Latin America’s September 11 was a tragedy and a farce. The 1973 coup against president Salvador Allende of Chile began with British-made jets hammering the presidential palace and the death of Allende; it ended with power in the hands of dictator Pinochet, a man late for his own coup.
What happens behind the scenes in revolutions and CIA and British-backed coups in the Americas and our own backyard – Iran – formed part of a rivetting conversation between writers Oscar Guardiola-Rivera (Story of a Death Foretold), Michael Axworthy (Revolutionary Iran) and Samantha Weinberg (A Fish Caught in Time) during Jaipur Literature Festival.
The link between dictators and black comedy is a link well established in popular culture; Weinberg and Rivera called it the “Evelyn Waugh moment”, with Rivera pointing out that politics and ideology that underlines coups having become “an affair of civilised conversations” rather than being inspired by genuine passion that is fought for and died for.
The unfortunate thing about the victims and villains of coups is that they repeat each other. Chile’s Pinochet, the CIA puppet, wanted to emulate Napolean, “a man who as part of a triumvurate was to rule France and then ended up on top,” said Rivera. The case of Mohammad Mosaddeegh, the prime minister of Iran in the 50s, echoes Allende’s.
“Despite the US’s fear of a Communist influence in Iran, the real question was of oil,” said Axworthy. The effects of the Iranian coup, seems to answer many of the positions Iran has taken since. It repressed the democratic arrangements in Iran, discredited the Shah to generations of Iranians, made Iranians resent foreign influence, stoked Iranian nationalism and laid foundations for the revolution of 1979 which ended with the Shah leaving Iran.
Coups also go wrong for the parties involved. The first coup against socialist Allende, said Rivera, didn’t take off but the CIA, which was backing the rightwing Pinochet, got it ‘right’ the next time. “It was said Allende mismanaged the economy, it was the people who wanted him deposed, but the fact is the agenda had been fixed for a coup even before he became president and had the chance to mismanage the economy.”
Revolution springs from such tight corners. One man travelling through Latin America heard the news of coups all over Latin America on the radio. “That man was Che Guevera,” said Rivera. “And he gave birth to our time.”