Deadly Politics

Ariel Dorfman, a survivor of his own September 11--Pinochet's deadly 1973 coup--has made a career out of telling Chile's story. Thirty-two years later, he retraces his steps on that desperate day.
October 1, 2005

In August of 1973, Santiago, Chile, was a city on edge. The national economy was in a shambles, the result of a U.S.-engineered blockade that froze aid to the country, led to rampant inflation, and created shortages of essential goods. Despite the covert nature of it all, there had been open speculation in Santiago, in the editorial pages of the major newspapers and on TV news programs, of American involvement in what would soon amount to a coup d'etat: the toppling of Chile's socialist government.

In 1970, Salvador Allende, a physician turned politician, had become the first democratically elected Marxist head-of-state in the world. In the eyes of the U.S. government, he represented not only the encroachment of Soviet influence in the western hemisphere, but also a potent threat to the more than $500 million that U.S. corporations had invested in the country. Through his Via Pacifica al Socialismo ("Peaceful Road to Socialism"), he aimed for a more equitable distribution of the country's resources mainly by nationalizing major industries.

 
Toppled government: La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, in flames, after bombings and tank fire on September 11, 1973

Toppled government: La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, in flames, after bombings and tank fire on September 11, 1973
© Bettman/CORBIS

Ariel Dorfman

 

Ariel Dorfman, above. Luis Navarro.

For President Richard Nixon J.D. '37, this was a troubling prospect, and one that, by Cold War logic, mandated interference. The White House had long been contributing to the campaigns of Allende's opposing candidates. (Allende ran three times before being elected.) But after Allende's victory, Nixon stepped up the effort. According to internal CIA documents declassified in the late 1990s, he ordered CIA director Richard Helms to "make the economy scream."

While Nixon was plotting, Ariel Dorfman, a young professor of literature at the University of Chile, was making a name for himself in Santiago as a rising leftwing intellectual. He'd recently published his first book, a best seller, called How To Read Donald Duck, which examined U.S. cultural imperialism as perpetrated through Disney cartoons. But it was accepting the post of media adviser to Allende's chief of staff in July 1973 that would make him, in the event of a coup, a marked man. As an early precaution, Dorfman moved with his wife, Angelica, and their six-year-old son, Rodrigo, out of their apartment near the city center and into his parents' house in Santiago's suburbs.

It was there, at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, that Dorfman woke to the thunder of low-flying jets. Chilean Hawker Hunters were buzzing the city. In twenty minutes, they would begin bombing the presidential palace. At 10:00, Allende would declare over the radio his refusal to surrender to the military invasion; by 2:00 p.m, he would be dead. And by 6:00 that evening, General Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the army and leader of the military junta responsible for the coup, would, for the first time, address the country as dictator.

Pinochet ruled Chile until 1990. Under his reign, according to Amnesty International, thousands of civilians, mostly political activists and supporters of Allende, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Many thousands more were exiled by the state or chose to leave the country out of fear for their lives. Dorfman, now Distinguished Professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke, was among the latter.

In the first hours of the coup, however, Dorfman wasn't looking to save himself. At the sound of the planes, he leapt out of bed. Frantically, he began to dress. He told Angelica he was going to the palace, and she, realizing he couldn't be stopped, offered to drive. They sped down the Alameda, the main avenue that bisects Santiago. But they made it only as far as Plaza Italia, a large roundabout almost a mile from the palace.

Dorfman recalls these moments as we walk down that same stretch of pavement on a crisp spring day in November. It has been thirty-two years since the coup, and now, at age sixty-two, he is indulging in an act of remembrance, a physical retracing of his steps. He believes it will sharpen the memory, he says, and so far he seems to be right. "We were going around here, and then we saw a police barrier right ... there," he says, pointing to the far side of the circle. "There were three or four guards. And I said, 'Angelica, I have to go on foot.'

"Farther down the Alameda you could hear shooting, and you could see people crouching in the shadows. We didn't know whether we had lost at that point--only that there'd been a coup. And at that moment, I had to make a real decision. Because, basically, I think I could have managed to get there. Some of the side streets hadn't been blocked off. I could have been crazy enough to do that. But I looked back at the car and at Angelica," he says. "And then I looked down there. And I decided to live."

Since surviving that day, Dorfman has made a career, and a rather successful one, out of telling Chile's story. His oeuvre--novels, plays, poems, essays, and numerous journalistic accounts--is the picture of a man affected, permanently and profoundly, by the trauma of his past. It is also, for that matter, a very big picture, and it has made his name practically synonymous with Chile's troubled past. He is far and away the country's most illustrious advocate, its loudest, most visible spokesman.

