Unequal lives in Chile (and elsewhere)

This is depressing news.  According to a report https://www.oecd.org/chile/social-mobililty-2018-CHL-EN.pdf released earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it could take six generations for Chilean children born in the lowest income group to reach the mean income, compared with an average of five generations in OECD countries.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet has this opinion piece on the subject in the digital newspaper El Mostrador: https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/opinion/2018/06/23/el-ascenso-social-de-los-pobres-la-fantasia-de-las-palabras/

Two anthologies

 

This blogger recently attended book launches in London for two new collections of Latin American writing. The region’s literature is even less well-known in the UK than in the United States, so the publication of these anthologies in English is most welcome.

The first is Bogota 39: New Voices from Latin America containing 39 stories by writers from fifteen different Latin American countries.  The writers are more than a generation or two removed from Latin America’s literary boom in the latter half of the 20th century, when authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa brought the region to the attention of English-speaking readers.  The introductory essay mentions a kind of literary rebellion in the 1990s heralded by a group of Mexican writers who announced themselves as the “Crack” generation.

“Just because we’re Latin American, they said, doesn’t mean we have to write about levitating priests and blood that travels with a mind of its own.  What if we’re interested in Adolph Eichmann, or chess, or Nazi mathematicians?  Can’t we help ourselves to those subjects?”

Some of the stories in Bogota 39 have elements of magical realism but others have characters who might be from anywhere in the world. The narrator in one of the stories, Chilean writer Juan Pablo Roncone’s “Children,” is in the habit of attending meetings about things in which he has no particular interest, such as workshops and support groups, just wanting to be near other people.  “I’d got the idea from a North American film where a guy visits groups of cancer patients. Desolate people, but when he’s around them the guy feels good, liberated,” he writes.  His sister mentions a film in which a teenager and an elderly woman go to the funerals of people they don’t know, “but I never did that, out of respect for the relatives.”

The second anthology is Violeta Walks on Foriegn Lands, a bilingual collection of short stories and essays about Chilean musician, artist, poet and songwriter Violeta Parra. To mark the centenary of her birth last year, Victorina Press held a short story competition in which the entries had to make some reference to Violeta Parra’s life and work. The three winning stories and six special mentions are included in the book, along with commentaries.

Violeta Walks on Foreign Lands

In Mabel Encinas-Sanchez’s “September,” a woman buried under rubble during an earthquake tries to keep her sanity by humming Violeta Parra songs to herself and making up her own lyrics to the tunes. Sebastian Eterovic’s “In Search of Their Memory” tells of four young men who gather to celebrate the memory of a teacher they admired.  The absent teacher might be poet Nicanor Parra, Violeta’s brother, but before his identity can be revealed, the friends are confronted in the street by an eccentric 55-year old woman who rants to them about injustice and hands each of them a flower from a supermarket bag. Could it be Violeta Parra herself?

When Kurt Met Jose

vonnegutDonoso hand resting

“Maybe I will come to Chile, but not before I learn Spanish. There is a Chile, Indiana, incidentally, not far from my birthplace. The locals pronounce it Shy-lie, and have no idea why some people smile at that.”

–from a letter by Kurt Vonnegut to Jose Donoso dated May 26, 1973

They met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965 and began a friendship that would span decades. Jose Donoso was one of Chile’s best-known writers, part of Latin America’s late 20th century literary boom, and his novel, Coronation, had been published in English and received the William Faulkner Foundation Prize. All but one of Vonnegut’s books were now out of print and he was struggling to support his family while working on what he called “the Dresden novel” about his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Allied bombing of the German city in 1945. While Vonnegut agonized over the future Slaughterhouse Five manuscript, Donoso was trying to write the novel considered to be his masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Night. The two writers shared an appreciation for the absurd, and social satire was a common element in their work.  Their wives, Jane and Maria Pilar, became close friends, and decades later Maria Pilar would be at Jane’s bedside when she passed away.

