The other Sep 11

Posted in history, politics by jrahman on September 12, 2008

Long before the planes hit the World Trade Centre, Sep 11 marked a major political event of the 1970s.  On this day in 1973, a violent military coup overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in Chile.  Allende was the first communist to rule a country with a democratic mandate.  Henry Kissinger considered him to be one of the few individuals who upset his schemes for ‘world peace’ or ‘balance of power’ or something like that, and CIA actively assisted the coupmakers.  I heard about Allende as a kid.  He was a ‘good guy’ to my left-leaning family, and Augusto Pinochet – the general who ruled Chile with an iron-fist for 17 years after the coup – was a ‘baddie’.  I also heard about parallels with Bangladesh. 

If I had to pick a side, I’d choose Allende over Pinochet anytime, but I no longer think good vs bad is quite that simple, and I don’t think parallels to Bangladesh work out that neatly.  And yet, what happened in Chile probably has pertinent lessons for Bangladesh of the near future.

Let’s start with the parallels.   Along with Allende, Sheikh Mujib was in Kissinger’s list of those who upset the grand scheme of things – this is not conspiracy theory, you can read about it in his memoir.  The CIA’s involvement in the August 1975 coup is a matter of speculation, but a non-trivial number of people harbour such suspicions.  While Mujib was no communist, he did nod to socialism, at least in his rhetoric.  Both Allende and Mujib were replaced by brutal military juntas that turned sharply towards conservative politics.  To my family, the parallels were a-plenty. 

One need not be a socialist to see parallels.  Under Allende, the Chilean economy ground to a halt, while inflation soared.  Under Mujib, we also experience high inflation that led to a famine.  Pinochet rejected socialism and embraced the market, putting Chile into a path of economic progress that has now made it the most developed country in South America.  Our generals also embraced private enterprise, without which we couldn’t have made the economic progress of the past couple of decades. 

However, one shouldn’t overemphasise these parallels.  Chile was a middle-income country in the 1970s, we were one of the poorest in the world.  Allende’s politics was steeped in Marxism.  Mujib found socialism as a result of the political circumstances.  Our generals were nowhere near as brutal as Pinochet.  No, parallels are not quite as neat, they never are.  And in any case, these parallels may be interesting parlour games, but they’re not why I think Chile may have lessons for us.

We should study the reasons why communists and other radicals were voted into power in Chile in the first place.  At the risk of simplifying, economic stagnation, inequality, longstanding social tensions, these were the reasons for Allene’s appeal.  These are the reasons why populist or radical anti-establishment parties floiurish. 

Are these factors relevant in today’s Bangladesh?  As everyone watched Mrs Zia’s triumphant release yesterday, a friend emailed me this:

Things pretty calm across the city.  In fact, things are too calm around BNP offices, although KZ is supposed to have reached….  Meanwhile garments workers have blocked the road from Mohakhali intersection to Nabisco road.  Probably unrelated, but poignant nevertheless.

And then this:

As i thought, khaleda has not reached her office. Traffic very slow in that area. Crowds starting to build around there…. Mohakhali-Nabisco road working again.  Best quote on this comes from a NSU intern at the office, “Abbu, garments-er chemra chemri ra oikhaney chechamechi kortesey. Oi raasta diye aisho na.”

Conditions for populism are self-evidently present in today’s Bangladesh.  The question is, who will play the role of Allende?

Neither of our parties have much to do with the agitations by garment workers.  Couple of years ago, when everyone focussed on the composition of the caretaker government and the Election Commission, there were repeated popular uprisings that had nothing to do with the main opposition party. 

Fortunately, we are again looking at an election.  Will either of the parties shed politics of image – who is more uncompromising or honest – and address the plight of the garments workers? 

And if they do decide to address the grievance of the garments workers, how will they do it?  Here is the second reason why we should study Chile.  Why did the Chilean economy implode in the 1970s?  Why does wholesale nationalisation not work?  Why does collectivisation of agriculure not work?  Why is it a bad idea to shut ourself off from the rest of the world?  Why, despite the manifest problems globalisation cause, it provides the best chance for our poor millions?  We should study why Allende failed, and why have the post-dictatorship centre-left governments succeeded?

And finally, we should study how Chile demilitarised.  As we head into the elections, one hopes that neither parties have agreed to any covert deal with the regime that institutionalises the army’s role in politics or economy.  But even if this doesn’t happen, we need to devise a way such that the army doesn’t feel the need to interevene in politics again.  Chile has had a much more brutal dictatorship than we have.  It has had to contend with a much more fractured society than ours.  And yet, by all reckoning, it seems to have demilitarised successfully.  Surely there are lessons in this for us.


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