Watching the scenes of scuffles and journalists being kicked out of Donald Trump’s political rallies made this blogger recall something that happened to a colleague in Santiago way back in the 1980s. In 1984 the Pinochet regime created its own political party, the Avanzada Nacional (AN), whose members usually had ties to the military. Tim Frasca, who had arrived in Chile the previous year, attempted to cover one of their gatherings, and offers this account of an “uncomfortably rapid education in Chilean politics” during this period:
The regime’s grip was weakening by 1983 in the country when I arrived, but it was still very much in control when I attended a rally of Avanzada Nacional in Santiago’s Caupolicán Theatre the following year, thinking I would get a taste of the ultra-right worldview by direct observation. AN was one of the dozens of political groupings then in existence, including all the banned leftist parties now functioning more or less openly despite the ongoing risks. I knew they were fanatically loyal to the military regime but was entirely unprepared for what that meant.
I didn’t show my press badge when entering as it didn’t occur to me that I would need to huddle with other reporters. (I later learned that none of the openly opposition Chileans I had become friendly with would be caught dead at an AN rally—though perhaps that is an unfortunate turn of phrase.)
I climbed to the bleachers in an upper tier and pulled out my notebook to collect my thoughts on paper while waiting through the warm-up acts for the Big Guy. There were pro-Pinochet performers and minor political figures, and I casually noticed that the mostly male audience was populated with a lot of burly types you’d more expect to see standing outside the entrance to a popular nightclub.
When Pinochet arrived, the crowd erupted. It dawned on me that this was not a routine event when a crowd of men just to my right, all wearing sunglasses (inside, at night), stood and roared while giving the general the Nazi salute.
It soon became clear that the fact that I had remained seated and was writing something on a pad was attracting a lot of attention. Two of the cheering group came over to ask me who I was and what I was doing, looked at my press pass, and promptly snatched the notebook out of my hands and began to read it with great interest. They didn’t touch me but made it clear that I might want to leave now. I did make a futile effort to recover the notes through the security guards who simply laughed in my face.
My Chilean colleagues laughed at my innocence but also were alarmed and concerned. They told me to be more careful in the future, to ask their advice about where to go, how and with whom. It was only afterward that I realized that AN had a heavy presence of members of the regime’s secret police who were used to acting with complete impunity.
Over the years I quickly learned to recognize the particular barely repressed fury bubbling around a pinochetista march or rally—the instant threats, the demands that you bow to their position (by cheering Pinochet), the hatred of the press (“Tell the Truth!” was their constant chant since it was an article of faith that media hostility was the only thing weakening their hero), and eagerness for violence against the nearest scapegoat. I suspect these are shared characteristics among all authoritarian movements. Isolated protest at a Trump rally is therefore not recommended or tactically appropriate though challenging his backers for control of the streets is another matter.
Postscript: A year or so later, I put together a feature story on Chile’s Jewish community and interviewed the head of the local branch of B’nai B’rith. The Chilean dictatorship—unlike its viciously anti-Semitic counterparts in Argentina and Uruguay—was not particularly hostile to Jews though of course there were Jewish victims of the repression. But when the B’nai B’rith figure expressed mild approval of the dictatorship for its managerial performance, I told him about seeing the Nazi salute at the pro-Pinochet rally. He replied that it was impossible and that it could not have happened. As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is extremely difficult to make a man understand something when his livelihood depends on not understanding it.”
Chile’s state controlled television stations covered AN rallies, but their broadcasts tended to avoid wide shots, which might have revealed the party’s small membership. Pinochet himself seemed to believe the party was a growing force, for its adherents appeared wherever he did. “I have seen this Avanzada Nacional grow from a small child to a man, but we must sow enough energy into it so that it becomes the first, the first among the political parties, the greatest of all,” he told supporters in 1987.
The following year Pinochet lost a one-man presidential plebiscite and in 1989 free elections were held for a new president and congress. Avanzada Nacional failed to win any seats in either the Chilean Senate or Chamber of Deputies.