We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it


Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987


A journey through Pinochet's Chile
Peter Stalker gives a personal report from one
of the world's most enduring dictatorships.

A quick scuffle and a long 'R-R-I-I-I-P!' and the front of my shirt is in tatters. Resistance was a tactical mistake. The first rule in any mugging is to streamline the process: hand the goods over with as much good grace as you can muster. No defensive gestures.

I feel foolish. My first morning in one of the world's most officially violent and repressive countries and I'm set upon by a common-or-garden delinquent. 'This used to be a civilized country,' says the despairing old gent alongside me.

The culprit who, along with my pocket and most of the front of my shirt, is now better off by about $20 worth of Chilean pesos plus a rather smart new pen, rapidly weaves his way through the crowd on the other side of the road. Women selling candy from pavement stalls shake their heads and 'Tut tut' in disapproval - though whether at the impudence of the thief or at my hairy chest I'm not too sure.

This is Santiago, capital of Pinochet's Chile. A first visit and the beginning of an exploration. Yet like many people I have a feeling that I already know it all. This was where the world's first elected president who was avowedly marxist came to power in 1970. He headed the 'Popular Unity' coalition. It was here in 1973 that with the help of Richard Nixon, not to mention ITT, a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet seized power and unleashed a reign of terror and torture that survives to this day.

Demanding the release of prisoners.
Photo: Julio Etchart

What follows is an attempt to update that story. Why is it that this dictatorship has survived so long while many around it have crumbled? After all, neighbouring military governments in Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina have long since been disgraced and dispatched. And how is it that the Chilean people have retained such a combative mood? A new generation has grown up, it seems, demanding a form of government they have never known: democracy.

Some of what follows you might experience yourself as a tourist in Chile - colliding with a foreign culture, feeling your way around strange new cities. The rest is more deliberate journalism. I talked to shanty-town dwellers, politicians and human-rights workers in the hope of unravelling some of the more baffling aspects of a country which gets more surprising the closer you look.

Back to the opening day. Having lost much of my shirt I am now sitting on a bench in the city's main square, the Plaza de Armas. The man sitting next to me (who has a shirt in even worse condition than mine) shakes my hand. He offers the contents of his shoebox for examination. It contains among other items a large silver-painted plastic star and a cracked statue of the Virgin Mary.

'My Holy Mother', he explains, fingering the statue. 'She is coming for me.' The glinting star seems to represent his father. He holds both objects straight out in front of him towards the front of the cathedral which dominates this side of the plaza.

The smart Santiaguinos wandering round the plaza do their best to ignore him as just another derelict (as I might have done myself if he hadn't already roped me into the scene). He's far from drunk, more delirious. 'I am ready!,' he shouts, 'When are they going to come for me?' He insists on an answer.

'I'm not sure,' I offer weakly, when I realize what the question really means. 'My Holy Mother and Father,' he says. 'they will surely help me.' I give him his shoebox back, with a hundred peso coin added to the jumble, and try to bury myself in a newspaper.

There are other things pointing at the Cathedral, apart from my new friend's cross and statue. Just over to our left there's a black and white armoured car sporting the crossed rifles symbol of the carabineros, the police, carefully monitoring ... who knows what? Maybe the worshippers going in and out of the services. Maybe the street vendors. Maybe they are also keeping an eye on the entrance just to the left of the Cathedral. This leads to the Church-run human rights organization, the Vicaria de la solidaridad.

The Catholic Church has heavyweight buildings planted in the central squares of most Latin American cities. But the Church also has a massive social and political presence. Many a repressive regime has collided with this immovable, or at least irritating, obstacle. Many a victim, whether Christian or not, has sought refuge behind it while the civil institutions of law and justice have shrivelled under an authoritarian onslaught.

A couple of days later, and more decently clad, I visit the Vicaria de la solidaridad. Security is tight. Visitors wear a badge indicating their purpose: visiting the legal department say, or the education department or the 'zonal' department which helps finance programmes in the poor areas of Santiago (the Church has an income of $1,500,000 a year, around half of which comes from property in the city centre). My own badge says 'Public Relations' - an indication that the Vicaria is a frequent port of call for visitors.

Carmen Gloria Quintana. Before and after being set on fire by the police in Santiago.
Photo: Julio Etchart

Prominently displayed in one of the corridors is a larger-than-life photograph of Ramiro Olivares, a Vicaria doctor now in jail for treating a wounded man who turned out to have been in a shoot-out with the carabineros. A score card keeps track of time - '154 days unjustly imprisoned'.

