Trapped by our history

Photographer: Ricardo Inostroza V

When asked this week about cooperating with Chile in the judicial investigations of the Pinochet dictatorship, President Obama said “we will certainly consider.. and like to cooperate,” but we should not be “trapped by our history.”

I wish he had said something like, ”Of course.  Such an investigation would set us free from that history.”  For a President who understands teaching moments, such a course of action has the potential to set us free, not trap us.  Free from a past which even he admitted had been “at times rocky…and difficult.”

It’s not as if the President is adverse to drawing on historic teaching moments.  In fact, he was eager to draw other lessons from history, lessons about Chile’s and much of Latin America’s democratic transitions in the past 25 years.   For obvious reasons, he wanted to contrast that experience with what is happening in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries right now.   His guiding principle in our approach to the democratic movements in that part of the world has been that he wants the “U.S. to be on the right side of history.”

I think I know what he was getting at, and who he was speaking to.  He had his lawyer hat on for the part on judicial investigations and his teacher hat on for the part about democracy.  He was probably also speaking to the large number of people in Latin America who think like and agree with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who seems to view the U.S. only through the prism of our past behavior, as if we were still operating as we did in the lead-up to Pinochet.

My guess is that such an investigation would further uncover an involvement that we would not be proud of.  The fact of the matter is much of what is already known about the efforts to derail the election and Presidency of  Salvador Allende from 1970 through the Pinochet coup and human rights abuses  comes from our efforts to date in declassifying documents.   But, while those documents uncover a strategy to destabilize Chile, they also show that real responsibility for the human rights abuses lies with Pinochet and his ilk, freeing us from perceptions that we were dictating to the dictators.    Our behavior in the broader context of the Cold War would not excuse our involvement, but could serve as a reminder that its outcome in 1973 was far from guaranteed.

The irony is that we would be more trapped were we not to help the Chileans get to the root of what happened.    Since President Obama was asked about this nearly 40 years after the fact, it is conceivable that a President 40 years from now would continue to be asked.  That’s being trapped.

Such cooperation would intrinsically demonstrate our break with that past, sending a loud message to the Chavistas and others throughout the region and beyond that we have turned the page, that we have freed ourselves, and are truly now on “the right side of history.”

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