Suzanne McConnell, who studied under both writers, recalled a party at the Vonneguts’ home, which happened to be next  door to where she lived. Vonnegut was dancing with Maria Pilar and seemed enthralled by her graceful moves. Vonnegut was casual and down-to-earth in his demeanor, while Donoso was much more formal and serious.

This blogger once met Jose Donoso at a reception held at the British Embassy in Santiago. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, Sueños de mala muerte, (which translates roughly as “miserable dreams”) a play about the frustrated lives of residents in a Santiago boarding house.  He thanked me in unaccented American English and I asked him about something I had read in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays:  when the two of them were at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and met Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren blurted out, “I think it would be nice to come from a country so long and narrow.”  Donoso smiled at me and nodded, but would not divulge anything else about his fellow writers.

A collection of letters from Vonnegut to his Chilean friend archived at the Princeton University library reveals a deep and supportive literary friendship.  In a letter dated October 22, 1967, Vonnegut writes from Helsinki, a stop on a multi-city tour of Europe he undertook as research for Slaughterhouse-Five.  He is accompanied by an army buddy who had been with Vonnegut in Dresden, but the trip had not gone very well and the two had been been “royally hosed by a communist travel agency.”  The travel agency had sold them train tickets and hotel accommodation for a six-day trip from Berlin to Warsaw to Leningrad, but when the two men attempted to board a train, the travel vouchers proved to be worthless.

We tried to get our money back, and they laughed and told us to take a flying f— at the moon,” Vonnegut wrote. “Which we more or less did.” He and his army buddy then took flights to Hamburg and then to Helsinki, a possible entry point for Russia.

“English doesn’t work here.  Neither does French or German,” he wrote to Donoso. but Vonnegut’s  travel frustrations were not weighing on his mind as much as the fact that Donoso had written to say he was giving up trying to finish The Obscene Bird of Night, the novel he had been struggling with for ten years.

“I find this intolerable and absurd: Donoso should not abandon Donoso. Why despise yourself ten years ago?  I am certain that man was a charming writer, too, as much entitled to a hearing as you are.

I will ask a crude question: Do you need an ending?  If so, let’s make one up, immediately as a crass favour to the man you used to be.   Let us be his literary executors. Has he said enough in the thousand pages (great God!) to permit us to end in the middle of a sentence? You simply must have an outsider read what you have done.” Donoso must have taken his friend’s words to heart, for the novel was finally published in 1970, the year after Slaughterhouse-Five, bringing both authors critical acclaim. An English translation of The Obscene Bird of Night was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1973, and included in literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Cannon, a survey of major works of literature.

The book’s title comes from  Henry James, who wrote in a letter:  “The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.”  The novel is the hallucinatory tale of a man born with deformities, the last surviving member of an old Chilean aristocratic family, who is housed with others like him.  The text draws upon folk traditions from Chiloe Island, off the southern coast of Chile. The New York Times described it as a “monstrous, miraculous novel.”

Another letter in the Princeton archive was written a few weeks after Chile’s brutal 1973 military coup.  Vonnegut said he thought “how much the death of democracy must have hurt you and Maria Pilar.  You must have lost friends.”  His son-in-law, journalist Geraldo Rivera, had just come back from Santiago with smuggled films.

“There were bodies to be seen, shot during curfew, apparently, and left lying where they fell when the sun came up. Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, he interviewed several university students, who told him that the overthrow was a very good thing.  They could scarcely say anything else. I guess. And Geraldo himself, a fierce democrat and closet Marxist, has concluded that the elected government was out of control, was a disaster in its own right. I am persuaded that it is now impossible to govern well almost anywhere, and that national tragedies come and go of their own will, like thunderstorms. This makes endurance the most useful human skill.”

 Vonnegut’s divorce from his wife may have complicated their relationship, but the friendship endured.  Donoso and Maria Pilar attended Jane Vonnegut’s funeral in 1987 and in a subsequent letter Vonnegut mentioned the good conversations he had had with both of them during this visit. “At least we did not waste time talking about lightweight things.”

