It can’t happen here. That’s an avowal I have been hearing from Americans ever since my family and I, fleeing a dictatorship in our native Chile, finally came to settle in the United States in 1980.
What happened to you in Chile can’t happen here. Democracy in the US is too stable, the institutions too deeply rooted, the people too much in love with liberty.
Weary of wandering, desperate for refuge, I wanted to believe that the American experiment would not abide tyranny. And yet I remained sceptical, stubbornly wary. I had pronounced similar words about Chile, and had also once succumbed to the illusion that democracy in the land I called my own could never be destroyed, that it “couldn’t happen here”.
Chilean democracy in the early 1970s, like that in the US, was imperfect: we had our share of civil strife, the persecution of minorities and workers, disproportionate influence of big money, restrictions of voting rights and women’s empowerment and purging of immigrants and foreigners. But the system was robust enough for the left, led by Salvador Allende, to envisage the possibility of building socialism through peaceful, electoral means rather than violence – a unique experiment in social justice that, for the three years of Allende’s government from 1970 to 1973, opened the doors to the dream of a Chile free of exploitation and injustice.
And then came the military coup of 11 September 1973 that, with the active backing of President Richard Nixon’s intelligence agencies, overthrew Chile’s constitutional government. The reign of terror that followed was to last for almost 17 years, comprising extrajudicial executions and disappearances, torture and imprisonment on a vast scale, exile and widespread hounding of dissidents. The repression that afflicted those victims was not accidental. It was a way of teaching millions of Allende’s followers that they should never again dare to question the way power was organised and wealth was distributed in the world.