New Internationalist

Fear Eats The Soul

Issue 161

new internationalist
issue 161 - July 1986

[image, unknown]
Photo: Jackie Morris
Fear eats the soul
Governments that brutalize and intimidate their citizens
feed on fear. Their actions, often arbitrary and usually violent,
paralyze both the ability to think and the will to act. Lake Sagaris
reports from Chile on the psychology of violence.

IT'S now more than a dozen years since the Generals stormed to power in Chile, bringing with them a climate of terror which penetrated every corner of society. Fear is everywhere. It is lurking in the sudden nudge, the frown, the exaggerated silence that greets a strongly felt political remark. It's evident in the way a companion starts, ready to flee, when an unknown car slows to a stop beside you.

Chile wasn't always like this. The streets, the media, classrooms, churches, and farms once teemed with political debate.

That seems like another age now. The 1973 military rebellion against Salvador Allende's socialist government has faded into history. But General Augusto Pinochet still rules Chile and his regime's tactics of terror will shape the country's psyche for generations. About 650 people have 'disappeared' since 1973 according to Amnesty International, and systematic torture of political detainees continues.

Jaime Hales, one the country's most outspoken human-rights lawyers, believes that Chile represents a classic case of state terrorism. He cites the excessive amount of force used to take control in 1973, the presence of a secret police force with broad powers, the arbitrary creation of laws to 'legitimize' any of the regime's acts, and the presence of ultra-conservative hit-squads, which function with all the resources of the State while not officially part of it.

In Chile, the initial brutality felt by everyone after the coup gave way to the more selective techniques employed by the DINA/CNI, Chile's political police. Dawn arrests, harrowing torture sessions, the use of drugs and hypnosis all became common, affecting not only the direct victims but also their relatives and friends.

In recent years the Government has mixed its techniques of repression (military operations in whole communities, mass arrests, the use of sports stadia as prisons and torture centres) with a focus on individuals, family and friends.

The psychological tactics are clear. 'This has all been very carefully worked out,' says Dr Juan Perez, a specialist working with child victims of repression. He goes on: 'for example, anything that comes from above is extremely frightening to human beings, so helicopters are used a lot.'

'Democracy now and better housing': after years of silence Chileans are finding their voice and taking their protest to the streets.
DOCE / Camera Press

The impact of military rule on Chileans' mental health is notorious. The Catholic Church estimates as many as 80 per cent of citizens require treatment for psychological problems. Again, it is not only the direct victims who suffer. Pain and dread spill over into other lives.

Widespread harassment of the population has created a phenomenon of collective terror,' says Dr Mario Insunza, a member of the Catholic Church's human rights section. . It's a way of preventing a response. It affects lower, middle and upper-class people alike, and produces a mental health problem.'

This view is borne out by Dr Jorge Vega, who works at the Santiago Psychiatric Hospital. He has found that the twin extremes of poverty and fear in the country have combined to produce new pathologies.

'Patients don't want to get better,' he says. 'When we try to release them, they get sick again. The reason is clear they don't want to return home to unbearable living conditions. It's safer inside the institution.'

Fear is a debilitating illness. It corrodes people's minds and makes them inert. And it eats into the very soul of social relationships. People lose the ability to do things that others in freer societies take for granted - like arguing about politics, joining a union or protesting government policy. University professor Dr Carlos Jerez points out that 'after many years without a democratic system, people don't know how to speak or participate'.

But little by little, political life is reawakening. The first major protests against the regime began in 1983, the result of actions that at times seemed too minor ever to bring about change. A student at the university after the coup describes the first steps taken to rebuild Chile's once active student movement:

'This was a time when more than two or three people weren't even allowed to stand together on the street. We just wanted to find a way to bring people together. We decided the way to do it was to play a guitar in the cafeteria at lunchtime. When we finally got the nerve to play, the response was tremendous. Everyone gathered round and we played for hours.'

From this simple beginning a full-blown student federation developed. Other groups are organizing too. And they're finding that taking part in public demonstrations gives them strength - a sense of power that carries beyond fear into cool courage.

The Chilean authorities retaliate with more armoured trucks, more teargas, more water cannons and more arrests. But there is a chink in their armour: people are no longer petrified. They are beginning to move again, to think and to act to end this chapter of Chile's history.

Lake Sagaris is a Canadian journalist based in Santiago.

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