Donoso died in Santiago in 1997  and Vonnegut a decade later. Sadly, Vonnegut never managed to get to Chile.

 

Ugh

It is probably not surprising that the Pinochet dictatorship has its admirers among U.S. hate groups, but a photograph of one particular man in Charlottesville exceeds all levels of ugliness.  His black t shirt promotes “Pinochet’s helicopter tours” and shows a body falling from a helicopter.  It is a reference to the way the regime disposed of some of its victims, and for more background, check out this PBS documentary on a brave Chilean judge’s investigation into these killings: The Judge and the General. 

Journalist Uki Goñi published the photograph on his Twitter account, and noted that the t shirts are sold on…Amazon.

Fake news from Chile

On July 24, 1975 Chile’s afternoon tabloid La Segunda published a front page story headlined “Exterminated like mice.”  The article described a shootout between rival factions of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and other Chilean leftist groups who had fled to Argentina after the 1973 military coup in which dozens of people were killed.

exterminaron como ratones

La Segunda is part of the El Mercurio newspaper chain, whose publisher, Augustin Edwards, died at his estate south of Santiago this week. The supposed shootout never took place and the newspaper report was part of an elaborate disinformation campaign by the Pinochet regime’s security agency, the DINA, aimed at discrediting victims of forced disappearances and their families.  The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation later described the report as “the high point of manipulating disinformation.”  And Edwards’ newspapers were often willing participants in these operations. 

According to the Commission, the DINA published two lists totalling 119 Chileans who had disappeared after their arrest via two obscure publications, the Argentine magazine Lea and the Brazilian newspaper Novo O Dia.  

“Subsequent investigation revealed that Lea was the first issue of a magazine that did not legally exist and provided no names of anyone involved in it and that Novo O Dia was published irregularly in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Further investigation into the source of the single issue of Lea led to a print shop linked to ultraright groups in the Argentinean government at that time. It also became clear that such unusual publications were used because despite considerable efforts the more serious media refused to publish the news.”

But Edwards’ El Mercurio newspaper chain was quick to pick up and republish this disinformation, with sensational headlines and additional material of questionable origin about Chilean subversives operating in other countries. The result, the Commission report noted, was “confusion within public opinion, and humiliation and isolation for the relatives of victim and those circles involved in defending human rights.”  And throughout the Pinochet dictatorship’s 17 years in power, Edwards’ newspapers routinely helped cover up human rights abuses, maligning the victims and casting doubt on the credibility of witnesses to such crimes.

The Chilean Journalists Association finally expelled Edwards two years ago. And last year his name appeared in the Panama Papers  as one of the clients served by the Panama City law firm Mossack, which had helped wealthy individuals from around  the world establish offshore  bank accounts.

Fidel in Chile

Fidel Castro in Chile

 

I’m late to this, but it’s a good time to look at Fidel Castro’s extraordinary 24-day visit to Chile in 1971, when Salvador Allende, a Socialist, was in office.  A couple of years ago, this blogger filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. government for documents on this visit, as it was something the Nixon administration watched rather closely.

Such documents can shed light not only on U.S. policy but on the events themselves, as witnesses tell diplomats things they do not tell journalists and academics.  How did Chilean and Cuban officials get along? What did the Chileans think of Castro’s extended visit?

But first, a brief recap. It was supposed to be a 10-day visit. Fidel arrived on November 10, 1971 and embarked upon an extensive tour, from the Atacama Desert to Tierra del Fuego, visiting copper mines, vineyards, gas and oil installations and meeting with laborers, trade unionists, students, fellow Marxists—and the military.  There are photographs of him alongside future dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who at the time was commander of the Santiago army garrison, so the two men must have engaged in some conversation.  And he gave Salvador Allende was an AK-47, with his name inscribed, which the Chilean leader would use to kill himself in the presidential palace during the brutal military coup on September 11, 1973.

