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The Fate of Strongmen

October 25, 1998|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."

SAN FRANCISCO — In those years when movies were young, Americans used to dream in the dark about the Latin Lover: Cesar Romero, Carlos Gardel, Ramon Navarro. His dark eyes. His smile. The closer his lips came to us, the more we loved him. The Latin Lover was an exotic because, in truth, most Americans didn't know much about Latin America.

For a longer time, since independence from Spain in the 1800s, Latin Americans have entertained their own romance. In the harsh light of day and in the dangerous night, Latin Americans have dreamed of a strongman, a man of resolution and force, who might rescue the nation.

Last week, two of Latin America's aging strongmen were in the news. Cuba's Fidel Castro was traveling in Spain, playing the grand old man of the international left. Not so far away, Chile's ex-President Augusto Pinochet, in Britain for medical treatment, was detained by Scotland Yard under a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, who is seeking to extradite him in the murders in Chile of 79 Spanish citizens during Pinochet's famous reign of terror in the 1970s.

Chileans are in the habit of speaking of themselves and their nation with a sigh. Chile, they say, is insular, alone, cut off from the rest of Latin America by desert and mountains and sea. But the dreams and divisions of Chile for much of this century were typically Latin American.

Last week, as news spread throughout Chile of the arrest of Pinochet in London, crowds massed. According to news reports, some cheered Spain for detaining the murderous tyrant; others demanded that Britain release the beloved father of the nation.

Octavio Paz, Mexico's greatest writer this century, once observed that his country's calamity was that Mexico, like Russia, did not have an 18th century. Paz meant that in the 1700s, when much of Europe was overturning monarchy and establishing modern notions of individual rights and democracy, Mexico remained in the grip of a decaying old order.

Paz's point could be extended to the rest of Latin America. By the time independence from Spain was won, Spain had bequeathed to her former colonies a tradition of authoritarianism and a civic order based on brute power.

Latin American history became the history of armies in the night. The army general murdered by a guerrilla murdered by a general. One man succeeded or toppled by another to stand at the palace window. The strongman promising land reform. The next strongman promising the restoration of the landowners' claim.

My Mexican father, who grew up, early in this century, during the violent civil war that Mexico still prefers romantically to call its "revolution"; my Mexican father who saw Mexican murdering Mexican ("Viva Mexico!" the mobs cheered for the winner); my Mexican father, who is one of the gentlest men I know, thinks that what Mexico needed in this century was a strongman, "someone like Francisco Franco in Spain."

The General and the Guerrilla. Pinochet and Castro. The left and the right in Latin America each have had, in recent years, their own Latin Lover--the idealized strongman who would hold the nation in his arms and banish disorder. Orden: the strongman's promise spread throughout the land. There is no more erotic word in the lexicon of Latin America.

Chile was among the most successful countries in Latin America in establishing democratic governments early in its history. But the tragedy of the nation was that, by the 1960s, Chile was enlisted by the international right and left to play out a parable of the Cold War.

Salvador Allende, friend to Castro, winner of the Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow, as Chile's president imagined that his nation's future required the nationalization of industry and property. He would be overthrown by his own army chief, Pinochet, friend of the Nixon White House.

American and Western European left-wing intellectuals glorified Allende after his suicide in 1973. They broadcast the terrible news of the Chilean army's oppression: the mass trials in the National Stadium and the mass executions and night-time abductions (los desaparecidos). On the other hand, business interests in the United States and Western Europe cheered when Pinochet welcomed foreign investment back to Chile and privatized business.

Cuba and Chile today are vastly different countries, with very different economies. Cuba, strangled by a U.S. economic blockade, has turned to rust and to food lines. Chile has a robust economy and the largest middle class in Latin America, though the gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider and dust rises from slums surrounding Santiago.

Yet, for all their differences, both countries are linked by odd similarities. For example, both Cuba and Chile enjoy the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Both countries remain among the most socially conservative, regarding such matters as divorce and homosexuality. In both countries one can hear a defense of the strongman that sounds remarkably similar. Necessity, necessity, there was no other way. . . .

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