Sunday 16 January 2000. The Andes have turned pink, as they always do when the sun begins its final descent into the Pacific. It’s been a hot summer day. I step on to the balcony and watch as carloads of people pour joy into the streets and wave banners on their way downtown. Se siente, se siente, Lagos presidente: one can feel it, one can feel it, Lagos is the President.
I’m in Santiago, Chile, the country of my birth, on the day of the presidential election. For the first time in 26 years I have come to Chile to stay for a while. I want to know what it feels like to be Chilean again. Every day I discover something new: old buildings with red-tiled roofs, thick adobe walls and interior courtyards where honeysuckle and bougainvillaea make your nose and eyes compete for attention; cobblestoned streets bordered by gigantic ceiba trees; old plazas where dark children with huge, round cheeks play ronda and pinta.
My ears have been savouring the peculiarities of Chilean Spanish and my tongue has been quick to follow suit. As I walk on the streets, find shade under purple jacarandas, laugh and talk in Chilean, I feel like nothing has changed. My body wants to believe that I’m the same and the country is the same.
Sunday 4 September 1970. Se siente, se siente, Allende presidente. Salvador Allende, a self-declared Marxist, has been elected as Chile’s new President. His programme proposes a peaceful road to socialism, unlike the revolutionary war that took Fidel Castro to power in Cuba in 1959. Can it be done? The question looms heavily over the country, while hundreds of thousands pour on to the streets and celebrate for hours.
Allende speaks to the crowd on the Alameda, Santiago’s main avenue. He says that he will attempt to take the country out of underdevelopment. ‘This is the first government in Chile’s history that is truly democratic, national, popular and revolutionary,’ he adds. Then he asks his supporters to go home quietly. The world needs to know that communists and socialists do not eat babies alive, rape women, loot and rob, as the campaign of the right has claimed.
Allende’s election turned every corner of Chile into a political arena and a breeding ground for social change. The US-owned copper mines were nationalized. Reform gave land to impoverished peasants. Factory workers took control of key industries. Shantytown dwellers and squatters built their own houses. Health and education reforms allowed for more accessible services. A literacy campaign resulted in thousands of adults learning to read and write for the first time. Popular culture grew everywhere. Those who had never owned a thing were taking a stab at controlling their own destiny. But it didn’t take long for the ones who had always owned everything to begin boycotting and sabotaging. The US imposed an economic embargo and the CIA provided expertise and millions of dollars to the Government’s opponents.
When support for Allende’s coalition grew in the congressional elections of March 1973, it became evident that the powerful would not hesitate to strike with full force to turn the clock back. But knowing something in theory is very different from reality.
11 September 1973. Rumours of a military coup had been spreading for weeks. As Allende’s foes did everything in their power to create chaos, Popular Unity also began to show its internal differences. Some called for a strengthening of popular organizations. Others proposed further negotiations with the opposition. A real revolution or an abandonment of the Government’s programme were the two contradictory positions of the Left. In the end, the military coup found the majority of Chileans unprepared. The horror that began that bright, spring morning went beyond anyone’s imagination.
On 7 August 1974, I crossed the border into Canada. I was 26 years old and, as a good Chilean girl who had followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps, I was married and had two young daughters. The future was just beginning.
Twenty-five years later, my body reminded me of this anniversary. My mind had buried the date in some back drawer, but that night I woke up to the stillness of my Vancouver house, my heart pounding. I thought about my beautiful daughters, living safely in their own homes now, a few blocks away; listened to my teenage son’s calm breathing in the next room and touched the warmth of my partner’s hair.
During my first years in Canada, all I wanted was to be back in Chile. I wanted to sit on my mom’s lap and touch my father’s hand. There were many like me around the world. We were the exiles, a wounded community that mourned the loss not only of their dead and disappeared compañeros, but also of their country and dreams for a better world. With the help of many Canadians, we dedicated ourselves to support the resistance movement in Chile. We believed that, sooner rather than later, Pinochet would be overthrown and democracy restored.
Sunday 16 January 2000. Se siente, se siente, Lagos presidente. The crowd continues to grow as it honks and cheers on its way downtown. Several friends, some of them former exiles in Canada, join me and my partner as we begin our walk to the Plaza de la Constitucion, where Ricardo Lagos will address the country. My body swells with the happiness of the people around me and with my own joy. But I know this celebration is very different from the one that welcomed Allende’s election in 1970. Ricardo Lagos’ Socialist Party is not the one that Allende led. It has abandoned the concept of a socialist society and replaced it with a humanist, democratic version of neo-liberalism.
The Plaza de la Constitucion is bursting at the seams. Lagos promises to be fair and transparent. Then he adds: ‘Our victory is beautiful and just, but it does not represent a defeat for anybody. I will be President of all Chileans.’ The mood of the crowd suddenly changes and I hear a roar that I don’t hesitate to join: Juicio a Pinochet, prosecution for Pinochet. The angry chanting goes on for several seconds and Lagos is forced to pause.
Sunday 12 March 2000. A huge gathering at Santiago’s Parque Forestal celebrates Ricardo Lagos’ inauguration as President. Musical ensembles get everybody on their feet; children paint colourful pictures; young and old dance cueca, Chile’s national dance.
I’m drawn to the Literary Café, where relatives of the disappeared are reading their stories. They belong to the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Political Prisoners and the Association of the Relatives of Executed Political Prisoners, two organizations that have led the human-rights movement for the last 26 years. When they finish, the crowd joins in the now-familiar roar, which rebounds throughout the park: Juicio a Pinochet, prosecution for Pinochet.
After 503 days of detention in England, the former dictator has come back to Chile. A week ago he got out of his wheelchair and walked off the plane at Santiago airport with a big smile on his face. Then he proceeded to greet his supporters with enthusiasm and vigour. The military and the political right welcomed him like a hero, while thousands expressed their disgust in front of the presidential palace. Will it be possible to prosecute him in Chile?
At 8.30 Ricardo Lagos starts walking towards the main stage. The voice of Victor Jara, killed at the National Stadium at the time of the coup, fills the air. As Lagos stands in front of the microphone, the face of Salvador Allende illuminates the space behind him. For a moment the crowd watches in deep silence. Then everybody begins to chant: Se siente, se siente, Allende está presente; one can feel it, one can feel it, Allende is here. Lagos waits respectfully for the crowd to go silent. When he speaks he reiterates his plans for a fairer sharing of the country’s wealth. Then, for the first time, with conviction and determination, he states that the judicial system ‘can carry out the justice that the whole country is demanding, without any external pressures’. He is obviously referring to Pinochet’s prosecution and the possibility of interference from the armed forces. He goes on to propose constitutional reforms that will do away with the pockets of power that Pinochet carved out for himself and the military.
The day before, at the presidential palace, Lagos paid homage to Salvador Allende. Today he states: ‘We don’t have the right to fail. We must succeed. It’s the least we can do for those who are no longer with us.’
In the last three months my body has come to understand that many things have changed in Chile. Tonight it recognizes that history has not been forgotten. The new President can use the country’s memory as a tool for moving forward. Perhaps Chile will dig down and clean its deep, festering wounds. Perhaps the future is about to begin again.