Castro’s 10-day itinerary was extended to 24 days, creating a rather awkward situation for Chilean officials, none of whom wanted the job of telling Fidel to go home. Carlos Altamirano, who at the time was secretary general of the Chilean Socialist Party, said in an  interview that Allende had asked him to ask Castro to wrap up his visit, but Altamirano refused. It was not easy, he said, to say something like that “to a head of state of Fidel’s stature, ‘enough already, go.’ And I wasn’t the most appropriate person to say this to him.”

Back to my Freedom of Information Act request, which made the rounds of the U.S. State Department, the National Security Agency, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. I got nothing from the State Department; the National Security Agency sent a letter in September of last year saying that my request had been reviewed and that the relevant material remains classified as TOP SECRET.

“The information is classified because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the chief of the FOIA office wrote to me, then described the agency’s appeal process, which I then followed. Hopefully there’ll be more on this later.

In October of this year I received a polite letter from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) giving me a status update on my request. “Please by assured that our office is committed to processing your request as soon as possible as the DIA continues its efforts to eliminate the large backlog of FOIA requests.”  My request was #139 of 232 in the Awaiting Response Queue, and there was a telephone number if I had any questions.

But the biggest surprise was the relatively quick response from the Central Intelligence Agency, which sent me only lightly redacted weekly summaries from October 29 to December 4, 1971, a short daily presidential briefing plus an eight-page intelligence memorandum, “Castroism Clarified in Chile,” which had been downgraded from “secret” to “sensitive.” Here are some highlights:

The President’s Daily Brief said that Castro was apparently satisfied with his Chile trip and its impact on the rest of the hemisphere. The Cuban leader was “generally well-received by a curious public and frequently showed that he still retains the capability of capturing the acclaim of crowds.”  The length of his visit, however, “eventually bored many Chileans.”

The Weekly Summary dated 29 October 1971 is headed with the words, “Cuba Dusts Off Its International Image” and says that the Chile visit will be Castro’s first trip abroad since 1964. There was speculation that the Cuban leader might arrive in time to help Allende celebrate the anniversary of his electoral victory on 4 November (he didn’t) and that officials of both countries had refused to pinpoint the dates for the visit.

The Central Intelligence Bulletin dated 9 November 1971 said that Havana’s decision to publicize details of Castro’s arrival “probably stems from a desire to reap the greatest propaganda advantage from the outset of the visit, though the degree of real enthusiasm among Chileans for it remains uncertain.”  The length of the visit was not mentioned, the report says, and there is a redacted sentence, followed by the arrival of Castro’s advance party four days earlier.

The 12 November Weekly Summary mentions Castro’s arrival in Santiago and that aside from a few minor incidents, “his reception was warm and friendly and large crowds turned out to greet him.”  His four-member delegation, the report said, was “remarkably unspectacular and suggests the trip is not a business one.” The presence of the Havana army commander indicated that Cuba “realizes the importance of developing a “correct” professional relationship with Chilean military leaders.” One wonders whether the Cuban army commander had any contact with Pinochet.

The 19 November Weekly Summary said that Castro’s first week in Chile “reinforced early suspicions that the visit would be less a working trip than an attempt to improve Castro’s image” and that the Cuban leader had gone out of his way to be cordial and discreet in his public pronouncements, even going so far “as to moderate temporarily his attacks on the US.”  The report said that the Chilean media coverage of the visit had been generally factual.  The Chilean Socialist Party was praising Castro so effusively that “it reportedly provoked a complaint from President Salvador Allende that Socialist treatment of the visit emphasizes Castro’s stature at Allende’s expense.” There was a bomb explosion near the northern city of Antofagasta the day before Castro was due to arrive, blamed on “a small right-wing extremist group that has condemned Castro’s visit.” But overt opposition to Castro’s presence in Chile, the report said, “has been limited.”