Like Jean-Paul Sartre, his longtime literary hero, Dorfman has personified the belief, to use his own words, that political struggle cannot be separated from art, and indeed, he has mastered the synthesis. Death and the Maiden, the political play that earned him a Sir Laurence Olivier Award for best play in England in 1992, confronted audiences with the unsettling realities of political oppression and forced them to examine their own complicity. "I'm not giving them an easy time," he told one reviewer. "It's not fun. If they want fun, there are many other places they can seek it."

What Dorfman was giving audiences, as well as himself, was a bridge to a time that, in his view, had begun to fade from collective memory. The military's crimes, as heinous and as roundly deplored as they had been, were sliding, irretrievably, into the dustbin of history. And the challenge, as Dorfman saw it, was in resurrecting them on the page, in "getting the dead to speak." Through entangled, surrealist stories--whether set in a Greek village in 1942 (Widows) or on a phone line on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland (Konfidenz)--he evoked the repressive police-state his homeland had become: a country ruled by fear and wracked by violence, and yet always with a glimmer of hope.

No work of fiction, however, could salvage the memory of Chile's September 11 like the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon exactly twenty-eight years later. In the months to follow, that mysterious coincidence would occasion an outpouring of reflection, including a book, Other Septembers, Many Americas, in which Dorfman likened the missing men and women--"their relatives wandering the streets of New York, clutching the photos of their sons, fathers, wives, lovers, daughters, begging for information, asking if they are alive or dead"--to the desaparecidos (the "disappeared") of Chile's coup.

While he acknowledged the superficial similarities--both on a Tuesday, both on September 11--Dorfman probed deeper, recognizing, as he watched the events unfold on his television in Durham, a "parallel suffering," a "commensurate disorientation," that same sensation of "extreme unreality" echoing through time: "I have been through this before."

On a street corner a block from the presidential palace, a man sells ice cream, a woman in a business suit walks her son to school, a construction crew drills into the pavement, and a line of policemen, their caps tilted low, stand stiffly in front of a building. The police would not ordinarily be out in such numbers, but it is no ordinary week in Santiago. In two days, Chile is to play host, for the first time, to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, an annual meeting of the leaders of Pacific Rim countries aimed at encouraging growth and trade among member nations. The government has trumpeted the decision to hold the meeting in Santiago as proof of Chile's elite status. But thousands are expected to march in protest--of APEC and of President George W. Bush's attendance--and in response, the government has bolstered security. It is heaviest around the palace.

Round up: Chilean soldier stands guard over political prisoners held in Santiago's National Stadium after the coup

Round up: Chilean soldier stands guard over political prisoners held in Santiago's National Stadium after the coup. © Bettman/CORBIS

In the time of the Spanish colonials, La Moneda ("The Coin"), as it is commonly called, served as the treasury. That it has come to house the offices of the executive branch is, perhaps now more than ever, symbolic of the national character. Present-day Chile is a hypercapitalist state, welcoming foreign investment and encouraging corporate enterprise to an extent unmatched by other capitalist states in Latin America. During the 1990s, its economy grew faster than any other on the continent, helping to halve poverty and contributing to the country's image abroad as a model of steady growth, an island of economic calm among neighbors--Argentina, Boliva, and Peru--chronically mired in debt and social unrest.

Today, Santiago, Chile's capital, is by many measures South America's most modern city. Its subway is safe and clean. Its skyscrapers crowd the horizon. Progress is, literally, in the air: The exhaust of imported cars and churning factories is so thick that the Andes surrounding the city can seldom be seen from within it. Such are the fruits of free-market reforms, which Chile's president, Ricardo Lagos A.M. '63, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '05 has worked to deepen, further opening the economy to global trade. During his six years in office, he has signed free-trade agreements with Europe, Canada, South Korea, and, most recently, the United States.

But, says Dorfman, modernization has come at a price. Like other survivors of the dictatorship, he deplored the government's long silence on the crimes of the dictatorship following the restoration of democracy, and warned leaders of the perils of a "collective forgetting." In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, the Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman, who was detained for weeks after the coup in the national stadium, echoed that sentiment. Discussing his commitment to telling stories--among them, his epic film, The Battle of Chile--that many in his audience prefer not to hear, he said, "What shocks me is the lack of space for memory in Latin America. There is no great literature on repression. Movie directors turn away from the topic. Most artists feel it is a tired theme. They want to move on.... In Chile, great writers have not spoken out." He added, "With the exception of Ariel Dorfman."

