APEC meets Chile's September 11


The ponchos have been packed away but the APEC summit in Chile, at which George W. Bush had dinner with twenty-one close personal world leaders, left the hosts feeling a little piquey.

Thirty-one years ago the United States backed a military coup in Chile that left the country’s democratically-elected leader dead. In 1973 George W. was just heading to Harvard Business School, but Vice-President Dick Cheney had already entered the Nixon administration, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had joined Nixon’s cabinet four years earlier.

Dick and Don both have cast-iron alibis for the murder of Salvador Allende, apparently, but it does feel a little curious that the two leading architects of America’s new world mission to spread democracy used to work for an administration that felt so inclined to snuff democracy out.

September 11 changed all that. It’s a date that resonates in Chile’s history as much as America’s. Because September 11, 1973 was the date of the military coup that left Chile saddled with a brutal dictatorship for seventeen years, courtesy of the Nixon White House.

So you can understand why 50 000 people turned out to boo the APEC leaders and Mr Bush. They had a little history to make up for.

You can understand, too, the sensitivities of Chile’s head of state, Ricardo Lagos. Just as Dick and Don were on first name terms with President Nixon, Ricardo knew Salvador Allende rather well. He served in Allende’s government. He was exiled under the Pinochet régime, and even imprisoned by the General.

After the photo shoot, the Chilean president was supposed to host a gala dinner for Mr Bush and a few hundred of Santiago’s brightest and best, but the White House insisted on the kind of security measures that would have put diners right off their food. At the last minute, the Chileans decided they couldn’t stomach it, and what was to have been the crowning moment of a state visit turned into a private supper for the two Presidents. Perhaps Mr Bush’s Spanish is more fluent than his English?

The moral of this multi-layered tale of irony is not that history has a way of refusing to lie down. All too often it does exactly that. While the clumsiness of Bush’s War on Terror ruined a nice dinner, the appalling exigencies of Nixon’s Cold War foreign policy turned Chile into one of South America’s grimmest military dictatorships. But the reminder is there just the same.

Democracy’s ‘do as we say or your Government gets it’, seems to have become ‘do as we say or your guest list gets it’. The stakes might be smaller but the power relationship remains the same.

John Howard might be a marvellous English-speaking ally in the War on Terror, but he’s just another passenger on the APEC bus. The next time the government invites you to a barbeque with George, don’t be surprised if the security people put their hands in some pretty awkward places.

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