Point of View

Parallels to Pinochet: Selling snake oil of austerity to Americans

September 18, 2013 

I started graduate school in Latin American history at UCLA in 1970, the year Salvador Allende became Chile’s president. A physician and longtime member of Chile’s Socialist Party, he was the first Marxist on the continent to be democratically elected, an event that inspired me to study Chilean history.

A summer at the University of Chicago studying Latin American underdevelopment with a Ford Foundation fellowship enhanced my work. I traveled to Chile for dissertation research, arriving in Santiago in August 1973. Each day I would head downtown to the National Library, an elegant building just around the corner from the Presidential Palace, where Allende dispatched affairs of state.

On the morning of Sept. 11, I might have been the only person in the country who didn’t know what was happening. I spoke little Spanish and didn’t have a radio or TV. After a long walk through deserted streets, I arrived at the library only to discover it closed. As I stared at the locked door, I noticed a column of tanks crawling down Santiago’s main boulevard.

It must be a holiday, I thought, and this is a parade. Suddenly, the tanks opened fire on me – actually, at the presidential palace right behind me. I dove beneath a car. Then, dodging the gunfire, I ran for my life. I made it to the apartment of an American graduate student I knew. He told me there had been a coup and the military had imposed a 24-hour curfew. I was stranded at his place.

A week later, we were startled by loud banging on the door. The next thing we knew, soldiers poured into the apartment. They beat us, dragged us out to the courtyard, then beat us some more, using rifle butts to strike our heads, backs, stomachs. Now and then they barked questions, but each time I cried, “No hablo espanol,” they hit me harder. Graduate school hadn’t prepared me for this. Just when I thought I would die, the soldiers marched us to a school bus the army had commandeered. Soon it was filled with bruised and bleeding suspects, who had the lifeless eyes of those awaiting death.

Shortly before the bus took off for the National Stadium, an officer approached my friend and me, the only Americans aboard. He gave us back our passports and, with what sounded like an apology, indicated we could get off the bus. We did, quickly. I was torn between elation and a wrenching sense of helplessness: Those we had left behind were headed to the stadium, the hell where many would be tortured and executed.

A few days later, I managed to contact the U.S. Embassy. They put me on the first flight out of the country. After a shaky flight over the Andes, I made it back to LA. Once I had recovered my health, I used the remainder of my fellowship to fly to Mexico City where I eventually wrote a dissertation on Mexican wage issues.

Absorbed with my new life in Mexico and then in North Carolina, I gave Chile little thought. But when, a few years ago, I read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” I was able to make sense of what I lived through in ’73. Klein describes how the Ford Foundation, with the help of the CIA, secretly financed academics to spread the free-market economics that Milton Friedman preached at the University of Chicago. This neo-liberal dogma became the ideological justification for the military coups and mass torture in Chile and Uruguay in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. Had the CIA funded the Ford Foundation seminar I attended at the University of Chicago in 1972?

In power, Augusto Pinochet crushed unions, tore up the social safety net, privatized state services and sliced taxes for the wealthy while jacking them up for the poor – everything the neo-liberal doctors ordered. Middle and working-class standards of living plummeted. Torture was not a goal; it was a means to an end.

Recently, I have seen the same neo-liberal snake oil – now labeled “austerity” – sold to Americans as the cure our economy needs. In North Carolina, where I now teach, the new state government elected in 2012 has cut unemployment benefits, denied Medicaid to 500,000 people, slashed the public education budget, introduced vouchers to privatize education and raised taxes on the bottom 80 percent while decreasing them on the rich. Instead of torture, the state has approved the most drastic voter suppression laws in the country.

The neo-liberal policies that dramatically increased social inequality in Chile are having identical effects in this country.

In ’73, I was lucky to escape the shock doctrine when it hit Santiago. Now, 40 years later, it looks like it has finally caught up with me here in North Carolina.

Jeffrey Bortz teaches history at Appalachian State University in Boone.

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