Now, standing inside La Moneda, Dorfman is speaking out again. On either side of him are paintings based on photographs taken before and after the coup. One depicts a newly elected Allende giving his inauguration speech from the palace balcony in 1970. The other shows what remained of that balcony after the coup: The stone exterior is pockmarked with bullet holes; the iron gate is charred and twisted. And at the center of the picture, framed by a bombed-out doorway, is a black emptiness--"the black hole of memory," Dorfman calls it.

"It's what was opened on that day," he says. "It's the darkness that reigned. It's everything that happened inside that darkness--in the cellars, in the attics, in the torture chambers--that you can't see. And the idea is that when you have democracy back, then that hole disappears. But that's not entirely true. It remains part of the memories and fears of people. It's not an aberration. It's not just a parenthesis. You can't make believe it hasn't happened."

Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman's childhood was framed by flight from political persecution. He was born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, where his parents, Eastern European Jews, had gone after fleeing the Germans. The following year, his father, Adolfo, a history professor at the Universidad de la Plata, was threatened with a trial and deportation after sending a letter protesting the new military regime's takeover of the university. Adolfo reacted quickly, moving his wife and young son to New York, where he accepted a post as an economist at the United Nations. But a decade later, the U.N. would buckle under McCarthyism, firing suspected Communists. Though Adolfo had left the party many years before, he was forced out.

In 1954, Adolfo Dorfman took a post in Santiago, and the family was off again. But by then Ariel was every bit the American kid, obsessed with hot dogs and candy bars, Joe Dimaggio and Donald Duck. He'd even changed his name, replacing "Vlady"--his father had named him after Vladimir Lenin--with the more American-sounding Edward, which he'd picked up in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, one of his favorite stories. Uprooted, torn from his friends and his baseball and, worst of all, his language, Dorfman found himself adrift in Santiago. His only refuge was a diary, a gift from his father, in which he'd begun to discover the power of literature, his "ultimate defense," he once called it, "the inner kingdom I could control."

"Ariel was always writing stories. He dreamed of being a writer," recalls Queno Ahumada, Dorfman's oldest friend in Chile, a former classmate, and now a press analyst in the Ministry of the Interior. "My first impression was of an over-energized kid who had an opinion on everything," he says. "He was so outspoken and commanding, I felt at first he was difficult to get along with. But at the same time, he was very human, very sensitive, very affectionate with everybody. I admired that."

By the time he finished high school, that quality of humanism had come to characterize Dorfman's political views as well--those of an ardent Allendista. It wasn't just that Dorfman believed in Salvador Allende's socialist program, which called for nationalization of the copper, nitrate, carbon, and iron mines; expropriation of the main industries and banks; and division of the large haciendas among the peasants who worked them. Dorfman was ready, so he thought, to devote his life to it. Even to die for it.

Soon, Edward became "Ariel." The middle name he'd always considered a bit too effeminate for a young man now suited his new identity. Ariel, he discovered, had been the title of an essay by the Uruguayan writer and philosopher JosÈ Enrique RodÛ in 1900. Arguably one of the most influential pieces of literature in the continent's history and certainly the most discussed treatise on hemispheric relations, RodÛ's essay--an allegory pitting Ariel, the lover of truth and beauty, against Caliban, the evil spirit of materialism--was the first to offer an explanation of how, only a short time after the wars of independence against Spanish colonial rule, Latin America had become so completely dependent upon, and dominated by, the United States.

That theme would continue to shape Dorfman's thinking and, later, his prose. As an undergraduate at the University of Chile, he'd become so involved with local politics that he was elected president of the Independent Allendista Students. He grew a revolutionary's beard. He marched in protest, inhaled his share of tear gas, and took a few nightsticks to the ribs. On one occasion, while protesting the murder by police of two high-school students, he was shot. The wound was minor--a light peppering of buckshot to the shins. But it was one more piece of evidence to Dorfman's compaÒeros that he did, in fact, belong, that, despite his Argentinian roots and his American upbringing, at the core of this bilingual hybrid was a genuine Chileno.

Chile's National Stadium is a mustard-yellow cylinder with pea-green bleachers and a magnificent view, on a clear day, of the Andean Cordillera. We're here with Manuel Joffre, a friend and former colleague of Dorfman at the university.

