Ariel Dorfman went into exile the day after Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was ousted in an American-backed coup in September 1973.
What followed were 17 years of military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet and the murder, detention, torture and disappearance of tens of thousands of Chileans.
During this time, the exiled Dorfman used what his friend and fellow writer, Andre Brink, describes as a “keen scalpel of a mind” to remain a bone in the neck of the Pinochet regime.
The Argentinian-born Dorfman, whose family fled Argentina for Chile in 1943 following the military coup that swept Colonel Peron to power, has perfected myriad literary genres.
Through poetry, children’s books, novels, plays, political essays, screenplays and journalism, he waged an indefatigable quest on the part of the friends, comrades and compatriots who succumbed to Pinochet’s brutality.
A prolific writer in both English and Spanish, his work has explored exile, death, torture, global warming, and the pain of history and memory.
He has also written extensively about September 11, a date that had for 28 years before the World Trade Center attacks been a day of mourning for Chileans.
Allende was ousted with US complicity on September 11 1973, which also fell on a Tuesday.
Dorfman delivered the Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Joburg’s Linder Auditorium this week.
You’ve written extensively about American imperialism and the ways it has sowed misery around the globe.
How has the Barack Obama presidency changed your relationship with America?
My relationship with America is not only about denouncing imperial adventures.
I was brought up as a child there.
I love its people.
I am indebted to its artists, its writers, its jazz and its popular music.
America is also Bob Dylan and Toni Morrison. It’s not just Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
However, as a Latin American who has suffered the incursions of the US and how it has despoiled our countries, it is incumbent on me to speak about how that domination occurs and about finding ways of liberating ourselves.
The Obama administration is a wonderful moment for the US and the world. We still have to see whether Obama will be trapped by America’s imperial history, or whether he will escape from it.
Ten years after the terror attacks, have Americans, as you wrote at the time, seized ‘this trial as an opportunity for regeneration and selfknowledge’?
It’s too soon to tell. When a crisis occurs, you can use it for war or peace. America did not pass the test.
George W Bush used the emotion and togetherness, and hijacked it for the worst of purposes.
I fear that the way the US has reacted to this unjustified terror against them has been to militarise itself.
The freedoms that make America so proud are seen as if they are detrimental to the security of the US, and I don’t think that’s true.
America has been gripped by fear, and that fear has been used against American people and against the rest of the world.
What are your thoughts on the radical shifts in politics in several Latin American countries, where Chavez, Morales, Lula, Kirchner, Bachelet are committed to finding socialist solutions to their people’s problems?
This list is a very disparate group of people and from the distance of South Africa they look like they are all cut from the same cloth.
I’m critical also of this new left in Latin America.
I’m not in lock step with them necessarily.
I protested against Ortega in Nicaragua because I think he’s curtailing many liberties.
Symbolically, you have new protagonists who are stepping into the centre of history.
The most notable is Evo Morales.
Bolivia has never had an indigenous leader.
He has led his country to a new form of justice never seen before.
Michelle Bachelet became the president of a major Latin American country, not because she was the wife of somebody but because of her own merits as minister of health and minister of defence, and of her own humanity.
In Brazil, you have Lula.
He’s a worker. He worked for many years in the metal industry.
It’s not just that the trade unionists have a say, but that a trade unionist is the president.
Workers, indigenous people and women are central to Latin American history, and through 500 years have never had executive power ever.
Something very drastic is happening.
There is a movement to change the forms of power and how power is exercised.
The neo-liberal consensus is breaking down.
It indicates that instead of putting budget cuts and private investors at the centre of your policies, you put the needs of the people at the centre of your policies.
Why did you choose Memory and Justice as the theme for your Mandela lecture?
I felt that given the parallel processes of Chile and South Africa – we have had a similar history of oppression, of struggle, we both have TRCs, and have had similar transitions to democracy – as a writer I could bring a perspective from Latin America that would illuminate the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the enormous challenges ahead.
It’s full of story telling and I showed a film in the middle.
I wove these into questions about memory, asking whether memory is possible if there is no justice, and how we determine and create a common memory between people who disagree violently.
General Pinochet died in 2006 before being brought to justice.
Where were you when you heard of Pinochet’s death, and what thoughts or emotions did it evoke in you?
There was a measure of justice because he was detained in London, spent 18 months under house arrest, and was humiliated by this.
He was indicted for hundreds of cases of human rights violations in Chile.
He lived his last eight years under a barrage of lawsuits.
They did not leave him alone.
He did not die in peace.
I was in Chile at the time finishing a film on my memoir.
My dream for Pinochet was that he should stand trial and the trial, as I saw it, was that he wound up spending his afterlife looking into the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of people he ordered to be tortured, murdered or sent into exile.
Pinochet had been such a part of my life that to live without him was difficult.
My impression is that his shadow still contaminates our country, just as apartheid still contaminates yours.
Do you still believe in socialism as the only path to a just and equitable society?
What is socialism?
I reject labels because they don’t mean anything. I’m a human rights activist and anywhere where people are trampled on I will protest.
I’m wary of anyone who has participated in a liberation struggle and who does not continue on that path, and who uses the former struggle as a liberator to become corrupt, engage in cronyism or become a thug.
You described South Africa yesterday as being both tragic and beautiful.
Is that what you see happening here?
South Africa is a most wondrous nation.
It has a richness of people, of languages, of resources, history and of colours of all sorts.
Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen a bubbling over of ideas.
People are debating the information law, poverty, xenophobia, the health and education systems, babies dying in hospital.
It’s clear that the story of South Africa has not found fruition.
We must recognise that a lot has been done, but it’s also clear that if you go along this path, the result is going to be a country divided, very violent and very insecure.
What is astonishing is there seem to be more security firms than schools or hospitals.
I see Chubb everywhere.
A country where the prosperous have to live in fear of the 75% of people ‘out there’ is one that will end up unhappy.