Letter #10: El Corrido de Salvador Allende
Everyone Needs To Chill Out About Omicron
Chile has a new president. Gabriel Boric was elected President of Chile in an election where he actually got the most votes in Chile’s history. Sure, incumbents get numbers like this all the time, because they count the votes and publish the numbers, but for a newcomer to get this many votes? That signals the level of enthusiasm felt by the voting population for this candidate. And who is this candidate?
Gabriel Boric has been described as a leftist, but from our research this is literally only because of what he is against. In a world dominated by neoliberal governments, President Boric stands out as one of few national leaders to explicitly declare an intention to move away from neoliberal ideology. This isn’t happening through violent revolution; this is literally democracy working as it always should have. The problem is, in Chile especially, democracy hasn’t really been allowed to work very well at all.
During the Cold War, Chile initially had plenty of successful experience with uninterrupted democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power. That all changed when a man named Salvador Allende was elected President. The list of his accomplishments as President is long, and they include promoting literacy, improving living standards for the poor, and reducing wealth inequality generally through nationalization. However, this came at the price of runaway inflation, which is an almost tired historical trope relating to how progressives ultimately undermine their goals by going too hard, too fast, and causing economic distress and fertile conditions for being overthrown. You hate to see it.
Despite declaring Chile a “Non-Aligned” country (meaning he had no intention of joining either the Soviet or the US sides of the Cold War), President Allende was essentially branded a communist by the Nixon Administration. He had done the thing that tends to get you assassinated: helping too many poor people. Instead of giving him the Kennedy treatment, however, the CIA were sent to help organize a military coup in 1973, which succeeded pretty quickly. President Allende had refused to create any kind of loyal security service or secret police, despite being advised to do so by the Soviets. Allende, realizing all was lost anyway, took matters into his own hands.
Just before the capture of La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), with gunfire and explosions clearly audible in the background, Allende gave his farewell speech to Chileans on live radio, speaking of himself in the past tense, of his love for Chile and of his deep faith in its future. He stated that his commitment to Chile did not allow him to take an easy way out, and he would not be used as a propaganda tool by those he called "traitors" (he refused an offer of safe passage), clearly implying he intended to fight to the end.
Shortly afterwards, the coup plotters announced that Allende had committed suicide. An official announcement declared that the weapon he had used was an automatic rifle.
Pinochet was one of those really bad guys that the United States liked to support. He was a lean, mean, murdering machine. Ironically, before the coup, Allende himself relied heavily on Pinochet to suppress anti-Allende demonstrations, which led to Allende promoting Pinochet to the position he occupied just before the coup. Pinochet did forced disappearances, torture, helicopter death squads, your sort of garden-variety right-wing dictator stuff. Nothing new, really.
There was, however, one way in which Pinochet was doing something new. Part of his deal with the US involved Chile becoming the world’s first experiment in what was then called “The Chicago School” of economics. This ideology - oriented around ruthless privatization of national industries and wealth, the aggressive use of state power to expand and facilitate the exchange and flow of global finance capital, while also deregulating to remove state control of (and ability to prevent) the economy’s excesses, such as inequality, violent crime and pollution - would later come to be known as neoliberalism. 1970s Chile, then, was where neoliberalism really began to take control of the world.
Pinochet ruled over Chile in a military dictatorship until 1990. Chile had zero democracy for 17 crucial years of the nation’s development, and paid a considerable price for the privilege of being neoliberalism’s testing ground. Pinochet and his family got super rich, naturally, and he even had the audacity to try to remain “Senator-for-life” in the Chilean Senate, enjoying considerable support from lawmakers he’d enriched as dictator. By the time he was finally prosecuted in Chilean court for crimes against humanity, he died shortly after being placed on house arrest.
Gabriel Boric’s election, seen in this context, is a huge moment for Latin America and the world. It’s the first time the will of a nation’s people has decided to hold a vote on which economic system they want. The rest of the world gets no choice, whether it’s American ”capitalist” or Chinese ”communist” neoliberalism you get, it always seems to end up being run by billionaires. We don’t want to be too optimistic here, but it’s important to acknowledge historical firsts here. Neoliberalism has killed at least as many people as the 20th Century totalitarian ideologies by this point. This was a reminder that the people can make their voice heard after all, and truly-democratic civilian government has a fighting chance.
Omicron! Everyone’s freaking out because they are starting to feel some symptoms and might have been exposed to someone who got it. Okay, first of all, remember we are in flu/COVID season. As we’ve written before, plenty of evidence suggests lockdowns and travel bans are not effective, and not the answer to any of this. If you got it, you’ll be fine, just do your quarantine. If you didn’t get it, congratulations! You are theoretically free to live a normal life, except - ah sorry - your government has been pushed (collaborated with?) by dishonest media reporting designed to spark panic and a sort of mass hypochondria, into imposing a lockdown or banning travel. Why? Because clicks, that’s why.
Here’s an example, from the storied New York Times:
Ok, so this headline hits most people’s notification centers with just the large title, which is intentionally worded to make you think, if you got the vaccine, that you are totally screwed and you’re totally gonna catch it and - uh, most likely get a mild fever and lose your sense of smell. There’s no reason for other people to be banned from travel, which again is a Constitutional as well as a human right, just because our global interconnected system makes virus transmission easy. That's like buying a horse and carriage because your car’s engine blew a spark plug.
It gets worse when you Google, for example, “do lockdowns work” and you get results like this from the National Institutes of Health. A peer-reviewed epidemiological study that finds the following results:
In New Zealand, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and the UK, early-onset stay-at-home orders and restrictions followed by gradual deconfinement allowed rapid reduction in SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals (t1/2β ≤ 14 days) with R0 ≤ 1.5 and rapid recovery (t1/2γ ≤ 18 days). By contrast, in Sweden (no lockdown) and the USA (heterogeneous state-dependent lockdown followed by abrupt deconfinement scenarios), a prolonged plateau of SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals (terminal t1/2β of 23 and 40 days, respectively) with elevated R0 (4.9 and 4.4, respectively) and non-ending recovery (terminal t1/2γ of 112 and 179 days, respectively) was observed.
This suggests the answer is “yes, lockdowns do work”. The problem then becomes clear, as with the NYT article headline: conflating “preventing infection” (a futile goal at this point) and “preventing serious illness/death” (a very important goal that vaccines still do well). Lockdowns “work” to prevent infection, which means the only timeframe when a lockdown ever had a chance of being effective was in the first two weeks of the first detected case. Without a time machine, nobody has any business suggesting a lockdown. We’re on like the 3rd or 4th wave of a variant. Preventing infection should only be on your mind to the extent that you practice normal measures like washing your hands and wearing masks.
Let’s just everyone chill out. Seriously.
From myself and The Desk staff, we hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.
There will be no Letter next week, in observance of the holidays. See you next year.