To The Eyes Of Children
issue 174 - August 1987
Illustration: Clive Offley
To the eyes of children
Easter Sunday in Valparaiso, a picturesque old Pacific seaport.
Its hills, harbour and funicular railways are a visual reminder of
the city's rich heritage. But its inhabitants also have a
more recent history to pass on to their children.
Vicente has forgotten to buy Easter eggs for the children - not too surprising as up until a few years ago the Easter paraphernalia of chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies was virtually unknown in Chile. A hasty visit to the corner store to buy what's needed and the cache of eggs is hidden for Sarita aged eight and Mario aged six to discover.
In Germany, where the custom originated, eggs and bunnies are symbols of fertility welcoming the arrival of spring - and a hunt around the garden for them is a first chance for the children to escape their snowbound houses. April in Chile, which is very much in the Southern hemisphere, is actually the beginning of Autumn, leaving puzzled parents with the suspicion that what they are really celebrating is the universal appeal of chocolate.
The fertility/chocolate ritual over, it is time for a stroll with Vicente and the children round Valparaiso. 'Paradise Valley' may be too generous a description of the city. But built on a series of hills around a bay it does have a spectacular setting which has inspired elegies from most of Chile's poets - including Pablo Neruda.
'Santiago,' he says 'is a captive city behind walls of snow. Valparaiso, on the other hand, throws its doors wide to the infinite sea, to its street cries, to the eyes of children.'
Well I've brought a couple along to see what they can spot. At the moment Sarita and Mario are out of earshot, careering down a precipitous flight of steps to the seafront. But this in any case is the kind of place you can smell as much as see. The city has a pungent character all of its own, with the seedy aroma that hangs over most old seaports. And Valparaiso has had a bawdier, rougher reputation than most, notorious for the bars and brothels that have catered for the transient maritime population. These services are still available, says Vicente, as we walk through some of the back streets, though there's not much evidence of them on a Sunday morning.
There is also a distinctly British flavour here, with street names like 'Arturo Edwards', and 'Lord Cochrane' and a ceremonial arch with an imperial lion presiding over the scene. It was from Valparaiso that British firms built up their commercial domination of Chile; by 1849 fifty of them controlled most of the country's exports - of copper, for example and of the nitrate that was fertilizing much of European agriculture.
Lord Cochnane, in case you were wondering, is another of Chile's national heroes - a seafaring British aristocrat who led the Chilean navy to a famous victory against the Spanish during the War of Independence, and is rather better known in Chile than his home country.
Most of today's seafaring is more peaceful - if you are not a fish that is. Crowds congregate on the beach with their shopping bags to meet the brightly coloured fishing boats being hauled up on their rollers.
On a grander scale, a huge refrigerated container ship, the Asian Reefer, is accumulating an enormous fruit salad. Half a million boxes of apples and grapes bound for Philadelphia are being packed into the hold. Much of Chilean farming land has been transformed into a huge orchard over the last 20 years or so as fruit has become the most profitable crop. Easter Sunday or not, a constant stream of container trucks is grinding its way towards the waiting ship.
We are headed for the hill that rises directly behind the port. We don't have to climb it, thank goodness, but can take one of the 20 or so funicular lifts that for the last hundred years have been hauling people and goods up the 45-degree incline from the seafront to the shanty towns that cover the hilltops. The one which we take, the Artilleria, has tracks laid on a rickety and rotten-looking wooden framework and creaks into action under pressure from a series of rusty cogwheels. The precariously mounted cabin seems to make it to the top more by force of habit than by engineering logic.
But it lifts us to a spectacular view. Behind us the ramshackle houses cling to the hillside. Down below, the Asian Reefer is still patiently packing in the fruit And further along the coast you can see the apartment blocks of Viña del Mar, Chile's most fashionable beach resort, now filling up with weekend tourists from Argentina and Uruguay.
Vicente points out their family house on a hill in the distance and provokes a long series of other questions from the children.
'What are all those grey ships over there?'
'That's the navy'
'And that building over there?'
'That's the Marine Infantry Barracks.' This is a collection of low buildings with a single marine on guard at the gate. Behind is a small basketball court and beyond it a square five-story building.
'What do they do there?' asks Sarita, clambering up onto the stone balustrade for a better view.
'That's where I was taken prisoner.'
'Why did they do that?'
'Because they were friends of Pinochet.' Vicente is a doctor. He was arrested 10 years ago after treating someone who was later captured and under torture gave Vicente's name. They thought he might lead them to other people in the same group.
'Was Pinochet there too, Daddy?'
'No, he was in Santiago.'
