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Acclaimed Chilean Writer Isabel Allende on Death of Pablo Neruda, the 1973 Chilean Coup & Trump

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Acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende, an award-winning author who has written 23 books, including “The House of the Spirits,” “Paula” and “Daughter of Fortune.” Her latest novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” is a love story that explores the plight of immigrants and refugees. Her books have been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 until September 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup. Salvador Allende died in the palace that day. Isabel Allende would later flee from her native Chile to Venezuela.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour with Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’s greatest novelists. She’s the author of 23 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. Her latest is a novel titled In the Midst of Winter, a love story that still manages to explore the issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees. Her books have been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world.

Isabel Allende now lives in California. She was born, though, in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 until the September 11th, 1973, coup, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup. Salvador Allende died in the palace that day. Isabel Allende would later flee from her native Chile to Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights recently opened a new exhibit documenting the United States’ intervention in the coup. “Secrets of the State: The Declassified History of the Chilean Dictatorship” features declassified documents from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House and State Department. This is the museum director, Javier Estévez.

JAVIER ESTÉVEZ: [translated] These documents speak. They speak of everything that was the CIA operation, in its moment, in 1970, with the knowledge of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, to keep Allende from assuming the presidency of the republic. This is a drama. It really touched the whole world. And, of course, you cannot understand how a country like the United States participated so openly in a military coup like the one that happened in Chile.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Isabel Allende in our studio. It’s great to have you back with us.

ISABEL ALLENDE: It’s always great to be here, Amy.



JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: We have a lot to talk about. You have a new book out, In the Midst of Winter, which actually is based here in New York—in Brooklyn, to be exact. But we also wanted to talk, since we haven’t spoken on the show since President Trump came to power—I actually wanted to start not here in the U.S., but in Chile. On another September 11th, 1973, you were there, in Chile, in your country. Describe what happened and how you saw your country change.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, Chile had been the longest and most solid democracy in the continent. And we elected a socialist president that represented a coalition of parties of the left and the center, Salvador Allende. And immediately, the CIA and the forces of the right in my country tried to stop him from becoming the president. But eventually, that was impossible, and he assumed the presidency in 1970.

And the next three years were years of political, social and economic crisis in Chile, because the government was sabotaged by the right and by foreign forces, as well. The CIA intervened, and Allende denounced that many times. Nobody believed it, because it was like the story of the bad wolf, you know? Ah, the CIA was always blamed for everything in Latin America. The worst thing that you could say to any Latin American is, “Oh, he’s an agent of the CIA.” Yeah, that’s the worst insult.

And so, on September 11th, also a Tuesday, 1973, we woke—we had been hearing that there could be a coup, but we didn’t know what that was. We never had had that. We woke up to the sound of helicopters and airplanes and tanks in the streets. People who didn’t have time to hear the news didn’t stay home, and so there were workers in the streets waiting for buses that never came. I went to my—tried to get to my office, and the office was closed.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing then?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I was a journalist. And the building was closed, was locked. And the streets were empty, except for the military tanks and trucks.

So, during that day, it was all just rumors. We didn’t know what was going on. But I saw the bombing of the presidential palace, the Palacio de La Moneda. And we could not believe it. It is as if the armed forces in the United States would bomb the White House. I mean, it’s something that we can hardly imagine. And then, in a matter of 24 hours, the Congress was dismissed. All political parties were declared illegal. There was no free press, no public opinion therefore. All institutions were banned, all forms of communication and gathering, except the Catholic Church. That actually played a very important role in defending the people who were victims of repression.

Everybody in Chile, me included, thought that this was a sort of historical accident, and in a couple of weeks maybe, the military would call elections, and we would go back to democracy. In the minds of everybody was the idea that the president would be, possibly, Eduardo Frei, who was a Christian Democrat and was a very conservative man. And that would probably be the option.

AMY GOODMAN: Your cousin, Salvador Allende, had died in the palace.