Back in 1973 when trouble seemed imminent, Joffre and Dorfman had agreed to meet, in the case of an emergency, at the university. Dorfman headed there only after deciding against going to the palace. "You were supposed to come to the place that you worked and defend that place," Dorfman says. But when they arrived, the secretary-general of the faculty told them to go. "He said, 'If we stay here, they'll massacre us. So all of you should leave. Right away.' So we decided to go to Manuel's house. It was secure. Nobody knew he was a leftwing militant. And he didn't have any children."

On the way there, Dorfman says, they stopped by the stadium, which the military would soon convert into a holding cell and torture chamber. "That was the last time we saw it in its innocence," Dorfman says. "Manuel had run here, and I had thrown the bal·."

"And we had come here to see [Pablo] Neruda, remember?" says Joffre.

Aftermath: Dorfman with image of Allende's balcony

Aftermath: Dorfman with image of Allende's balcony. Luis Navarro.

"Yes," says Dorfman. "When he won the Nobel Prize. And Fidel spoke then. And that's when Allende said, 'I will not leave the Moneda except feet first. I will not leave the Moneda alive. Just so you know it.' He said it very carefully."

Joffre nods. "Those were the last days of 1972, I believe...." There's a pause, and then Joffre shifts back to the coup. "We went on to my house. It was about noon, I would say. And we started doing some practical things--like cleaning lentils. Do you remember that?"

"Yes, yes," Dorfman says, smiling. "And we decided we should put the gun in the one place that they're never going to find it. We put it inside the turntable, right? And it turns out everyone put their gun in the turntable! The first thing soldiers did when they raided a house was smash the turntable!"

"And I remember that you wanted to come to Avenida Grecia and fight," says Joffre.

"Yes." Dorfman grins.

"You were the only one who wanted to do that." Joffre shakes his head. "And it was a hard task for us to convince you that this would be... counter-revolutionary! Ha ha ha ha!" They both laugh. It is an old joke between them.

"Yes," he says, "you convinced me that this was not the thing to do."

"And then," says Joffre, "we decided, Well, we have to eat. We had the lentils. But the lentils had small stones. So we cleaned them."

Dorfman stayed that night and the next at Joffre's house, hiding out while he tried to get a clearer read on the situation--denied, he says, that most precious piece of knowledge under a dictatorship: "clarity about how much danger you are really in, an answer to that most vital of questions, what to do?" Dorfman didn't know. But he wasn't going to leave the country, his country, on a whim, he says. Only if it was absolutely necessary, only if it was life or death.

Then came signs that it was. After several days at Joffre's house, he met Angelica at a cafe. She had burned their papers, she told him, the minutes of their Party meetings, their Che Guevara posters, anything that might give them away. She told him about the raids, about the neighbors who'd been hauled off and hadn't come back. She said that his mother had received two phone calls, a male voice on the other end threatening her "Jew-boy traitor," her "Marxist bastard" of a son. But it wasn't until that night, as he watched the evening news, that Dorfman realized he had to go.

Channel 13 was reporting live from the center of the city on a book burning in progress: scenes of soldiers torching texts, a pile of books ablaze in the night. As the cameras panned the fire, they zoomed in on the titles, the words streaming across the screen in front of millions of viewers: How To Read Donald Duck.

Dorfman's first book, it had sold millions of copies worldwide. In Chile, it had been divisive, contentious. The left hailed it; the right hated it. And now it was burning. If this, what then for its readers? Dorfman wondered. And what would they do to the man who wrote it?

Chicho. They would not call him Salvador, but Chicho," Dorfman tells me. We're in Constitucion Square, directly opposite the palace, and Dorfman is gazing up at Allende's statue. Tears fill his eyes, and, for several moments, he goes silent. He seems to be searching for something inside--perhaps some way of reconciling the two: the sight of this statue with the man he knew in the flesh.

And then, gathering himself, he turns to the palace and points to a second-story window. "The last time I saw him, he was there. It was the third anniversary of his victory, September 4, 1973. We went into the streets, a million of us marching. It took us three or four hours to get here. We crossed Augustinas, and then we circled this block. And Allende was waiting there, right there, waving a handkerchief. And our fists were raised, and we were shouting, 'Venceremos! Venceremos! (We will overcome!)' "

Dorfman pauses for a breath. His eyes widen, and his speech quickens. He talks so fast he can barely get the words out. "And we got here, and we dispersed. And then, all of a sudden, the whole group of us decided, 'Let's do it again!' Like in those operettas, you know? Where you have only four characters, and they keep going round and round. So we circled the block. And the second time we were very quiet. Almost silent. It was as if we were saying goodbye to him."