Society

The House of the Spirits: South America faces its ghosts

LABS journalist and columnist on the recent political events in a hectic region

I can’t remember if I listened to one of her lectures or interviews or, instead, read the story in which Chilean writer Isabel Allende says that, due to the lack of a divorce legal figure in Chile, she or a friend spent her mornings reading obituaries in Chilean newspapers to find out if the spouse was dead, allowing them to remarry. This was Chile until 2004.

On her website, I came across the following story: “My parents’ marriage was a disaster from the start. One day, around my third birthday, my father went for cigarettes and never came back. This was the first major loss of my life (…). On top of that, there was no divorce in Chile. It was the only country in the galaxy without divorce.”

I always remember this story when I think of Chile: the conservative country whose dictator died in a warm bed at the age of 91, owner of billionaire accounts abroad and buried with military honors, despite his proven past as a bloodthirsty repressor. In Argentina, the same would never happen, and General Videla, for example, known local executioner, died serving a life sentence, succumbing to diphtheria, sitting on the toilet, according to the local Medical Examiner Office’s report.

Back to Chile’s case, a country that many journalists said it had found economic peace amidst this impoverished continent, the largest laboratory of neoliberalism in the neighborhood, with the apparent prosperity of a European country. So when violent protests broke out against President Sebastián Piñera, with war scenes in the streets of Santiago, piles of dead piling up in newspaper lines and a curfew on Chilean nights, compatible only with more tyrant regimes; many were caught by surprise.

We, the international correspondents who devoted ourselves to this fair share of the world, rushed like dizzy cockroaches between Ecuador’s insurgencies, Bolivian elections, and the best student of the neoliberal class, who was entering into late rebel adolescence, the improbable Chile. Meanwhile, the cherry on top – as if the continent were not large and diverse for our small hands eagerly reaching the keyboards on our laptops – a coming election in Argentina.

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Many of us managed to see as isolated phenomena the new directions of Latin America, with native peoples coming to the streets, previously unspoken populations clashing with police forces, troubled elections and, to our astonishment, an apparent calm in Venezuela, our rebel, with or without a cause, quiet.

We might or might not see causality in so many events in the same region. We could or could not analyze what happens separately, with the peculiarities of each country. Experts split up. Personally, I believe, after so many years reporting from this portion of the world, that we are in a reinvention process that goes beyond parties, strong ideologies, and particular claims. We are decolonizing ourselves from a failed system. As journalists, we hardly believe in coincidences. Except when they happen in places like Latin America, so strangely connected, despite its idiosyncrasies.

When the streets of Chile began to yell, all I thought about was the homes of poet Pablo Neruda, at times when I went more to Neruda than to Chile, visiting his three houses, drinking from his poetry to understand that country. My first flight was during a spectacular sunset, gliding from Mendoza to Santiago over the mountain range, in a sea of snow and rosy sky almost a decade ago. Gradually these images were being replaced by calls for help. My phone was flooded with photos of violence from colleagues and strangers from there. They asked for help from the international press. The videos were so barbaric and the degree of arbitrariness with which the “carabineers” – the Chilean police – acted was so loud, that something about me did what you should not do as a journalist: they briefly shut me up.

One of the first books I read as a teenager was the “The House of the Spirits” by writer Isabel Allende. I still remember that my youthful imagination literally translated the story. I imagined spirits like those of Alan Kardec, generations who did not leave one another, ghosts who came to visit from the past. It was not until years later that I saw the great metaphor behind Chile’s three-generation story: the plot spoke more of a South America populated by the dominance of tyranny, patriarchy, silent violence disguised as state, and a reality ingrained in a continent that grew up in the shadow of cultural colonization and despots who subjected a civilization to underdevelopment. They were, indeed, spirits. However, they were spirits who represented the soul of generations and generations of a continent with clear marks of social classes, political earthquakes, economic uncertainty, and cruel dictatorships.

In those days where the tectonic plates of America are moving, on my flight from Brasilia to Buenos Aires, where I am about to cover the Argentine presidential elections, I had been thinking about the ghosts of Latin America that, for me, have each time more and more to do with men’s direct action. The man who overlaps the man, the spirit of domination that subjugates the civilization. These are our ghosts since Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina dived into the sea centuries ago. One civilization bumped into others, destroyed, rebuilt, reinvented and today, belatedly, we are recovering identity.

The great house of spirits, the Latin American continent, has spent five hundred years wondering who its ghosts are. Are they inconsistent like social inequality? Are they incongruous like the regimes imposed on the other side of the continent upon us? Are we the parallel of civilizations that have never adapted to their despots? Will we be able to rebuild, accepting what has come to us over the centuries, while recreating our personality as a continent?

In this battle between civility and identity, I find myself wondering if we are going to be an anthropophagic movement that, when faced with our past, will be devoured by it, or whether we will be reborn as a phoenix from the ashes of what we once were, recreating with an ability that the vicissitudes of history have given us.

Once again I think of another author who wrote a piece of our history, Eduardo Galeano who, during the Indignados Movement in Spain, said that the “world was pregnant with another world.” It seems we are going into labor in Latin America.