When one of the panellists on the CBC radio’s Canada Reads program started throwing the T word at a Chilean-Canadian author a few weeks ago, I started listening—via podcast of the third episode. And then I read Carmen Aguirre’s remarkable memoir, Something Fierce: Revolutionary Daughter.

In the first episode, Anne-France Goldwater had denounced Aguirre as a terrorist because of her involvement in the resistance to the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s.

Over the past decade, even wildly unsubstantiated accusations of terrorism have seen people banned from flying, imprisoned without charge, or shipped off-shore for torture.

In the third episode, Goldwater invoked the terrorist slur against the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), now the political party that governs El Salvador.

Here’s what Goldwater said about the FMLN:

“I am also married to a Latino and he’s from Salvador and he fought in that army, but not on the side of the terrorists. This was a terrorist group. She [Aguirre] is supporting them. Tell me how you justify as a Canadian when somebody is supporting a terrorist group of another country.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Goldwater notwithstanding, most of us (including those who opt for non-violent resistance) can sort out the differences between movements of armed resistance against the vicious regimes in Chile, El Salvador and South Africa in the 70s and 80s and the attacks on civilians carried out by groups like El Qaeda in recent years.

Here’s what Aguirre told CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos about how she understands the distinction:

If you’re targeting civilians, then you are a terrorist. So if you’re a black civilian in apartheid South Africa, fighting for your rights, and you believe that sometimes you need to defend yourself in a violent manner—because the oppressor is the one that always defines the nature of the struggle, not you—I don’t believe that’s terrorism.”

“The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

– Archbishop Oscar Romero, November 27, 1977

Aguirre’s book—the eventual winner of Canada Reads—tells the story of her family’s participation in an underground movement that worked to end Chile’s military dictatorship. She is a great story-teller. The book moves easily from a child’s view of forces she cannot fully understand to a mature woman’s appreciation of processes of social change in Latin America.

In October 1988, Pinochet botched a plebiscite campaign and the people voted to end his regime. In December1989, Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, was elected president. But undoing the toxic effects of Pinochet’s system-wide changes (economy, delivery of social services, role of the armed forces, etc.) has proven to be difficult.

As recent student-led demonstrations show, Chileans are still struggling  to undo damage wrought by the dictators. But with the exception of Colombia (where insurgencies persist), politics now take place in ballot boxes, social forums, alternative summits, social media and in the streets as people press for changes that benefit everyone, not just the old elites.


One Response to Something Fierce: The T word

  1. Paul McGuire says:

    That’s when I started listening too. Goldwater has motivated me to read Aquirre’s book. I can’t believe she called the FMLN a terrorist organization – I missed that episode!


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