“Never Again”: An Interview with Isabel Allende


In this interview, Chilean congresswoman Isabel Allende, Salvador Allende’s daughter, talks about how Chile has changed in the seven years since Pinochet was arrested in London.

From the Chilean parliament you can look out over the naval ships anchored in Valparaiso harbour. On the landward side a hotchpotch of brightly painted Victorian houses stand as testimony to the port’s days as a British trading post. Above these, sprawling shanty towns cling precariously to the hillside; extreme poverty with a beautiful sea view.

On the wall of the tiny parliamentary office is a framed poster of Salvador Allende, trademark black rimmed glasses and hand held high, half in salute, half waving. The inscription reads: "They believed they had killed you but you are more alive than ever." Below sits his daughter Isabel Allende – a 60 years old Congresswoman for the Chilean Socialist Party, mother of two, president of the Salvador Allende Foundation and cousin of the author of the same name.

Often cited as history’s only democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende chose suicide in Chile’s presidential palace rather than surrender during Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Isabel fled to Cuba with her mother and two sisters. From there to Mexico, where she sat out 16 years of exile before returning to Chile in 1989 as Pinochet’s rule was ending. She was first elected to Congress in 1993.

The rebuilding of Chilean democracy and the healing of the society’s wounds proceeded at a snail’s pace through the 1990s. General Pinochet retired as head of the army in 1997 and became a lifelong senator with legal immunity. Then on October 16 1998 he was arrested in London. Since then things have been changing fast in Chile.

"The 500 days that Pinochet was detained in London were a watershed", says Isabel Allende. "It forced Chileans to accept that the serious human rights abuses committed by the military government were part of a systematic state policy, not isolated cases or accidental ‘excesses’ as Pinochet supporters claimed. There was a remarkable cultural change; people stopped being afraid and accepted the need for justice."

She opposed the Chilean government’s demand that Pinochet return, flying to London in 1999 to present a letter to Jack Straw urging that the General be extradited to Spain.

"I always preferred the idea of a trial in Chile, but I had little faith in the Chilean courts." In a resigned voice she evaluates the ongoing trials. "On the one hand he has lost his senatorial immunity and been formally accused on numerous charges. On the other, the trials are suspended as his defence argues he suffers from senile dementia. It’s a big joke, out in Santiago he shops for books, eats in restaurants and signs cheques. Obviously he has health problems but he is perfectly capable of standing trial. I’d like Pinochet tried, judged and sentenced, it’s not important that he go to prison. What’s important is to establish his guilt."

As Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000 Richardo Lagos was elected President. What did it mean to see the first Socialist since Salvador Allende in the Moneda presidential palace?

Isabel points out that Chile’s centre-left governing coalition, the Concertación, is not socialist and doesn’t have a particularly leftwing programme. "But even so, that a socialist be allowed to govern this country, that the institutions continue to function, and indeed that we have made substantial progress normalizing relations between civil government and the military is remarkable."

She pays tribute to General Juan Emilio Cheyre the army’s current Commander in Chief for his promotion of national reconciliation, and the army’s overdue cooperation with outstanding human rights cases. "Above all Cheyre said ‘never again’. This was a turning point for me; it helped me to reconcile my differences with the military."

The conversation turns to Michelle Bachelet, the charismatic former Defence Minister, herself daughter of one of Pinochet’s victims, whose consistent lead in the polls makes her election as Chile’s first woman President a near certainty. "She’s a very normal woman who has had a hard life, separated, bringing up children alone, experiencing real pain. These things bring her close to a society like ours.

"And of course a woman president, the first in Chile, one of the first in Latin America this makes me enormously proud…It reflects a deep cultural change." Of course there is a long way to go "I am the only woman socialist legislator, it speaks very badly of the Socialist Party".

In 2003 the 30th anniversary of the military coup and the death of Salvador Allende were commemorated in Chile and around the world. Documentaries on Allende’s government never previously seen in Chile were broadcast daily on the television. "On the anniversary on September 11 we commemorated for the first time in the presidential palace with a speech from President Lagos." For Isabel this was "a great leap forward" in the struggle to restore the sullied name of her father.

Would it have been possible without Pinochet’s arrest in London? "No, Pinochet’s arrest was fundamental after that he has become progressively more isolated."

With a laugh Isabel remembers a television interview her son gave with one of Pinochet’s granddaughters. "I understand that he was only six (during the coup) and isn’t at all responsible. But history is history. The idea of two families reuniting through future generations, no, too much has happened, too much pain, above all the sense of Pinochet’s impunity. And now not only the human rights abuses but the plunder and robbery. No I didn’t like the image of family reconciliation because it was false, it doesn’t exist."

Earlier this year a US congressional investigation revealed that Pinochet had amassed millions of dollars in US bank accounts. "There are people who justified the human rights abuses saying it was necessary…But now things we always suspected are coming to light; private commissions paid on arms sales, expropriation of public funds. Here in the parliament you see long-term Pinochet supporters feeling very uncomfortable, they can’t justify it any longer."

The Salvador Allende Foundation is opening the Solidarity Museum in Santiago. "This will put on display one of the best collection of contemporary art in Latin America…all donated by artists to my father’s government." The exhibition includes works from Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros and the Chilean painter Roberto Matta.

The next event will be to celebrate the 100 years of Salvador Allende’s birth in 2008. "We are organizing a big music festival…Something important that represents the closure of all the distinct stages of this process; the relocation of my father’s remains, the statue, the housing of the artworks and now for one last tribute." She hopes Sting or U2 will come.

But beyond the nostalgia is Salvador Allende’s ideology still relevant?

"Today we live in another world, but some things stay absolutely the same," she said. "My father always fought for the dispossessed, for him that was what socialism was, the fight for those that have least. Today we use an expression that didn’t exist in his day – equality of opportunity – this is what he spent his life fighting for.

"Today we live in a globalized world; Chile must export products and promote innovation. But none of this means anything in itself. The underlying objective must be to build a society that can offer equality of opportunity to its people."

Photo from Indymedia.org