When Salvador Allende Told Us Happiness Is a Human Right

Source: The Nation

Now, for the first time, an adviser recalls a remarkable 1971 conversation with Chile’s socialist leader.

On September 11, 1973, a military coup in Chile—assisted by the CIA under orders from President Richard Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger—violently overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, ended his life, and brought to power the murderous dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Shortly after Allende took office, he gave a long interview to the radical French intellectual Régis Debray, who questioned Allende about the Chilean road to socialism, which seemed to contradict the prevailing view that socialism could only be achieved through armed struggle and revolution, not electoral politics. An extended version of that interview appeared in Debray’s book Conversations With Allende, still available from Verso Books.

But there was more to the story, according to Luis Sepúlveda, who was an eyewitness to the interview. In the following excerpt, Sepúlveda—who later became a celebrated novelist and theater producer—reveals for the first time a portion of the interview not found in Debray’s book. It includes an argument that may seem surprising coming from a self-declared Marxist like Allende, though less so when one recalls that Allende was also a medical doctor. Apparently, he attempted to convince the more doctrinaire Debray that happiness is a human right, and that the lack of food, health care, or fair working conditions are all obstacles to achieving it. The goal of progressive movements and governments, Allende continued, should be to overcome such obstacles to happiness for all human beings, everywhere.

To speak today of happiness, of the future, is not easy because to arrive at the definition of happiness requires first specifying what the obstacles to realizing it are. The first time I began to think of this idea of happiness, of the possibility of being happy not only as an individual but as part of a community, of a happy society, was in my country, Chile, in 1971. That year I had the immense honor of serving as an assistant to Comrade President Salvador Allende, as part of his security detail. And I remember that one day in January of 1971 a French journalist and philosopher named Régis Debray, who had been with Che in the guerrilla war in Bolivia and whom Allende himself had helped to save from prison, presented himself at the presidential palace. He had come to conduct an interview with President Allende for Le Nouvel Observateur. Allende decided that some of his comrades could be present, which was his way of saying, “This dialogue will be historic, pay attention to what gets said.”

The conversation went badly because Debray was a man of striking intellectual arrogance, convinced of his own ideas about Marxist theory. Allende was also an intellectual in his own way, but one of great humility who never made a show of his intelligence. In the course of the interview, Debray advanced a series of criticisms of the Chilean model. His criticisms were based on the fact that Chile’s revolutionary process did not match the classical vision of how to make a revolution; it didn’t follow a presumed A-B-C order for bringing about social change. For example, Allende respected political pluralism and strictly respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

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