NACLA and Chile: What Road to Change?

September 25, 2007

With the election of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition (UP), hopes for a “democratic road” to socialism ran high; fears that the United States wouldn’t allow an elected socialist government to succeed in the Americas ran even higher. All the issues that engaged the commitments of NACLA were at play in Chile’s domestic and international political conflicts and in its unfolding tragedy. An influential January 1973 NACLA Report called “Facing the Blockade” carefully documented the Nixon administration’s “invisible blockade” against Allende’s constitutional regime by denying Chile “the normal credit arrangements necessary for most export-import operations.” The Report, written by staff member Elizabeth Farnsworth together with co-authors Richard Feinberg and Eric Leenson, was incorporated into the book New Chile, which was published just months before the coup in 1973. The “Facing the Blockade” Report was painstakingly researched, and represented a high point in NACLA’s developing tradition of “scholarly propaganda.” It was translated into Spanish and had a significant circulation in Latin America after the coup. And before the coup, Salvador Allende, in response to questions from the press after his historic 1973 speech before the UN, remarked: “If you want to know how the U.S. has affected Chile, just read New Chile by NACLA.”

At the same time, notes Farnsworth, the situation in Chile “was like the Spanish Civil War.” It resonated internationally, but not in the same way for everyone, even on the left, with all sides finding a mirror image or an object lesson in the conflict.

The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and the presence of a powerful, well-organized Chilean left seemed for many to bolster the argument that a nonviolent, democratic transition to socialism could be put on the historical agenda. For Farnsworth, Allende’s UP represented a “non-Leninist way out of poverty.” In the wake of the U.S.-backed coup, however, the “democratic transition to socialism” became a more problematic proposition, with different people drawing different conclusions from the experience. For some, the lesson learned was that any genuine social transformation would have to be won and defended by an armed revolutionary movement. Indeed, in the late 1960s, defenders of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare had argued strongly that all democratic attempts to build regimes of social justice in Latin America were bound to be frustrated by the imperial powers; that historically, all such attempts had been undermined or overthrown.

For others, the lesson to be learned from Allende’s overthrow was that even 51% of the vote was not sufficient to effect a genuinely democratic transformation of society; that such a transformation, if it took place too quickly, would inevitably engender the opposition of powerful enemies, and that defending against the counterattack of those enemies would inevitably require a degree of violence and repression that could well compromise the goals and values of democracy and socialism. The way out of poverty and oppression, argued those who held this position, would therefore have to be gradual and relatively inclusive of the “old regime.” After the coup, both positions had their defenders around NACLA.

A common position around NACLA was that it was a mistake to get caught up in the mystique of armed struggle, and an especially egregious mistake to blame the UP government for allowing itself to be overthrown. There was, on the other hand, a very strong section of NACLA that was sympathetic to the Chilean Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR), a group that considered itself to be to the left of Allende’s UP. The MIR argued that socialism had to be won, built, defended and protected by armed struggle. During the period of Allende’s government, there was only modest support for the MIR among the NACLA community, but after the coup the attempt to understand Allende’s overthrow led to growing support for the thesis that any revolutionary transformation must be armed. In the wake of the coup the entire Chile solidarity movement had been rent by the same question, reflecting the split in Chile between leftists who foresaw a gradual return to elected government and the MIR’s revolutionary attempt to overthrow the military government.

Mike Locker remembers the debates at NACLA East: “We went through a very sectarian period around the Chilean coup,” he says. “Should we declare ourselves one way or the other? What would it mean to declare that we supported the MIR? Would it be a service to the Chilean people? Is the reformist force of Allende, limited in its revolutionary ambitions, nonetheless a real challenge to imperialism? The Miristas [within NACLA] put tremendous pressure on people, broke up friendships.”

Beyond the MIR-UP conflict, the debates led to renewed questions about the role of NACLA, questions that would carry through the next decade: Should NACLA confine itself to research, or were there other ways to serve the movement? Where was the line between propaganda and research? Should NACLA get involved in political organizing? And there were questions about how most effectively to present the material NACLA produced. “We saw ourselves as part of the New Left,” says migration scholar Josh DeWind, who came to NACLA in 1972, the height of the U.S. antiwar movement. “The questions we pondered were: What can we do to deepen the movement’s understanding of U.S. involvement overseas as being not simply a mistaken war policy but as part of imperialism? How could we demonstrate that there was a systematic relationship between the United States and other parts of the world that underpinned what the Vietnam War was all about? How could we help to convert the anti-war movement to an anti-imperialist movement?”

While debates embroiled NACLA from within, another form of pressure came from the outside. The Nixon era was a time of widespread infiltration and spying in U.S. political life. The administration had an active domestic counterintelligence program well-known by its acronym COINTELPRO, and the term “Watergate” reminded everyone that one didn’t have to be too far outside the mainstream to be a target of eavesdropping and disruption.“We lived with a pervasive sense of surveillance,” says Steven Volk. “It came from two places. Part of it was imported from Latin America,” where military and many civilian governments kept a constant watch on their populations: “A sort of ‘styling’ of our attitude came a lot from those of us who had lived in Latin America: We took care about talking on the phone, in talking to Chileans, Nicaraguans, Cubans. We often didn’t use their real names, didn’t know their real names. There were certain people we never met in our office. We had a sense of super caution that was exaggerated in the U.S. context. But just because the kinds of precautions we took were in part Latin American affectations doesn’t mean we should not have been careful.”

Indeed, in the early 1990s, NACLA obtained its FBI files through the Freedom of Information Act: a boxload of material documenting U.S. government eavesdropping on NACLA activities. Many of the pages are blacked out and much of what is visible is trivial, but “it’s clear,” says Volk, “they were all over our case. We know they interviewed the managers at the bank where we had established our checking account and we knew our phones were tapped.” Some members took it as a given that the NACLA office—like all movement offices—was bugged and resolved that NACLA should simply go about its business totally above board. Others were more cautious, and NACLA’s response to the bugging became another source of tension. “We worked in this semi-secretive environment into which we brought very few people,” remembers Hellman. “We were running an organization that had a clandestine aspect to it. More so, I always thought, than absolutely necessary, but it was a sign of the times. This was very much a period in which you didn’t dare suggest to somebody that his phone wasn’t tapped for fear of insulting him. People measured what they were doing and how important their work was pretty much by whether they thought the FBI had a file on them. And as a consequence of these dangers, real and exaggerated, it was a very insular kind of setup. Before you could actually bring somebody over to the office to meet the other staff members or to talk to the group or to consult our archives you had to clear it with the rest of the group.

“We had three types of meetings: If we were discussing non-sensitive matters we would meet in the NACLA office, which we assumed to be bugged. If the political import was deemed ‘heavy’ we met in someone’s apartment and we spoke carefully. If the matter at hand was extremely sensitive, like our relations with the [radical U.S.-Puerto Rican] Young Lords or some revolutionary group, we would meet on one of the traffic islands along Broadway.”

The secretiveness turned the organization inward for a while, especially during the bleak years of the mid 1970s. “The years from around 1975-78 are our time in the wilderness,” says Volk. “We were hugely in despair over what was happening in Latin America. These are the years of repression. The hopes for overturning dictatorships fade; it’s looking pretty dismal. There is a turning inward and that’s when the ‘party-building’ issues emerge.”

Tags: NACLA, Salvador Allende, Chile, coup, leftist politics

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