Soldiers in a Narrow Land Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Of the various dictatorial governments in late twentieth century Latin America, two in particular excited lively controversy in the English-speaking world: the Communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the anti-Communist dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Both regimes found favor in some circles in the United States: Castro’s Cuba among ideologues of the Left, and Pinochet’s Chile among ideologues of the Right. Unlike the latter American thinkers, Spooner, an American who spent most of the 1980’s in Pinochet’s Chile as a freelance journalist, views Pinochet as neither the savior of his country from Communism nor as the architect of a vibrant free-market economy. Instead, she sees him as a tyrant with blood on his hands.

Until Jeffrey M. Puryear’s Thinking Politics: Intellectuals and Democracy in Chile, 1973-1988 was published at the end of 1994, the only book in English besides Spooner’s that covered the Pinochet era from beginning to end was A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela (1991), written by a journalist-academic team. Constable and Valenzuela, like Spooner, accuse Pinochet of crimes against human rights.

Until the early 1970’s, Spooner makes clear, the people of Chile had prided themselves on their traditions of constitutional democracy and of military noninterference in politics. After his election to the presidency in 1970, Salvador Allende introduced socialist economic policies, which exacerbated inflationary pressures and frightened Chile’s upper and middle classes. In the first chapter, the author ably re- creates the atmosphere of economic chaos, civil unrest, and ideological polarization that made possible the military coup of September 11, 1973, against Allende.

In his autobiography, written after he had become dictator, Pinochet portrayed himself as a devout anti-Communist from the beginning of his military career. Yet Spooner finds that Pinochet actually struck up a social friendship with one of Allende’s cabinet ministers; this assertion is based on interviews with the cabinet minister’s widow. Spooner sees Pinochet as a cautious fence-sitter, a politically and intellectually unsophisticated man who professed loyalty to Allende as late as August 24, 1973, (when Allende appointed him commander of the army) and who did not join the officers’ conspiracy against Allende until the last possible moment. Yet once the coup had succeeded, Spooner shows, Pinochet was able to outwit his junta partners and achieve supreme power.

Throughout the book, Spooner gives one gruesome example after another of the Pinochet regime’s disregard for human rights. The reader learns of arbitrary arrests, without warrant; of the torture of political prisoners; of the expulsion from the country of prominent dissenting politicians; and of arbitrary killings of the supposedly disloyal, some of them committed by death squads without even the ceremony of arrest.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1973 coup, the junta ordered all known or suspected leftists rounded up; some detainees were murdered, including the young American expatriate Charles Horman (immortalized in the 1982 Costas Gavras film, Missing). Piling eyewitness testimony upon eyewitness testimony, Spooner brings the terrible days of the September coup back to life. Her sources include the widow of an Allende cabinet minister, who pleaded in vain with Pinochet himself (a onetime friend of the family) for knowledge about her husband’s whereabouts; a man who, as a young noncommissioned reserve officer from the provinces in 1973, became so disgusted with army atrocities in Santiago that he deliberately got himself jailed for disorderly conduct to avoid further service; a former Army colonel, who in 1973 played host to the general whose helicopter visit to northern Chile resulted in the summary execution of prisoners; and a working-class Santiago housewife who, as a nineteen-year-old mother of a newborn baby girl in 1973, had to negotiate military checkpoints in order to get home from the maternity hospital. Spooner also tells the poignant story of how conservative upper-middle-class civilians frantically tried to help left-wing friends and relatives escape Chile.

Once the junta had consolidated its power, a no-holds-barred war against the regime’s enemies was waged by the secret police, the DINA, and its post-1979 successor, the CNI. As late as 1985, agents of the secret police slit the throats of three Communists; and in 1986, four leftists were kidnapped and killed in revenge for an unsuccessful attempt by extremists on the life of General Pinochet. One victim of murder by the secret police, Spooner asserts, was not a leftist at all: The civil servants’ association leader Tucapel Jimenez, who had once praised the 1973 coup, was killed in February, 1982, after publicly criticizing Pinochet. For her profile of the secret police, Spooner consulted two socialist activists released after being held by the DINA; the widow of a socialist architect seized by that organization; and a disgruntled military intelligence operative.

The long arm of the secret police reached beyond the borders of Chile itself. In September, 1974, General Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s predecessor as Army commander, and his wife were murdered by car-bombing in their Buenos Aires exile. In September, 1976, the former Allende cabinet minister Orlando Letelier was assassinated by car-bombing during his Washington, D.C., exile. Spooner’s thoroughgoing account of the Letelier case, which so damaged relations with the United States, relies partly on an interview with the wife of the man who planted the car bomb, and partly on the testimony of a...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)