From my home here, I look up at the immense mountain range of the Andes and my spirits are lifted. Since my childhood, these mountains have bestowed on me a sense of security and permanence sadly absent from my life, but in these troubling times, they afford me something else: an intimation of hope.
Because, exactly 200 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1817, a group of men crossed these very Andes, impenetrable, colossal, majestic, in an extraordinary journey that was to liberate Chile from colonial rule. Their exploits became a turning point in the emancipation of all Spanish-speaking America.
Starting in 1810, across the continent, patriots stirred by the European Enlightenment and encouraged by the successful revolt of the 13 American colonies against their British masters had worked to cast off the imperial yoke of Spain. From Mexico to the Southern Cone, independence movements introduced an array of reforms that make Latin Americans proud to this day.
In Chile, in particular, freedom was the watchword: freedom of the press and freedom to assemble, freedom to elect our own representatives to a National Congress, freedom to trade with any nation and freedom to receive a secular education beyond the stifling reach of the church. And most crucially, my country adopted Libertad de Vientres, the Freedom of Wombs law, which established that any child born of a slave was immediately free.
In spite of these achievements, those first years of Chile’s independence were fraught. Fratricidal conflict between moderates and radicals weakened the cause of reform. By 1814, the Spanish crown had reconquered many of the mutinous territories it had lost, a period known, precisely, as La Reconquista.
In October that year, after defeat at the battle of Rancagua, near Santiago, the remaining contingent of the patriotic army retreated across the Andes to the province of Mendoza, in Argentina, one of the few lands that remained in the hands of the revolutionaries. From there, as they plotted their return, they had to watch the restored Spanish overlords annul the independence movement’s liberal transformations. A Tribunal of Vigilance and Public Security set up a reign of terror — torture, jailings, executions, deportations, expropriations — to curb defiance.
A century and a half later, in 1973, a tyrannical regime of violence visited Chile once more in the name of conservative values and oligarchical interests. The dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet not only attacked the left-wing reforms of Salvador Allende, our democratically elected president who died in that coup, but also systematically erased advances in social and civil rights — indeed, the welfare state — for which generations of Chileans had fought since independence.
After the 1973 military takeover, just as in the dark days of La Reconquista, those opponents of the regime who stayed in the country and those who, like myself, my wife and countless others, became exiles were comforted by the example of how, at the dawn of its sovereign history, our country had been liberated by an epic struggle against fear and subjugation.
We would repeat to ourselves the story of the “Ejército Libertador de los Andes,” the rugged army of patriots who had crossed the same cordillera I contemplate as I write these words. Thousands of troops (many of them former slaves), mules and horses, dozens of scouts and some scores of civilian, auxiliary and medical personnel took a perilous route.
The Argentine general José de San Martín and the Chilean leader Bernardo O’Higgins, both revered as founding fathers of their respective republics, were bold and inventive enough to believe that the Andes would be not a barrier to their search for justice, but a friend. Though hungry, thirsty and exhausted, the insurgents beat the Spanish forces of La Reconquista on Feb. 12, 1817, at the battle of Chacabuco.
Inspired by that distant feat, 20th-century Chileans also found the strength, patience, craftiness and unity to vanquish their oppressor, the Pinochet dictatorship. We did so by occupying every space possible, invading every corner and organization of the country, unshackling our fetters one by one. It took 17 painful years, and many dead and disappeared, but today we enjoy a thriving democracy that is constantly seeking to expand the rights of all people — men, women, immigrants, students, pensioners, workers, artists.
Would that I could say the same of the world at large.
All over the globe, the slow but steady accomplishments of the past are under siege. Worse still, the earth itself is threatened by climate disaster and extinction. The forces of regression and authoritarianism, contemporary avatars of La Reconquista, are on the march in country after country, fueled by ethnic nationalism. Walls are going up along borders as swiftly as the hearts of millions are closing to solidarity. Rights that we had considered unassailable and secure are being eroded.
Not since the iniquity of Hitler and Mussolini have we witnessed such a resurgence of hatred against the Other, even as the United States — one of the countries that led the fight against fascism — is now governed by men who would turn back the clock, and use repression rather than persuasion to obliterate so many gains and glories we took for granted.
Having seen in my own country how easily a proud democracy can be replaced by the most terrifying of tyrannies, I believe it is never too soon to issue a warning about the dangers ahead. If I invoke, 200 years later, the example of those revolutionary patriots who were undeterred in their quest for liberty by catastrophic odds and some of the highest mountains on the planet, it is not because I think that an invasion from abroad is the answer to the daunting challenges humanity faces. It is for what we can learn today about resistance and hope from the Army of the Andes.
Just as those fighters for independence found a sanctuary from which to gather strength, so should the multitudes who struggle now for justice and equality seek a similar haven. From that place of safety, we can hold firm against the forces of fear and reaction, and inch by inch, take back our land — bold in the knowledge that no obstacle is too large, no enemy too mighty, no mountain range of desolation and death too insurmountable.
Each of us occupies some space of respite from the whirlwind, each of us has something to contribute, our own Andes to cross, if we are to prevail. The mountains of Chile tell us that if we are brave enough, resourceful enough, imaginative enough, then nothing in this miraculous world is impossible.
Ariel Dorfman, an emeritus professor of literature at Duke University, is the author of the play Death and the Maiden and the forthcoming novel Darwin’s Ghosts.