'It is dangerous working here,' says Hector Salazar, one of a team of 12 lawyers. 'This isn't a quiet place. As well as the doctor, one of our lawyers is at present in detention. You have to be committed to the cause.'

And the chances of success are slight. 'Of ten thousand cases with which we have been involved I doubt that one per cent of them has had a favourable outcome.' Many of these cases are complaints against the authorities for acts of violence either by the carabineros or the military - with torture figuring high on the list. It's remarkable that the victims even bother to protest.

'But we are a very particular case in Chile,' says Salazar. 'These protests show a degree of civilization. Despite the systematic denial of justice during the last 13 years people continue to denounce the outrages to which they have been victim. And they come to us asking for help to put their case. That is the mark of a civilized person.'

But the Vicaria also defends people who have been in violent confrontations with the Government - in street protests, for example. 'The outbursts of violence against the dictatorship,' says Salazar, 'are partly the result of a lack of justice. Some groups, and particularly the young people, see no other road - for all its dangerous consequences. The responsibility for this must lie with the tribunals of justice.

'If we defend them in court the Government says that we promote and defend terrorism. That's certainly not what we are doing. But organizations which defend the victims of repression get identified with the ideology of the victims.

'The formal response of the Government has been to imprison some of our people - and that's quite apart from all the informal pressure, the anonymous threats.'

One of the popular protests by women against Pinochet.
Photo: Julio Etchart

One of Hector Salazar's current cases is that of Carmen Gloria Quintana, a student who, with a companion, was doused with gasoline by the carabineros and then set on fire. Her companion died three days later. Carmen is currently being treated in Canada for horrific burns. Salazar is none too optimistic about the outcome of this complaint either.

Walking the streets of Santiago it is difficult to credit that all of this is really going on; on the surface all seems calm. True there are more police on the street corners than you might wish. And all alien police forces have a sinister look. But I have seen small children (admittedly at the prompting of their parents) walk up to the carabineros and shake their hands.

Indeed many people say to me that the repression, which they casually shorten to la repre, has, compared with previous years, largely been 'internalized'. The regime has become so sophisticated in picking off individuals and targetting the pressure that it can maintain a defensive level of fear and apprehension while keeping the iron fist hidden from the public view.

Chile used to be known as the 'England of South America'. It had a long series of democratic governments whether Socialist, Christian Democrat or right-wing Nationalist All this ended with the 1973 coup when thousands of people lost their lives and around 10 per cent of the population either fled into exile or was banished.

Communism was the ostensible target of the coup. And the Popular Unity coalition led by Salvador Allende - marxist leader of the Socialist Party - did indeed include the Communist Party and a number of other left-wing groupings. Allende attempted to build a welfare state, offering improved health and education for the poorest families. He also had a vigorous programme of economic reforms with nationalization of the US-owned copper companies at the top of the list.

Augusto Pinochet served as one of President Salvador Allende's most loyal generals - until he was ready to make his move in September 1973.
Photo: Julio Etchart

But Allende's power base was fragile. Though he had won the presidential election, the Popular Unity parties were only a minority in Congress, having to relying on the goodwill of the Christian Democrats - a centre party whose support soon evaporated. To the political conflict was added economic crisis as the international price of copper (Chile's major export) collapsed. And on top of all this came pressure from the US which, among other things, forced the World Bank to stop lending.

The middle classes, who had seen their standard of living threatened, started a series of strikes and protests in the hope of provoking a military intervention. The Christian Democrats eventually gave their support to a coup, expecting that they would be offered the reins of government when the military had restored order.

They were tragically wrong. The Chilean armed forces moved in not just to remove the Socialist Government but to erase completely the democratic tradition that had permitted it. Steeped in the ideology of anti-communism and the notion of the 'national security state' they justified the savagery of the takeover (it included bombing the presidential palace) by raising the spectre of an armed marxist uprising - even though Chile has never had a tradition of armed struggle.

The man who presided over the Junta and who now occupies the rebuilt presidential palace - La Moneda - is Augusto Pinochet. I never did see him in person while I was in the country, a disappointment I can live with.

I did say that the evidence of the dictatorship was not that clear on the streets. But, in an indirect way, you can smell it. It was the transport workers, the truck drivers and the bus owners whose strikes helped bring down the Allende Government. Pinochet has been careful to placate them and one result of this has been the lifting of many controls on the city's transport system and setting a high level of fares that made owning a bus fleet very profitable. So Santiago swarms with buses throughout the day even though they are mostly half empty. The city swims through the smog of carbon monoxide and oily fumes they produce, a blue fog so choking and dense that for much of the time it manages even to blot out the Andes - whose snow-capped 16,000 foot peaks are only 60 miles away.

