I wrote this piece two years ago on a different platform, and have decided to share it here on the anniversary of Allende’s death.
Today, on the 45th anniversary of the United States backed military coup that toppled his democratically elected socialist government and ended his life, I read the last public speech of President Salvador Allende of Chile. It can be found in Spanish and English here. The speech was delivered as the military battered down the door, and in recordings of it, you can hear the hammering, and the shouted instructions to Allende to open.
I was struck by one phrase in particular, where Allende regrets that the “calm metal of my voice” “el tranquilo metal de mi voz” will no longer reach his beloved Chileans. It is a stunningly beautiful phrase, a stunningly modern one. What do these two values, beauty and modernity, have to do with the moment they were spoken in?
Beauty has many political uses, not all of them trustworthy. A stirring song in one quavering brave voice, a flag in the breeze, the precision and repetition of a military march; all these tend towards unity, and the aesthetics of unity, tend towards fascism. The goal of a single purpose, a single will, behind the actions of many, is ultimately authoritarian, and can not be trusted to have the interests of those many in mind. But beauty can also create depth of feeling, true empathy, and thus lead to the compassion and solidarity of a just community. Seeing the pain of another distilled to its essence, and knowing you must rise up to their aid; seeing the love between neighbors, friends, lovers; one man’s struggle to do what is right, all these bring us together in remarkable ways. I choose to believe that this is the purpose of the beautiful in Allende’s speech.
As for modernity, there is the sad possibility that Allende, in alluding to “the calm metal of his voice,” was acutely aware of his existence in the lives of the people he served, led, and died for. The only way Allende reached Chile, reached the campesinos and trabajadores who peopled his political hopes and imagination, was as a calm, metal voice, a radio signal. In his last moments, it is achingly clear that Allende was aware that a modern leader is, ultimately, not much more to his people than a tinny voice in a box and a series of images in the newspapers.
What of the calm -or not so calm- metal and digital voices in our own lives? We are 17 years past our own historiographically significant 9/11, in the heart of the empire that reached out and squashed Allende like an annoying insect. Our own politicians are experts in manipulating the series of images and sounds that attest to their existence in our lives. President Bush was a masterful performer and stager of state theater. From his Mission Accomplished landing in a flight suit, to his Texan growling that he wanted Bin Laden, “dead or alive,” Bush and his team crafted images that dominate our senses to this day.
There is a certain anarcho-cynicism in my thinking, and there are days when I wonder: was Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” any more of a ridiculous posturing, a Big Man swaggering above the heads of us little people, than Allende’s calm metal voice? But ultimately, I have to pay attention to context, not just of Bush and Allende’s relative political positions and actions, but of the words themselves. Allende follows his regret that he will no longer reach the Chilean people through their radios with two simple words. “No importa.”
“No importa.” “It does not matter.” By dismissing his own sentimental longing to be able to go on, to keep talking to Chile, Allende makes the most radical point of his whole speech. The radio, the newspaper headlines, the armies marching in the street, the American Empire: they do not matter. Only you matter. You, el campesino. You, the woman worker. You, the youth. You are Chile. You are the People, El Pueblo, and you will go on, forever, in glory and strength.