The future is not what it used to be

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
3 October, 2017
Editorial: 138
Fecha de publicación original: 20 octubre, 1998

He that takes up the most space is not necessarily the biggest

Just the other night, a Chilean friend commented in his usual expressive way that, “Things are the way they are and all the rest is just bollocks”. He was casting his aspersions on a kind of intrinsic view of the world and, at the same time, the curious expectation produced by his whimsical behaviour. While things may be the way they are, there is, nevertheless, no doubt that they are starting to change. For instance, there we have Augusto Pinochet surrounded by police who, for the first time in his life, are there not to protect him, but to keep him under lock and key. If things were just as they’ve always been, we would never have witnessed such a moment. So, here we have one of the most emblematic dictators from this turn of the century, the very mention of whose name conjures up the barbarity of power unleashed against its own citizens, about to go on trial despite having armoured himself with all the “punto final” laws imaginable (the laws that drew a line under accountability for atrocities committed while in power). Things are what they are, it’s true, but they are are changing a hell of a lot.

Pinochet might still manage to elude justice through high-level political pact-making. But his arsehole and his world, like the other dictators and people guilty of genocide who make up his courtiers, have shrunk a little this weekend. No matter how much he protects himself judicially or physically, he is getting more and more within the reach of his victims and their cries for justice. Not even political agreements between parties, laws of impunity and immunity or appeals to international law, will be able to put a stop to a reality which is becoming more and more patent : a new way of seeing and doing things is making its way through the crevices of “traditional” politics. And the connecting thread of this change are the powerful information and communication resources available to the people. It’s becoming more and more difficult for the powers-that-be to look the other way when views are expressed through apparently unusual, but nonetheless extremely efficient, means due to their communicative and mobilising capacity.

Pinochet has come up against these changes at just the wrong time and place. Perhaps he thought that the thread of history was still the same as that night on 11 September 1973 when he appeared on television, surrounded by the other three commanders-in-chief, to announce that he had taken over power thereby demolishing the dreams of a whole era. His words foretold destruction, announced by name and surname. The tone of his voice prognosticated death sentences and granted free rein to torturers to fulfil his objectives. No message, before or since, has made me feel quite so strongly that nothing would ever be the same again. Not even the earthquakes I have been though. Everything we had known and lived for during one of the high points of a social project in Latin America, was about to be torn to shreds and disappear without trace forever. That was the foreboding we all went to bed with that unforgettable day. The form that ripping apart would take, was hardly apparent behind Pinochet’s dark glasses.

None of us who lived through the curfew of the first three days of military rule will ever forget the emptiness of those hours. Trapped in our houses, with no communication from the world outside, dependent on rumours, unable even to speak to our neighbours, the first consequence of the coup was the feeling of being in solitary confinement, only interrupted by the first rumblings of the military machine. On the night of 12 September, from our house, not far from the National Stadium, we began to hear the first bursts of machine gun fire, syncopated, intermittent, constant until dawn. The summary executions had begun. Nobody slept a wink that night. In fits and starts and uncontrollably, the faces of friends passed through our sleepless minds and we began to ask ourselves where they might be right then and if we would ever see them again. When we went out onto the streets on the 13th, the first answers to those questions came. “They have taken so-and-so away and some of his family. So-and-so has disappeared, we don’t know if they’ve caught him or whether he’s in hiding”. From then on the tissue of Chilean society was subjected to a systematic exercise of military necrosis. Thousands of people’s daily lives were brought to a halt by death, torture, concentration camps, persecution and exile. In his destructive fury, Pinochet paid no attention to diplomatic immunity, nor judicial or territorial boundaries, sending his assassins to get rid of his enemies wherever they were -in Buenos Aires, Washington or Rome.

The world, from the dictator’s office, must have seemed wide and far away, a stretch of wide open ground in which he could continue committing outrage with merry impunity. But Pinochet, like his colleagues in Argentina, must have begun to perceive at some point that things were not just staying the same in the stable way they had got used to. Especially the engine of collective memory, which refused to switch off in the interests of national reconciliation and the “punto final” laws. Let’s just forget things and carry on as if they’d never happened. Dictator and the politicians agreed on this score. Nevertheless, just in case, Pinochet and his Argentinian pals shielded themselves behind laws which would guarantee them judicial protection from the barbarism they exercised with unrestrained incontinence. But not even that has helped them.

This world is getting smaller and more compact all the time. The memories of some become the memories of many with extraordinary ease. Information and communication in the hands of the people, the first rungs of society the dictators destroyed with their first shots, is building a long ladder now leading up to the court room. In fact, to a new way of understanding politics. More than one of those whose hands are stained with blood must be feeling a little antsy today, even if their bottoms are seated at the U.N. or at some of the peace talks being held today in the world. No matter how hard they try to hide behind “fresh start” pacts, it will not be enough to protect them from citizens who feel alienated from these agreements in the name of the victims of so many killings and so much suffering inflicted “by the exercising of power”, wherever it might emanate from. Their politics are not the same as the authorities’. And now, for the first time ever, they can put this into practice ensuring that their messages reach the right ears. And if these ears do not exist, they’ll create them by collective effort. From Clinton and the genocide being perpetrated in Iraq, to guerilla movements now participating in peace processes, we are going to witness many similar surprises to that of Pinochet over the next few years.
Things are as they are, that’s true, but the future is no longer what it used to be and we are not going to find ourselves where we were either.

Translation: Bridget King.