I wanted to write something about the coup in Honduras, but what with all the moving I haven’t had much time to concentrate on it. I work only in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, so by no means claim to be an expert – or in fact to know anything – about the situation other than what I have been quickly catching these last few days. As I walk around town I’ve noticed that the papers here in Santiago are full of reports and photos, but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and read any yet.

Still, its been nagging on my mind the last few days. I suspect it has something to do with my anxiety about being here, in Chile, having spent to much time in the last few months reading about their dictatorship. I can’t stop thinking about how recent it was. It ended in 1990, which means that people my age will remember.

Now I’m actually here, walking through the streets looking at the faces of people around me, I find myself trying to guess from their age whether they knew life before and during, looking at the buildings wondering if they bare any scars. Violence that affected everyday life, sunk itself deep into the structures of daily routines, the most intimate of spaces: it sticks. Any building could have been a site of… Might have been the backdrop to…

What struck me the most in the books and accounts I read about Chile was the fact that the coup was so unexpected. No one believed that something like that could happen in a country so “advanced” and “modern”. It was a “normal” country, with a strong democracy, not the kind of place where “those things” happen. The day of the coup, September 11th 1973, the police sent out orders to all leftist activists and politicians, to whole swathes of people, telling them to report to the police station. Many went, of their own accord, taking their papers with them and thinking nothing of it. Expected some hassle, maybe to lose their jobs, nothing more serious. But very few of them were ever seen again.

This is what is so hard to comprehend in retrospect, when we look back and try to understand. That they had so little realisation of what was happening, the concept of such violence and disorder was so impossible to imagine, that they handed themselves over without fear or comprehension.

It becomes hard to comprehend a time before, when it still seemed impossible, when we look back from this place here, knowing what we now know. Which is perhaps what makes it so hard to take the lesson we ought to take: that is can happen anywhere, at any time.

I suspect there will be many shrugs of disinterest about Honduras. Just another Latin American country doing what they always do. Indeed there are so many echos: The Independent’s editorial praising the army for rescuing the country from a dangerous potential dictator, who is, in fact, a popular elected left leaning president, could have been lifted strength from the editorials in 1973 that praised Pinochet from rescuing the country from Allende.

Some quick links:

The Latin American Review blog has up to date news and analysis.

From Zmag, an analysis that, among other things, gives some more background on Zelaya the ousted president.

On Chile, I have been reading Steve Stern’s trilogy on the memory of the dictatorship in the last few decades, “Remembering Pinochet’s Chile”. Beautifully written, and a wonderful example of oral history and memory studies. I’d recommend it as a way to learn about either Chile or about memory studies as a field.

I was at an interesting seminar talk yesterday, given by a sociologist called Georgi Derluguian. His topic was roughly the concept of nationalism in the Balkans, but covered a lot of ground. I keep coming back, though, to a comment he made, during a discussion of what he called ‘de-modernisation’. I don’t want to get into the details of whether this is a useful or accurate term so will stick to his reading of it for now, which is that as the Soviet system collapsed/retreated countries like Chechnya have been going through a process of de-modernisation. So, for instance, its not just that tower blocks no longer have running hot water, they are likely never to have hot running water ever again. When the electricity goes out, people go into the back of the barn and hunt out their grandfather’s oil lamp.

Part of his argument (as I heard it) was a critique of the way we assume certain social forms, like feudalism or modernity, are set in a progressive linear relationship, and that once we have evolved through them we cannot return. He used the concept of ‘racketeers’ to describe the aristocrats through much of Balken history – surviving on codes of honour, loyalty and ruthlessness, and through a power and wealth vested in the owning the most advanced weaponry and paying for it with a lively slave trade. The most interesting point being, that he sees this as existing today as much as in the past – guns for horses, steel swords and chain mail; the trade in prostitutes for the trade in agricultural slaves and, well, prostitutes. (The racketeer/mafia code itself being so unchanging it needs no translation.)

Then he posed the question of ‘who is living in the refugee camps in Chechnya?’ The answer being people like teachers, nurses, professors – those who have always relied on wages to survive, and now lack the skills and the families that are necessary to survive by either subsistence farming or by their guns. Once the state collapses they are unable to survive. The people who are thriving are the underclass, the lowest of the low, the most downtrodden of society who, with the collapse of modernity, are able to access the skills and resources of their ancestors. Who reach for their guns and can go back to their fields when necessary.

Its an interesting argument. It nicely demonstrates that, either way, outside of modernity the middle-classes are fucked.