'What did you do there?'
'They asked me questions. You see that basketball court down there?
'Well there used to be a small wooden hut behind that and they used to keep me there blindfolded.'
'Why were you blindfold, Daddy?'
'That was just the rules of the place. Then each day we sat outside on the basketball court waiting to be interrogated. They would beat us and give electric shocks. They used to call it the "Laughing Palace".'
'Why did they call it that, Daddy?'
'They just did. About 10,000 people passed through there. Nowadays lots of people come up here to remind themselves what it was like. I spent ten days there before going to a concentration camp.' After this the conversation drifts off onto another tack - to the number of Easter eggs still to be eaten - as we walk back down the narrow streets dodging small boys screaming past on makeshift skate boards.
Just to complete the story, Vicente spent a year in the camp before being exiled to Canada. Now he has returned to Chile and is practising in Valparaiso. But the atmosphere for doctors is very different from the heady days of Popular Unity.
'At one time Chile had a National Health Service that was the envy of many other countries. Newly qualified doctors would spend five years looking after the health of a whole region. At the end of that period they were guaranteed a hospital job if they wanted one.
'All that has long since finished. The health service is being dismantled. People pay into private profit-making health insurance schemes if they want decent cover. Facilities in the public hospitals and clinics are almost non-existent. In the public hospital where I work we can go for days without any penicillin and you have to bring your own bandages and surgical alcohol if you want to be sure they'll be available.
'It's the logic of the market-place. Health has to be sold like anything else. Of 900 or so doctors graduating each year there are jobs in the state system for less than half of them. The rest have to set up on their own. Now a doctor like me will earn maybe $100 a month working in a hospital. So I have to have two or three jobs to make ends meet.'
We call the children back from the beach where they have been paddling and head for home. There isn't a lift back up to Vicente's house so it's something of a slow climb taking in the sights including, to my surprise, some elderly graffiti.
'Venceremos' - 'We shall overcome' - proclaims a multi-coloured mural across a crumbling wall.
'Still there after 15 years,' says Vicente proudly. 'It was made to last. We used to urinate in the paint first.'
'Why did you do that, Daddy?', asks Mario.
'Because it made it stick to the wall better - it's very difficult to remove. It was quite a sight, a group of students standing around urinating into paintpots.'
'Why did you put that on the wall?'
'Because we were young and wanted to say what we thought about the Government'
'I hate Pinochet,' says Mario, more loudly than is comfortable and stamping his foot as only six-year olds know how.
We can't help looking around to make sure no-one is in earshot.
It it’s printed it seems true. But you might be having the
You have been highly-selective in the people you quote: human rights workers; ex-prisoners; trade unionists. For an all round picture, shouldn’t we be hearing too from Government supporters and even the police?
Stalker: I chose the people who could help answer the question that had set myself - what is life like in Chile today, and what are the prospects for change? My starting assumption was that the Pinochet regime is unacceptable. Had I wanted to explore whether the dictatorship was on balance a good or a bad thing I would certainly have needed a broader crosssection of opinion. That said, it would have been better to include a greater variety of people because this would have made the issue more interesting. But I was short of both time and pages and the lower priority had to be sacrificed.
Conversations with children may be appealing. But they can only be expected to have a simple view of a world divided into goodies and baddies. Surely this doesn’t help readers understand the complexity of the situation.
Stalker: Adults re-explore the world through the eyes of their children. And it struck me while listening to this conversation how the whole country must now look to people who will paint it with such sad memories.
But it shocked me too that young children have to be exposed to such stories. I was imagining how other young children I know would have reacted under the same circumstances.
As for dividing the world into goodies and baddies, this is less surprising, since it is precisely the atmosphere that a fascist, state tend to create: you are either for or against the leader.
You do seem to be able to move around the country and talk to anyone you like - more than you would be allowed to do in many countries. One does not get the impression that you appreciate such freedoms - you merely use them to build a case against the Government.
Stalker: It is surprising just how much freedom there is in Chile. Much of the opposition press sells openly and there are no restrictions on travel or reporting. And for that we should be grateful. But such liberties are always provisional. The editor of one of the leading opposition magazines was murdered by a death squad last year and while I was in the country the homes of several foreign correspondents were ransacked.
There are many personal details which have as much to do with yourself as with Chile. Do these really help us understand the country?
Stalker: Visiting any country, even for a journalist, offers a much broader experience than the acquisition of information. And I think it does help to pass on some of that atmosphere a lot of which can only be expressed through personal reaction, it gives readers, I hope, an indication of how they themselves might feel if they had the privilege of visiting the country.