Democracy? What’s In A Name? Review Of The Battle Of Chile

By 17 December, 2012

The Battle of Chile, subtitled La Lucha De Un Pueblo Sin Armas (The Fight Of An Unarmed People) by Chilean documentary film-maker Patricio Guzman, is a classic. It’s a portrayal of the rise and fall of the presidency of Salvador Allende, 1970-73.

People power

It’s a theme more frequently explored from an external perspective but here it’s a purely Chilean version of the theme. Much of the narrative is supplied and driven by vox pops – miners, mechanics, factory workers, housewives, agricultural labourers, union leaders, employers, strikers and minor political players, and not just the usual retinue of retired politicians, academics, military men and ex-specialists in dirty tricks. This is important because here history is being written by the losers.

The film is a tribute to its cinematographer, Jorge Müller Silva, whose powerful imagery is made more redolent by the fact that it was taken at the time in almost impossible condition. Müller Silva, like the Argentine cameraman, Leonardo Henrickson, who is shown filming his own assassins, was to become another victim of the dictatorship. The film also owes a major debt to French documentary maker, Chris Marker, who supplied footage to Guzman.

Usurping the people for ‘democracy’

Footage of the bombing of the Moneda Palace, seat of Allende’s democratically-elected Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government, sets the tone for the whole film. It is a stark reminder of how the popular will was ignored, obstructed, coerced and finally bombed back to ‘democracy’. It is also a chilling portent of the flimsiness of representative democracy.

The establishment, unable to get the 60% vote in Congress to impeach Allende and subvert his government, resorts to illegality, unconstitutional chicanery, trumped up strikes bankrolled by internal and external sources, lockouts, a US economic boycott, agent provocateurs and sabotage. When this fails, the opposition parties, Partido Nacional (National Party) and Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party), resort to the last straw – they foment a coup d’etat.

Clearing the way

Loyalist military leaders who supported the constitution and the rule of law such as Comandante Arturo Araya Peters were assassinated or neutralised (like General René Schneider before him), while others, such as General Carlos Prats Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army, were forced into exile (only to be assassinated by DINA, the Chilean secret service in Argentina in 1974). Before his assassination, Prats said that Peters assassination was “to prevent Allende knowing about what was happening in the [naval base] of Valparaiso.”

The coup’s architects, having cleared out loyalists, courted sympathetic elements in sectors of the military, foremost among them the commander of the army and perceived loyalist, Augusto Pinochet. Chile’s long democratic tradition was dead. The rationale, of course, was that old chestnut of reaction everywhere – to save the country for freedom and democracy in defiance of popular sovereignty and the rule of law. This was democracy crucified on a sophistic and absurd abstraction.

The shape of things to come

In the opening chapter, entitled The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, the television crew from Channel 13 ask people who will win in the forthcoming election. Opinions are mixed but the solidarity and support for the democratic process – from all sides – is clear. Here and there, though, are signs of the polarisation that will follow. One woman calls for “all Socialists and Marxists to be kicked out of Chile” and a factory worker says, “civil war is inevitable and fundamental.”

Political reality and political posturing

Allende is elected president. An indigenous woman expresses her opinion of the outgoing Partido Demócrata Cristiano president, Eduardo Frei. “What can I say about Frei? When he was in government I lived in a shack that was falling down. It was damp all the time and my four children had bronchopneumonia, I asked everywhere for help but nobody listened to me. But now, wherever I go I am seen to and thanks to Allende, I’ve got a lovely house. I don’t have many comforts but we don’t go hungry.”

There are other testimonies, too, which reflect this theme. A retired man notes to the applause of the crowd: “No government has ever done what this government has done.” As pressure on the Allende government mounts, so does the level of polarisation.

Destroying democracy from within and without

The opposition is looking for excuses. The military remains loyal. External agencies – not least the CIA and the US State Department – are indirectly funding the striking copper miners of El Teniente and El Salvador and striking private bus and freight hauliers; everything is being done to squeeze the life out of the government and its planned reforms. What is especially damning is that whilst the fascistic Homeland & Freedom Movement couldn’t be expected to subscribe to the democratic process, there was willingness on the part of two of the leading constitutional parties – Partido Nacional and Partido Demócrata Cristiano – to do likewise. What hope is there in any democracy when two of the leading politically parties don’t actually subscribe to it?

Articulating a cause

One of the striking things about the film, is the quality of the interviews and speeches given by the protagonists – not least Allende himself. Time and again, those who would previously have been mute – the mules of liberal democracy – expound on the themes of the day in a manner and eloquence that would put to shame those in the West whose bumbling inarticulacy often extends only to recounting last night’s television programmes. Some, speaking entirely ad lib, even put to shame those organisers and trade unionists, who sound like they are reading verbatim from none-too-clever party pamphlets. It is refreshing to hear people talking without recourse to cliché or slogan but from a position firmly rooted in the reality of their lives. Some workers, asked to describe what it was like working in a factory before the formulation of the industrial belts – worker-run factories – likened it to being in prison. “We called it the prison of Santa Elena,” says one.

Exploding another piece of conventional wisdom – which didn’t survive the workers takeover of locked out businesses – was that far from finding the bosses and owners indispensable – they found that the biggest problem once they’d reorganised things – was the absence of spare parts and raw materials exacerbated by the freight hauliers strike and the economic boycott.

Sometimes, rather poignantly, the cinema billboards of Santiago inadvertently mimic the journey from optimism and hope (Adios Mr Chips [Goodbye Mr Chips]) into darkness and paranoia (Ciudad Violenta [Violent City] with Charles Bronson). Life not only imitates art, it sometimes caricatures it.

This is one terrific film but one you probably won’t be able to see in Chile.

“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
President Salvador Allende’s farewell speech, 11th September, 1973

The Battle Of Chile is available from Amazon and a variety of specialist film shops

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