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2 April 1999

A question of black and white

Richard Gott explains that race, not politics or ideology, is what really drives Chilean reactions t

By Richard Gott

On the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament, just along from the statue of George V, king-emperor, stand the Chilean exiles, their rhyming couplets at the ready:

“Law lords, people say:

Extradite Pinochet.”

Across the busy road at Parliament Square, a stone’s throw from the statue of Winston Churchill, war leader and former colonial secretary, stand General Pinochet’s Chilean supporters, jetted in from sunny Santiago. They, too, have a rhyming couplet:

Mientras Chile exista,

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jamas sera Marxista.”

Such sentiments have a rather period flavour today, for whatever may have happened in the 1970s, no futurologist would put much money on a Marxist regime in Chile in the next millennium. Yet if you were to replace the word “Marxist” with “Indian”, you might get a better sense of what moves the Pinochet supporters.

The division between the two Chilean camps – both wave the white and red Chilean flag, both claim to represent “the people” – may be seen as a simple clash between fascists and anti-fascists. Spanish republicans exiled after 1939 were welcomed by the left in Latin America, and Pinochet, like most Latin American military men of his time, had a soft spot for General Franco, travelling to Madrid to attend his funeral. But though this analysis is not wrong, there is another, more significant and much older division between the two sides, which ought to be familiar to a former colonial power like Britain. Watch those demonstrations closely and you will see that one side actually looks different from the other.

The central enmity in Chile, as in many other Latin American countries, is between Indians and settlers. So the exiles, the opponents of Pinochet, are for the most part short and squat, with jet-black silky hair. They are poor. Were they actually dressed in the familiar costume, of the kind still worn in the Andes of Bolivia or Peru, you would recognise them at once as Latin American Indians, blood-brothers of those who play the Andean flute and the zampona in the street markets of Europe.

The Pinochet supporters are quite different: the men tall and fair, looking as though fresh from a polo match or a point-to-point; the women willowy and blonde, their complexions blooming from perennial good food and sunshine. They are rich, heirs to an established white settler tradition that has sought to destroy or ignore the Indians who, endlessly battered and transmogrified into mixed-race mestizos, have nevertheless refused to disappear.

It has never been fashionable to discuss the ethnic origins of Chileans. The settler elite that has dominated the country since the time of Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who arrived in the mid-16th century, has always claimed Chile as a “white” nation, even though the Mapuche Indians in the south remained undefeated by the Spaniards. The “whiteness” was reinforced by the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century. They were brought over to fill the spaces left by the Indians, reduced further in the undeclared wars of extermination that characterised post-independence Chile.

These non-Spanish European immigrants moved swiftly into commerce and the law, banking and the army, and politics. They came from many countries, including France (Pinochet), Germany (Matthei), Switzerland (Frei), and Yugoslavia (Zukovic). They brought with them the 19th-century belief in the inevitable disappearance of indigenous peoples, the adjunct to colonial white settlement in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America. They may have slaughtered more Indians than the Spanish did in all the previous centuries. The Indian survivors are still semi-affectionately referred to by the whites as los rotos – the broken ones, the smashed-up ones, the destroyed. It is only one step away from calling them “the disappeared”.

The history of Argentina and Uruguay, often claimed as “white” countries, has been similar. Successive waves of European immigration reinforced the hostility of the settler class to the indigenous peoples. This explains why so many Latin Americans hold ambivalent attitudes to the armed forces, and why they are reluctant to protest against the military’s frequent abuse of power. The soldiers of the Iberian empires, and later those of the independent republics of the 19th century, existed to protect the settlers from the righteous wrath of the Indians, deprived of their land. The settlers regarded the soldiers as their necessary, indeed indispensable, defence against Indian attack. Their heirs in the 20th century have retained this sense of gratitude, as well as their forefathers’ deep feelings of insecurity.

In countries like Chile and Argentina, where the surviving Indians have been driven into rural reservations or changed into de-culturalised urban slum-dwellers, this white settler insecurity has become a racist antipathy towards the lower classes. In a country like Guatemala, with a majority Indian population, the ruling settler class – reinforced in the 19th century by an influential group of German settlers – has waged a brutal war for several centuries.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this ancient Latin American conflict derived additional impetus from the cold war. The Cuban revolution of 1959 turned the traditional mass movements of the continent, manipulated in earlier years by populist dictators of the right, into potential vehicles for socialism and social reform. The “white” officer corps of the Latin American armies, educated and trained in the US, became imbued with an anti-communist crusading spirit. Returning home from their ideological studies, they discovered that the familiar historical threat posed by the indigenous population was allied with the supposed menace of international communism. They found a fresh justification for their traditional repressive role.

For a brief moment in the early 1970s, three countries in Latin America’s southern cone – Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – had governments that took power with a reformist programme through the mobilisation of the great mass of their Indian or mestizo inhabitants. Juan Peron, Juan Jose Torres, and Salvador Allende threatened the secure position of the old settler ruling elites for the very first time. The local armies, with American assistance and connivance, successfully plotted the overthrow of these popular regimes and, after a series of military coups – in Bolivia in 1971, in Chile in 1973 and in Argentina in 1976 – they embarked on a campaign of state terror and torture that lasted for more than a decade.

Many people in these countries remain deeply ambivalent about what occurred during those years. The threat to the privileges of the settler elite may have been temporarily lifted, but the great mass of the black-haired mestizo, or mixed-race, people still remain in the ever-enlarging shanty towns that surround the old colonial cities of the continent. In Chile and Argentina, they now use water cannon for crowd control, but when serious trouble threatens, the soldiers will use real bullets again. The heirs to the old settler class know that their future security depends on the army.

No country in Latin America has been willing seriously to humiliate or emasculate its officer corps by carrying out retrospective trials. Pinochet springs from a white settler community in which, for hundreds of years, army officers have been highly praised for the very acts that are now described as crimes against humanity. That is why Pinochet, if he is not extradited to Spain, is unlikely to face justice at all.

The writer is a former Latin America correspondent for the “Guardian”