left the embassy disconsolate and depressed, a depression that was heightened as I strode past the sombre castellated and crenellated Presidential Palace surrounded as it was by the Prussian-looking praetorian guard. On my way down Calle Moneda, I came face to face with Salvador Allende.
"Are you not a little rash to be striding past the Presidential Palace so nonchalantly?" he asked. Jesting? Baiting? No, I decided, there was a genuine note of concern in his voice.
"Well," I said, "when I left home this morning, we were still travelling in a democracy." And the words even then resonated with prophecy.
"Will you take coffee with me? Actually," he smiled, his eyes dusted with humour, "it is probably more rash to be seen talking to me."
Over coffee in the nearly empty Hotel Carrera, I teased him. "You know, reflecting on our dinner the other night, I recall that somebody once wrote: ‘We have no right to make someone happy against their wishes.' "
He was silent long enough for me to think I had offended him. "That," he said finally, "was James Boswell. A somewhat flippant remark, don't you think?"
"Well, I suppose you could call it a somewhat biased comment from the privileged class."
"Why do you raise it? I think you would agree it is a little cynical."
"Oh, I don't know. Perhaps because we well-meaning souls are always trying to give people what they did not realise they wanted or even needed."
"In some socialist circles that would be considered a treasonable remark." A thickset, balding man wearing heavy-rimmed sinister sunglasses sidled past the table nodding: "Don Salvador." Allende raised his hand in greeting but said nothing. "Investigaciones," he said. That was Chile's version of the FBI. "They pop up everywhere." After a pause he added: "Now, young man, let me share with you the wisdom of a very old teacher who told our class of teenagers: ‘Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark and professionals built the Titanic.' "
"Very good. I might be able to use that sometime."
"Now," he said thoughtfully, "any more aphorisms you wish to dispense before we move to matters more germane?"
"Only one and that is germane to your campaign." The balding man from Investigaciones sidled past again. He hesitated for a moment beside the table and I thought he was going to say something. But after a second or two, he nodded to Allende and moved towards the door. Both of us eyed his departure in silence and then Allende said: "You were saying?"
"Yes, well ... " I lost my train of thought for a moment. "Perhaps it's not all that germane."
"May I hear it just the same."
"I'm pretty sure it was Damon Runyon who wrote: ‘The race does not always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's a good way to bet.' "
"Runyon, yes." He digested this for a moment, observing the man from Investigaciones as he reappeared and seated himself alone at a table near the door. "Good stuff," he said eventually, "but we revolutionaries are made of sterner material. We are not easily dissuaded." He glanced around the room before moving on. "Now let us talk about more serious things. I have read with considerable interest your article on the woes of Chile. There are some inaccuracies – unintentional, I am sure, and minor – but it did not spoil the thrust. Some penetrative stuff which one does not expect a foreigner to grasp. My staff tell me that it was also published in the United States."
I nodded. "It was first published there. What I ran in The South Pacific Mail were edited extracts."
"And was it edited, too, in the US version?"
"So far as I can determine, there appeared to be no editing at all."
His eyes locked on mine for a few moments. "What I can't understand is why a resident foreign newspaperman would want to expose himself like that to the wrath of the administration. My sources tell me that you have already received a warning from the Presidential Palace."
"You are well sourced," I replied. "As for the why ... well, I can only say that I wrote it as I saw it. It gave me no joy but I felt satisfaction in having recorded it as I did."
"Professional bravery or foolhardiness, but well done. And now may I offer you a little consejo (advice)?"
"Take care. Be resolute but not reckless."
"I'll try to watch out for the baddies. Thank you, senator."
"No, thank you, joven (young man). And remember: tread carefully, or as you English – and no doubt Australians – say: ‘Hasten slowly.' "
It was the last time I was ever to see Allende, although we talked on the phone from time to time. He was always generous with his quotes and constructive comments. His charisma never deserted him. His unrelenting commitment to the socialist cause remained steadfast even when many of his supporters wavered and foreign intervention eroded his political base. It was to lead to his lonely death in the bombed Presidential Palace on September 11, 1973.
Extract from a memoir 'Feasting with Panthers', a work in progress.