The Other Election

Cristóbal Dahm Moreno was born and raised in Chile. He lives and works in Sonoma County, and, while he’s worked up about the U.S. elections, he’s also worked up about the elections that will take place thousands of miles away in his homeland this October. The South American nation, which runs along a narrow strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, faces a national plebiscite on Oct. 25, not long before Election Day in the States. At issue: a new constitution that would make the nation more democratic.

Over the last year, millions of Chileans have taken to the streets of the capital, Santiago, and to the streets of towns and cities all across the country, protesting the policies and actions of President Sebastian Pinera, a right-wing billionaire, who has a popular approval rating of about 10 percent.

Americans might take a special interest in Chile because the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende on 9/11 in 1973. Popular singer, songwriter and political activist, Victor Jara, was arrested and tortured by the military. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the 1971 Nobel Prize winner for literature, died under suspicious circumstances on Sept. 23, 1973. Following his death, thousands of Chileans disobeyed a curfew and gathered in the streets to honor Neruda and his work.

With U.S. help, General Augusto Pinochet was installed as dictator. Under his iron heel, tens of thousands of people were arrested, jailed and tortured. Thousands of Chileans were executed. Trade unions were banned, social security and state-owned enterprises were privatized, newspapers censored and a reign of terror imposed on the nation.

Thousands of Chileans fled. Some of them, including novelist Isabel Allende, who now lives in Marin, created new lives for themselves and helped focus the world’s attention on their homeland. This October, Cristóbal Dahm Moreno and his friends in Northern California will watch the outcome of the Chilean election. It seems likely that the country will reject its authoritarianism. If only that were the case in the United States.

Chile’s history suggests that while dictatorships take terrible tolls on their own citizens, they don’t last forever.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches From an American War.”
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