The next CIA bulletin, dated 26 November 1971, said that the Castro tour “has been successfully demonstrating Cuba’s solidarity with Chile and improving his international image.”  Chilean Communist Party members were receiving him “cautiously,” and Castro “has been circumspect in his remarks, however, lest he be accused of meddling in Chilean domestic affairs” and that he was “even less bitter than usual about the US base at Guantanamo, saying only that Cuba “one day” would recover it without a shot being fired.”  He had spent relatively little time with Allende, other than a two-day cruise to Chile’s southernmost city, Punta Arenas.

The 2 December 1971 bulletin reports that a farewell rally in Santiago was scheduled for that evening and that Castro “probably believes that he has accomplished all his journey’s goals and now realizes that after three weeks his welcome is wearing thin.”

The last document, an intelligence memorandum on Castroism in Chile, is dated 27 December 1971 and reads like a summary of the earlier bulletins.  One of the more interesting passages:

“Castro has a lot going for him in this regard. His large physical appearance and his breezy informality contributes much to his charisma. To Chileans accustomed to the dour Allende, Fidel was quite a shock, pleasant to some, scandalous to others. Where the throngs could make a direct comparison of Castro and Allende, Castro’s proclivity to play basketball, kiss babies, don miners’ helmets, etc., captivated many. Moreover, his nonstop traveling and speaking must have left most Chileans gasping at the man’s stamina.” But the report also notes that Fidel also had to deal with antagonistic confrontations with students, especially from the Christian Democratic Party and that on occasion he lost his cool. These encounters with detractors and the failure to attract a large turnout at his farewell rally affected him and that he “was an unhappy militant when he left Chile.”

fidel-and-allende

 

The literary assassin

Mariana Callejas, former secret police agent and one of the more notorious figures from the Pinochet dictatorship, died in a care home this week.

I interviewed her in Santiago in 1989.  She was astonishingly frank, but then she was used to talking about her past, having given extended statements to FBI officials investigating the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.  Her husband, Michael Townley, an American working for the regime’s Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), had placed the bomb which killed Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt.

“If there are any doubt about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.”

The interview took place at her home in Lo Curro, an affluent municipality in eastern Santiago.  She brought out some short fiction to show me, saying she was writing more in English than in Spanish these days. I quickly read through one of the pieces, about an emperor and a butterfly and have to admit, she had writing talent. In the mid-seventies she hosted all-night literary gatherings (a curfew was in effect), even as their basement was being used as a holding pen and torture site for political prisoners. The late Roberto Bolaño wrote a fictionalized account of these dark events in his novella By Night in Chile; Callejas was called “Maria Canales.”  She published a collection of stories, La Larga Noche, which contained descriptions of torture and bomb making.  Another story was awarded a prize sponsored by a Chilean literary magazine, causing an understandable outcry; the magazine explained that the entries were submitted under pseudonyms and that the author’s identity was not known until after the winning story was announced.

I asked her how she came to work for the DINA.  She said the regime knew of her and Townley’s “resistance work” against the ill-fated socialist government of Salvador Allende, when far-right groups set off bombs and engaged in other sabotage.  She claimed to have been concerned when Townley told her of the plan to murder Letelier, and that the DINA chief had promised him a commission in the Chilean army after completing this deadly mission.

But Callejas was not exactly a cowed wife.  A Chilean court later found her guilty of involvement in another car bomb assassination: former army commander General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia, in Buenos Aires in 1974. She was given a 20-year prison sentence in 2008 but Chile’s Supreme Court later reduced this to five years under house arrest.

Last year Callejas and 14 other DINA agents were indicted in the 1976 murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carlos Soria; Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the victim had been kidnapped and brought to the Townley-Callejas home in Lo Curro where he was interrogated and killed during torture and that the perpetrators sought to cover up their crime by staging an automobile accident.  But Callejas, now in a care home, was suffering from dementia and was not formally charged.