Perhaps Che Guevara was right when during his early political awakening on the trip across South America that led to his Motorcyle Diaries, he recognized Latin America not as a collection of separate nations, but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide liberation strategy. His conception of a borderless, united Hispanic America sharing a common Latino heritage was a theme that recurred prominently during his later revolutionary activities. I can only say researching this trip to Chile and Argentina that certainly their histories and current collective consciousness mirror one another. Both countries experienced years of terror in the hands of dictators and suffered the same fate – thousands who “disappeared” simply for political opposition, peaceful protest and artistic expression.
In Chile, General Pinochet overthrew the then communist government of Salvador Allende in 1973 and remained in power until 1990 following a 1988 plebiscite to vote Yes, for the continuation of the Pinochet government, or No, for a return to democracy. Despite his machinations, No won the day. During his 17-year rule, over 3,000 Chileans had been executed or “disappeared” by the Pinochet government. In 1988, Pinochet was arrested in London and over 300 charges were laid against him. Pinochet lived out his years under house arrest, eventually too old and sickly to stand trial.
In Argentina, a military coup in 1976 led to the six year “dirty war” in which the government’s military killing squads were responsible for the illegal arrests, tortures, killings and/or forced disappearances of an estimated 30,000 people and 12,000 prisoners were detained in a network of 340 secret concentration camps located throughout Argentina. These actions against victims called desaparecidos because they simply “disappeared” without explanation were confirmed via Argentine navy officer Adolfo Scilingo, who has publicly confessed his participation in the Dirty War, stating: “We did worse things than the Nazis”. The victims included trade-unionists, students and left-wing activists, journalists and other intellectuals and their families.
In 1983, the top military officers of all the juntas were among the nearly 300 people prosecuted and the top men were all convicted and sentenced for their crimes and remain in prison today. There has been some success in reuniting children stolen and adopted out to military families with their original natural parents.
Today, we are critical of Russia for interfering with democratic elections, but we seem to have forgotten U.S meddling throughout South America. The two coup d’etats which occurred in the early 1970’s in Chile and Argentina were successful only because of the backing of the U.S., through the CIA, with the support of Kissenger and successive Presidents, and papers have been released by the U.S government proving what was so long suspected by South Americans. These actions by the U.S in these two countries as well as in Cuba, Bolivia and elsewhere, were based largely on the fear of communism and the possibility of USSR-linked power across South America, in other words, fear of Russian power.
However, Che Guevara, active throughout South America and crucially involved with Castro in Cuba and its conversion to communism, was not driven by a desire or connection to Russia (although he was involved in both the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis) but by the social injustice he saw throughout South America due to colonialism and American commercial interests stripping the resources of South America while South Americans starved. He believed only through unionization and joint efforts of all South Americans could justice be effected for the vast majority of the citizens. Despite his early training as a doctor and his compassion and care at a leper colony, he came to believe this could only be achieved through violent revolution, and he was killed by U.S.-backed soldiers while attempting to provoke revolution in Bolivia in 1967 at age 39.
These common political backgrounds prevail the collective conciousness of both Chileans and Argentines. Politics in democratic countries like Canada do not shape our collective memory in that they have not been central to our very existence. Our politics are moderate and proudly socialist. In countries to our south, where politics were totalitarian, citizens were subjected to terror and death by their own governments, where outside influences were so strong it was almost impossible for the resistence to succeed, where the citizens wanted only justice, safety, health, food and education, politics are not and cannot be forgotten.