Isabel Allende's History Lesson

"This is what happened in Germany, with the Nazis... and people thought that they could stand it. Okay, they could just tolerate it because it didn't affect their personal lives.

We have to stop it. We have to stop it now, before it gets out of hand. This government is doing things that are not allowed in our constitution. So we have to react. What are people waiting for God's sake?"
-- Isabel Allende

Chilean author Isabel Allende has lived through a dictatorship once and she's not about to sit by and watch democracy stolen a second time. In her latest memoir, "My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile," she explores her recollections of her homeland, the lessons of its history, and her understanding of what it means to be Chilean, and now, an American.

LF: The coup of September 11, 1973 in Chile, which overthrew your cousin Salvador Allende, and the attacks on the same date in the United States. You say these two September 11ths, separated by almost thirty years have come to make all the difference in your life and that the attacks on the United States shifted your relationship both to Chile and to this country your home, now, for many years. Can you explain?

Allende: Well. On a Tuesday, September 11, 1973, we had a military coup in Chile. It was a terrorist attack on a democracy sponsored by the CIA. Many years later, we had a terrorist attack on this democracy, on the United States, where I am living. I think that in my mind, both events have a great meaning because in the first one, I lost my country. I had to leave, and I lived in exile for many, many years. And the second event made me feel I belonged -- I gained a country. And the feeling came for the first time; I felt that I could relate to the vulnerability that people were feeling.

When I came to the United States 16 years ago, one of the things that I told my husband was that this was a very arrogant country. It was a sort of childish optimism and childish arrogance that, nothing could happen here, that everybody was safe and we would prosper indefinitely and that everything would always be better and better. And that's not how life is in the rest of the world. So I always felt very alien. And then, for the first time, on September 11, 2001, I think that people realized how life is for the rest of the world and I could relate to that.

Now, when you go to Chile in your writings here in the latest book, My Invented Country, the majority of the book is about the pre-1973 period, in which, as you describe it, Chileans, certainly of the class to which you belonged, had some of the same denial, at least as you describe it. You say: "We Chileans had no idea what a military coup entailed, because we had a long and solid democratic tradition." You write: "No, that would never happen to us, we proclaimed, [pointing at "Banana Republics" elsewhere] because in Chile even the soldiers believed in Democracy. No one would dare violate our constitution."

Well, it was violated. In 24 hours, everything changed. And it can happen anywhere. It happened in Italy in Spain in Germany, it has happened everywhere in world. So no one is immune to something like that. And I think that it is important to remember that. That we only appreciate what we have when we lose it. And that can happen with health or that can happen with democracy. And it did happen that way in Chile.

Were you aware, immediately, of the change that had just happened in your life?

No. It was very sudden. It happened in a day, but we were not aware because there was censorship. All the media was censored and there was now news, only rumors. Also, because we had this long tradition in democracy, we thought that the soldiers would go back to their barracks in a week and they would call elections again. We never -- I think that not even the military -- expected it to last 17 years and have the brutal characteristics that id had. It was a surprise.

Now, many of the Allende family -- the closer family, perhaps, left, right after the coup. I think you said before; there was a plane sent, or a boat from Mexico on which people were able to leave. You didn't. You stayed, you continued to do work of a kind... at what point did you realize you have to get out and you went to Venezuela?

I think it was like a year later. I realized... slowly I realized that I had been involved in things that were... that you could lose your life for -- like hiding people and smuggling information out of the country and trying to put people in embassies to find asylum and that sort of thing. I got more and more scared. I felt that the circle of repression was closing around my neck and there was a point at which I just couldn't take it anymore. There were several signs that I was in a "black list." All this was, as I have said before, just rumors. Nothing was ever confirmed. The rules changed all the time. The repression became more and more efficient, more effective. And that happened rapidly, but in stages.

You know, it is something very strange: You learn to live with things. For example, something is taken away, like let's say, the freedom of the press or... yeah, let's say that you're telephones are tapped so you say "Okay, I can live with that" and then the next day something else, and then you say, "Okay, I will have to live with that too," and so forth. And then after a few months, you realize that you have lost everything. But, you got sort of used to it. And then there's a point when you're talking torture at breakfast time with you kids. And all of a sudden you have this epiphany or this revelation in which you realize what kind of life you are having... and then there is a point where I left.

Ultimately, Pinochet was tripped up on his own legal shenanigans, leaving open the cases of the many, many, many disappeared and thus leaving the legal case open enough to prosecute. When he was indicted, there was an excitement throughout Latin America in particular, that finally, justice would be served -- that finally, there would be an end of this culture of impunity. What's happened to that feeling now?

Well, I think we know that there is impunity, but there is impunity in the world. Look at the horrible things that other people have done -- the United States to begin with -- and there is impunity. People who should have been punished for their crimes have not. And people who have not committed crimes go to the electric chair. So the world is a very unjust, unfair place and we have to live with that. Historically, there is impunity for most crimes.

Do you think Americans generally have the sense of there being a "Culture of Impunity" right here?

No. Not at all. I think that we have, in the United States, that we are the best country in the world, that we have the best democracy, that justice is always served, that the bad guys always pay, that the good guys are always rewarded, etc. The Hollywood thing.

But when we analyze our history and our country, we realize that a lot of things go wrong, very wrong.

You comment about 9/11 that in a sense it gave you a different mission, a new mission… how would you describe the difference?

When I came to this country, I came because I fell in love or in lust with a guy. I was not following the American Dream. I did not know that the American Dream existed, and I came here with the idea that I would get this guy out of my system in a week and I would go back. And that was 16 years ago, he's still in my system, and I have become American.

I love this country and I want to change the things that I don't like, and I think that I belong and I have a mission. My mission is to be a bridge between two cultures.

I speak English and Spanish. I write in Spanish, my books are published in English. I find myself with a microphone, addressing audiences all the time. So, I am in a position to tell them the things that I see abroad and people don't know here. They're misinformed or they don't care, because they don't know, really, what's happening.

What is the top of your list of things to tell?

Peace. Peace is the top of the list, because we think that we can go into another country and invade another country and we have the right to do so. And we invent all kinds of excuses to do it and now are inventing excuses to invade Iran or Syria or whatever. And that is not something we can do w/ impunity. Sooner or later, we pay for that. And I think that people should know that.

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