ISABEL ALLENDE: He had died in the coup. And so, that was something that was in the air. But, of course, that was not the plan of the military. They had done this to be in power. And they stayed in power for 17 years. The first few years were brutal repression. Then the repression became much more targeted. So it wasn’t as if anybody just could be arrested in the office, as it was at the beginning, or in the street or at home. It was very targeted. By then, I was out. I had left my country. And that is what happened. And it’s only much later that—after Pinochet left and we have democracy, that all this information about how things happened has come up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and still information is coming out, the news recently about Pablo Neruda, probably the most famous—at that point, the most famous Chilean in the world—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, yes, yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in terms of the findings that the Nobel laureate, Neruda, did not die of cancer in 1973 as stated on his death certificate. And he died just a couple of weeks after the coup—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and bolstering claims that Neruda was poisoned under General Pinochet’s rule. And Neruda’s driver has claimed he was poisoned by a stomach injection administered by doctors. Neruda had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was a close friend of the ousted president, Allende. But now forensic experts say they’ll need up to a year to determine the true cause of Neruda’s death. Your reaction to this?

ISABEL ALLENDE: One of the reasons to suspect is because Eduardo Frei was killed the same way, in a very mysterious way. He went to the same clinic and mysteriously died of a sudden bad development of a minor surgery. And now it’s been proven that he was poisoned. And so, the suspicion is that the same happened to Neruda, because if Neruda would have lived, he would have gone into exile. The same day of the coup, every country in the world was offering asylum to Pablo Neruda. There were telegrams coming from everywhere offering to take him out of the country and give him a home somewhere else. So he would have been a voice against the dictatorship, a voice against the military. And it’s very possible that they decided to eliminate him, as they eliminated people here in Washington, as well. Letelier was assassinated in Washington.


ISABEL ALLENDE: In 1976. So, that is a possibility, but it has not been proven, so I cannot really talk about it. I don’t know anything more than you do.

AMY GOODMAN: But can you talk, though, about the significance of who Pablo Neruda was?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Pablo Neruda was our national poet. To give you an idea of the impact of his poetry, Pablo Neruda was the candidate for the presidency right before Allende was. We don’t have primaries in Chile. But at the time, the idea was that Allende had been a candidate in three previous elections, and he was sort of cursed. He was never going to be president. He would make the joke that in his tomb it would say, “Here lies the future president of Chile.” So, it was a joke, really. And so, they decided to have Pablo Neruda as a candidate for the left, because he was known everywhere. And he did—he traveled the country in a train, and the train would stop in stations. And the people would gather. And the people would recite back to him his poetry in a choir. And this was coal miners, fishermen, workers in the country. So, that’s the impact he had. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you at his funeral?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course I was at his funeral. Very few people could go, because he died—he died on—I think it was September 22nd, 11 days after the coup, when all his people from his party—he belonged to the Communist Party—people from the left, friends, intellectuals, journalists, were either arrested or hiding somewhere, and it was very hard to show up. But I went. And I remember that the ambassador of Sweden was there, a very tall man in a long black coat. And I just stood behind him, holding onto his coat. And I thought, “No one is going to shoot him,” because there were soldiers with machine guns along the road all the way to the cemetery.

And at the beginning, the procession was in silence. And then, at some point, the workers in a construction building—in a building, shouted, “Compañero Pablo Neruda!” And everybody responded, “Presente!” And then somebody else shouted, “Compañero Salvador Allende!” And we all shouted, “Presente!” So the funeral of the poet became a sort of symbolic funeral of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, then come back to talk about your latest book, In the Midst of Winter. Our guest is the great writer Isabel Allende. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Gracias a la Vida,” “Thanks to Life,” by Chilean musician and composer Violeta Parra. Our guest knew her in Chile.

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Chilean Writer Isabel Allende’s New Novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” Examines Immigrant Lives & Love

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