The Andes trap the smog. But the Chileans too feel cut off by the mountains. Many of the people I speak to sense that they are in an isolated corner of the world. This long strip of a country does, after all, also run further south than any nation state - and faces the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean all down its Western coast. Added to geographical isolation is now a political one. Chile has been ostracized for its appalling human-rights record. And while I am in the country I meet almost no tourists from Europe or North America.

The protests invariably produced a violent response.
Photo: Julio Etchart

But Chile's history is rather more internationalist with a legacy of immigration and economic investment from many countries aside from Spain. One obvious result of this is a rich cocktail of surnames - all of which sound baffling when they crop up in a Spanish conversation. So along with the usual Espinoza, or Molina or Torres, you are just as likely to find Flisfisch, or Vodanovic or Edwards or Leigh.

But the easiest name to grasp is O'Higgins. It appears everywhere: in the streets, Avenida O'Higgins; in the banks, the Banco O'Higgins; in names of districts, Villa O'Higgins. Bernardo O'Higgins is Chile's great national hero; son of (surprise, surprise) an Irish father and a Spanish mother. It was he who led the liberation struggle against the Spanish that produced Chile's independence. And he became the country's first President in 1810. Senor O'Higgins (or 'Oheegin' as I learn to pronounce it) is indelibly marked on the country in statues and street names. There's no escaping him.

But I do try to escape from Santiago and the smog for a bit. I have an invitation to spend the Easter weekend with a family in a coastal city.

Valparaiso - 'Paradise Valley' - birthplace of General Pinochet.

Profile of a dictator

Illustration: Alan Hughes 'PINOCHET didn't make the coup, the coup made him.' - a widely held belief about the man who now holds absolute power in Chile.

In 1973 when Augusto Pinochet seized power he was laughed at by educated Chileans who mocked his mispronunciations and his crude style. Few thought he was going to last. But he's an instinctive politician who knows a good opportunity when he sees it. Now with a constitution that he has written himself, no discernible competition within the armed forces, amid a splintered political opposition, he has an unshakable belief that he will stay in office until 1997.

Pinochet has always seen himself as the model military man - who knew how to obey orders. As late as June 1973 when there was an earlier attempt to bring down the Allende Government he led a regiment out onto the streets to defend the presidential palace: 'Here are the troops loyal to the President' he proclaimed.

But when the time was right, just three months later on the 11th of September, all that was to change. As Fernando Paulsen, one of Chile's leading political commentators puts it: The obedient official was now on top of the military hierarchy with no-one left to obey. And from then on Chileans were to be divided into friends and enemies.'

The main enemies were politicians of any kind whom he regarded as 'traitors', 'a crowd of degenerates', while he charged the democratic system with being infiltrated by marxists. He disposed of these enemies with unprecendented ferocity. 'Every so often,' he said, 'democracy has to be bathed in blood, if it is to continue to be democracy'.

He and his wife Lucia are effectively the Country's royal family. Dona Lucia is very active in her awn right. She runs the women's organization CEMA which, among other things, has a series of handicraft shops around the country. They have also built their own palace - a multi-million dollar presidential residence on the outskirts of Santiago. But there was such an outcry when the extent of the lavish expenditure was revealed that they have not yet managed to move in. It must be one of the few presidential homes in the world equipped with anti-aircraft defences; General Pinochet has clearly remembered how he himself came to power.

Chile's human rights record has made Pinochet something of an international pariah. He constantly fulminates against the worlds press - which he regards as a propaganda machine funded by international communism. Certainly not many people are anxious to be associated with him. The lowest point in terms of international esteem came in 1980 when, having set out for a tour of South East Asia, they discovered in mid-air that President Marcos had refused to receive them, so they had to make a quick refuelling stop in Fiji and return in disgrace. The Foreign Minister was fired.

But the years of isolation have if anything given him more confidence. At the end of the papal visit to Chile earlier this year the Pope, who is supposed to have the last word as he leaves a country, delivered a farewell address only to discover that Pinochet then launched upon a long speech. The furious Pontiff sent another message to Chile by radio from his plane while still over Chilean airspace.

Pinochet still believes he can win the plebiscite which in 1989 could see him retain the presidency far a further eight years. There are signs now that the other members of the Junta may choose a younger man to take over. But Pinochet is unlikely to retire willingly from the scene.

'There is not a leaf in this country,' he once said, 'which I do not move.'

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page

New Internationalist issue 174 magazine cover This article is from the August 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop