The Ghost of Pinochet Haunts the Campaign Against Chavez

I walked with Roberto Navarrete into the national stadium in Santiago, Chile. With the southern winter’s wind skating down from the Andes, it was empty and ghostly. Little had changed, he said: the chicken wire, the broken seats, the tunnel to the changing rooms from which the screams echoed. We stopped at a large number 28. “This is where I was, facing the scoreboard. This is where I was called to be tortured.”

Thousands of “the detained and the disappeared” were imprisoned in the stadium following the Washington-backed coup by General Pinochet against the democracy of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. For the majority people of Latin America, the abandonados, the infamy and historical lesson of the first “9/11” have never been forgotten. “In the Allende years, we had a hope the human spirit would triumph,” said Roberto.

“But in Latin America those believing they are born to rule behave with such brutality to defend their rights, their property, their hold over society that they approach true fascism. People who are well dressed, whose houses are full of food, bang pots in the streets in protest as though they don’t have anything. This is what we had in Chile 36 years ago. This is what we see in Venezuela today. It is as if Chavez is Allende. It is so evocative for me.”

In making my film, The War on Democracy, I sought the help of Chileans like Roberto and his family, and Sara de Witt who courageously returned with me to the torture chambers at Villa Grimaldi, which she somehow survived. Together with other Latin Americans who knew the tyrannies, they bear witness to the pattern and meaning of the propaganda and lies now aimed at undermining another epic bid to renew both democracy and freedom on the continent. Ironically, in Chile, said to be Washington’s “model democracy,” freedom waits. The constitution, the system of electoral control and the designer inequality are all Pinochet’s gifts from the grave.

The disinformation that helped destroy Allende and give rise to Pinochet’s horrors worked the same in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas had the temerity to implement modest, popular reforms based largely on the English co-operative movement. In both countries, the CIA funded the leading opposition media, although they need not have bothered. In Nicaragua, the fake martyrdom of the “opposition” newspaper La Prensa became a cause for North America’s leading liberal journalists, who seriously debated whether a poverty-stricken country of three million peasants posed a “threat” to the United States.

Ronald Reagan agreed and declared a state of emergency to combat the monster at the gates. In Britain, whose Thatcher government “absolutely endorsed” US policy, the standard censorship by omission applied. In examining 500 articles that dealt with Nicaragua in the early 1980s, the historian Mark Curtis found an almost universal suppression of the achievements of the Sandinista government — “remarkable by any standards” — in favor of the falsehood of “the threat of a communist takeover”.

The similarities in the campaign against the phenomenal rise of popular democratic movements today are striking. Aimed principally at Venezuela, especially Hugo Chavez, the virulence of the attacks suggests that something exciting is taking place; and it is. Thousands of poor Venezuelans are seeing a doctor for the first time in their lives, their children immunized and drinking clean water.

On July 26 Chavez announced the construction of fifteen new hospitals; more than 60 public hospitals are currently being modernized and re-equipped. New universities have opened their doors to the poor, breaking the privilege of competitive institutions effectively controlled by a “middle class” in a country where there is no middle. In Barrio La Linea, Beatrice Balazo told me her children were the first generation of the poor to attend a full day’s school and to be given a hot meal and to learn music, art and dance. “I have seen their confidence blossom like flowers,” she said. One night in barrio La Vega, in a bare room beneath a single light bulb, I watched Mavis Mendez, aged 94, learn to write her own name for the first time.

More than 25,000 communal councils have been set up in parallel to the old, corrupt local bureaucracies. Many are spectacles of raw grassroots democracy. Spokespeople are elected, yet all decisions, ideas and spending have to be approved by a community assembly. In towns long controlled by oligarchs and their servile media, this explosion of popular power has begun to change lives in the way Beatrice described. It is this new confidence of Venezuela’s “invisible people” that has so enflamed those who live in suburbs called Country Club. Behind their walls and dogs, they remind me of white South Africans.

Venezuela’s wild west media is mostly theirs; 80 percent of broadcasting and almost all the 118 newspaper companies are privately owned. Until recently one television shock jock liked to call Chavez, who is mixed race, a “monkey”. Front pages depict the president as Hitler, or as Stalin (the connection being that both like babies). Among broadcasters crying censorship loudest are those bankrolled by the National Endowment for Democracy, the CIA in spirit if not name. “We had a deadly weapon, the media,” said an admiral who was one of the coup plotters in 2002. The television station, RCTV, never prosecuted for its part in the attempt to overthrow the elected government, lost only its terrestrial license and is still broadcasting on satellite and cable.

Yet, as in Nicaragua, the “treatment” of RCTV has been a cause celebre for those in Britain and the US affronted by the sheer audacity and popularity of Chavez, whom they smear as “power crazed” and a “tyrant”. That he is the authentic product of a popular awakening is suppressed. Even the description of him as a “radical socialist”, usually in the pejorative, willfully ignores that he is actually a nationalist and a social democrat, a label many in the British Labour Party were once proud to wear.

In Washington, the old Iran-Contra death squad gang, back in power under Bush, fear the economic bridges Chavez is building in the region, such as the use of Venezuela’s oil revenue to end IMF slavery. That he maintains a neoliberal economy with a growth rate of over 10 percent, allowing the rich to grow richer, and described by the American Banker magazine as “the envy of the banking world” is seldom raised as valid criticism of his limited reforms.

These days, of course, any true reforms are exotic. And as liberal elites under Blair and Bush fail to defend their own democracies and basic liberties, they watch the very concept of democracy as a top-down liberal preserve challenged on a continent about which Richard Nixon once said “people don’t give a shit.” However much they play the man, Chavez, their arrogance cannot accept that the seed of Rousseau’s idea of direct popular sovereignty may have been planted among the poorest, yet again, and “the hope of the human spirit”, of which Roberto spoke in the stadium, has returned.

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (Bantam/Random House, 2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on August 18th, 2007 at 8:36am #

    John Pilger exposes liberals for who they really are. Liberal are posers, demagogues and hypocrites.

    Thanks John because the left needs a voice to expose liberals and the so-called “progressives” for their role in maintaining the status quo.

  2. PT said on August 18th, 2007 at 8:40am #

    Tyranny exists in many forms and shapes particularly in the countries that proclaim a exemplary model of demrocracy and freedom. Yet it is in within the vast majority that some form of censorship or conditioning of their peoples’ own thoughts, lives and ides is carried out under the auspices of been best for them and right at the time. Facts and truth are distorted to give a perception that is wanted for that particular moment in time to achieve what ever purpose is desired by the supposed ‘betters’ in society People of all colours, creeds and languages should be given the same freedoms and control that are reputedly given and preached by leaders yet are systematically abused and controlled under a different name in their own countries. One day we may all be the same as the day we were brought into the world and not left wondering at we have missed at as we depart.

  3. Max Shields said on August 18th, 2007 at 9:13am #

    First, thank you Mr. Pilger for continuing to bring us this very important narrative. The powers here – and yes, liberal who do some of the greatest damage in enabling the right to dominate – have sketched a different – yet common narrative to demonize. It’s an old trick, but without a strong and vocal counter narrative there is only the one heard repeatedly.

    I think you’re touching on the crux of what makes the Bolivarian transformation so vital; something missed in the James Petras pieces on DV. That is the cooperatives and grass-roots democracy which is community structured. This is deep living democracy so completely absent in the US.

    While I think Chavez is a very important figure, somewhere we need to focus on the many who provide leadership, the mentors, facilitators and educators who will sustain this transformation and lead the way both for Venezuela, the South in general and perhaps help to transform the collapsing empire. Single figures play into the demonization narrative, and so here we must be careful in over-emphasizing Chavez – while acknowledging his major contribution.

  4. Daniel said on August 18th, 2007 at 6:46pm #

    The Machiavellian intrigues of the American government are legendary! It would support the Devil him or herself if there was a dollar to be made.

    The attempt to demonize Chavez is yet another pathetic attempt to stop South American countries joining together to resist the menacing American economic and political octopus.

    John Pilger. Well done!

  5. Bonnie McFadden said on August 19th, 2007 at 3:54pm #

    Thank you for your excellent article on detailing the Bush-Cheney administrations efforts to create another Chile in Venezuela.

    I’m an American lawyer, living and teaching in Merida, Venezuela, since February of this year.

    The Chavez government is doing wonderful things here for those who have never before benefited from the great profits from their oil resources.

    I’ve obtained excellent medical care at the local publicly funded clinic, and it is every bit as good as the Kaiser clinic I used in Hawaii with one big exception, rather than costing thousands of dollars a year in payments and co-pays, the services here were completely free.

    So to with the university system, where students here pay little or no tuition. My son at the University of Oregon in Eugene, is paying $17,000 a year, more money than the majority of citizens make or can afford — and U of O at Eugene is a state school!

    The middle class in America is being priced out of medical care and university educations, and the U.S. is supposed to be the richest country in the world. It is only the very rich in America who are the richest in the world.

    I have been blogging my life in Venezuela at http://www.dailykos.com. You might be interested to read my articles on Chavez’s new Constitutional reform proposals: the 6 hours day, mandated health and safety conditions at work, public funding of elections and insuring access for all candidates to public spaces for meetings and rallies and, most important, to the media. [See My Life in Venezuela series at daily kos by searching "Justina".]

    Dailykos is a site for Democratic Party activists, of which I am one, but I have been amazed at how many putative “Democrats” have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the false propaganda pushed by the Bush-Cheney administration to make Chavez appear to be a ruthless dictator, which, of course, he is definitely not.

    One would think that after all the lies told by Bush and Cheney to justify, their illegal invasion of Iraq and their continuing lies about Iraq and Iran, that folks would not believe the false stories about President Chavez. Unfortunately, some do, worse, some Democrats do, thus it is great to see an article such as yours which reports the facts about the Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revoluation.

  6. Bonnie McFadden said on August 19th, 2007 at 3:57pm #

    Thank you for your excellent article on detailing the Bush-Cheney administrations efforts to create another Chile in Venezuela.

    I’m an American lawyer, living and teaching in Merida, Venezuela, since February of this year.

    The Chavez government is doing wonderful things here for those who have never before benefited from the great profits from their oil resources.

    I’ve yet to see President Chavez invade a single country, torture or humiliate any prisoners, who detain people without lawyers or trial. I wish I could say the same for the U.S.

    I’ve obtained excellent medical care at the local publicly funded clinic, and it is every bit as good as the Kaiser clinic I used in Hawaii with one big exception, rather than costing thousands of dollars a year in payments and co-pays, the services here were completely free.

    So to with the university system, where students here pay little or no tuition. My son at the University of Oregon in Eugene, is paying $17,000 a year, more money than the majority of citizens make or can afford — and U of O at Eugene is a state school!

    The middle class in America is being priced out of medical care and university educations, and the U.S. is supposed to be the richest country in the world. It is only the very rich in America who are the richest in the world.

    I have been blogging my life in Venezuela at http://www.dailykos.com. You might be interested to read my articles on Chavez’s new Constitutional reform proposals: the 6 hours day, mandated health and safety conditions at work, public funding of elections and insuring access for all candidates to public spaces for meetings and rallies and, most important, to the media. [See My Life in Venezuela series at http://www.dailykos.com by searching "Justina".]

    Dailykos is a site for Democratic Party activists, of which I am one, but I have been amazed at how many putative “Democrats” have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the false propaganda pushed by the Bush-Cheney administration to make Chavez appear to be a ruthless dictator, which, of course, he is definitely not.

    One would think that after all the lies told by Bush and Cheney to justify, their illegal invasion of Iraq and their continuing lies about Iraq and Iran, that folks would not believe the false stories about President Chavez. Unfortunately, some do, worse, some Democrats do, thus it is great to see an article such as yours which reports the facts about the Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

  7. Daniela gomez said on August 30th, 2007 at 4:35am #

    What? Is this for real? You realy think that chavez is just a poor president that the United States ainted like a dictator?

    HE IS A DICTATOR, lear a little bit more about Venezuelan history before publishing such comments! I’m from Venezuela an Bush is an Angel compared to Chavez!

    Stop thinking that you Know when you not!!!!!

    I hate the way you people believe that you Know about venezuela when you dont live here! you don’t know the facts you dont know what’s going on, just with the news, how can you give such an oppinions with wich bases? a women who lives in a poor area (In the richest of the poorest!!!!)

    Learn history! serch for the facts! read venezulans online papers! before saying such a things…LIVE in Venezuela

  8. Carmen said on November 19th, 2007 at 2:10am #

    Live in Venezuela. Fear insecurity. Do grocery shopping for your family missing the basics: milk, flour, sugar, harina pan…. paying what you hardly have. See then how “they” (chavez and his people) live and travel . See how the DICTATOR gives away OUR money to other countries. Has anyone watched on TV the answer he gave to the BBC reporter when he questioned Chávez on Why he gave money to other countries when Venezuela needed it the most? He couln´t give any answer. )What are all you talking about, I should say, blabbering,? As long as I can remember,
    ( I´m 47 years old, every government has had programs to teach how to read and write, it just didn´t occurr to them to use that as propaganda. I can´t just believe that people with some studies and cultural level as you claim you have, can talk this way, befriending such a person a Chávez. Chavez is the worst virus that´s spreading through Latin America.