Midnight in Chile, 24 years ago

The October 6, 1988 edition of the Chilean government newspaper La Nacion went to press with the very partial returns predicting a Pinochet victory in the one-man presidential plebiscite.

It was a one-man presidential election in which voters were asked to cast “yes” or “no” ballots for a measure to extend General Augusto Pinochet’s rule for eight more years. The first official returns were announced at 7:30 that evening and showed that with 0.36 percent of the votes counted, Pinochet was ahead by 57 percent. Three hours later there was a second announcement with another tiny fraction of the vote counted, indicating that Pinochet was still ahead by 51.3 percent. Then, rather ominously, there were no more official returns announced.

“The GOC [government of Chile] is obviously sitting on the results and releasing them very slowly, and this has sparked concern by the opposition which continues to receive reports of a major victory from its voting table representatives,” the U.S. Embassy in Santiago wrote in a cable to Washington that evening.http://foia.state.gov/documents/StateChile3/00007B72.pdf

But as midnight approached the commanders of Chile’s navy, air force and carabinero police arrived at the presidential palace for a meeting with Pinochet.  Air force commander General Fernando Matthei decided to “pull out the detonators,” as he later described it, and stopped to talk to a group of Chilean reporters waiting for news.

“It looks to me like the “no” vote has won,” he said. “And we are going to analyze this now.”

The rest, as they say, is Chilean history.

More on landmine clearance in Chile

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia region 

This month the Chilean army will begin removing landmines along the road from Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine National Park http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/index.asp in the country’s southern Patagonia region. The area is a prime tourist destination, attracting around 150,000 visitors annually, and this is what the U.S. State Department has to say about safety:

Minefields are found in Chile’s northern border region with Peru and Bolivia and around the southern border with Argentina in Patagonia. Minefields are generally marked, but markers may have shifted or may not be visible. Follow clearly identified roads and trails when traveling in minefield areas. Border crossings should only be made at authorized locations. Consult with park or other local officials concerning minefields and other hazards.http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1088.html#safety

And the British Foreign Office tells travellers:

Chile has a small but significant landmine problem. Landmine accidents mainly affect livestock and small numbers of local people crossing the borders at unauthorised crossing points. Minefields are located primarily in the border areas adjacent to Peru and Bolivia in the extreme north of Chile, Regions XV, I and II, and Argentina in the south in Region XII. Although most minefields are clearly marked, some signs and fences have been subjected to the effects of weather or vandalism and may be hard to recognise, particularly in the north of the country. Minefields are, in some cases, laid right up to the edge of highways. You should also be aware that there are mined areas in six government-protected wilderness areas in Regions XV,I and II in the north and XII in the south. You are advised to check with local authorities before travelling to these areas, stick to clearly marked roads and observe all warning signs.http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/south-america/chile

A recent story by Mercopress states that the Chilean army is working to clear five minefields in the area, including 30 hectares owned by a rancher who has lost 26 cattle to explosions.http://en.mercopress.com/2012/09/24/chilean-army-begins-october-demining-of-route-leading-to-torres-del-paine-park

And the American defence magazine Dialogo has just published this report on landmine clearance along Chile’s border with Peru, where last February heavy rains dislodged several explosive artefacts and forced the temporary closure of the Panamerican Highway: http://www.dialogo-americas.com/en_GB/articles/rmisa/features/regional_news/2012/10/01/chile-landmines

Adios, Padre Dubois

Thousands of mourners attended the funeral on Monday of Father Pierre Dubois, a French priest who spent most of his life working in a poor Santiago community.

Father Pierre Dubois’s funeral was held yesterday, and there is a Facebook page honoring his memory: https://www.facebook.com/DueloNacionalPadrePierreDubois.  The site contains photographs of key moments in his life, including one in which Dubois is standing between a riot policeman and a group of residents in La Victoria, the poor Santiago parish where he spent most of his life. My friend and colleague Odette Magnet attended his funeral and sent the photograph above and this report:

“The coffin with Pierre Dubois’s body entered Santiago’s cathedral at 4:30 Monday afternoon.  The church was packed from wall to wall. They say the cathedral can hold 5,000 worshippers. I don’t know the exact number but I do know that absolutely no one else could have fit inside that church and that outside in the Plaza de Armas countless people were listening to the service via loudspeakers.

When the heavy doors of the cathedral opened there was a single cry: Pierre, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo!  Pierre, friend, the people are with you. Again and again this chorus, and then, out of nowhere, hundreds of white handkerchiefs and napkins began waving in a tribute that any Chilean head of state might envy. Hundreds of people had accompanied the priest’s coffin on foot from La Victoria, a poor Santiago neighborhood that began as a squatter settlement.

That is where this French priest had made his life, a parish priest known for his defence of human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship.  One legendary photograph from this period shows Dubois, his arms outstretched, facing a busload of riot police during political protests in La Victoria.

Pierre Dubois was 80 years old and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. He was born in Dijon to a comfortable Catholic family. Today in Chile he is known to his parishioners as “another La Victoria resident, one of us.”  And that is where he remained, as he wished.

The residents of La Victoria composed a letter, which was read aloud during the funeral mass. One section said that “Pierre was a man of the Gospel, a just man, who fought for a better world and urged us to improve our quality of life during the dictatorship.” The letter cited a long list of programs he had created with his parishioners, such as soup kitchens and job training.

Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati thanked Dubois’s brother and sister, who had travelled from France, “for having given us a member of your family” and called Dubois “an ecclesiastical bridge between Dijon and Santiago.” Dubois’s brother and sister said they were happy he had come to Chile. “He always said that his family was in Chile, a country he loved so much.”

I interviewed Pierre several times while covering human rights for HOY magazine. I covered the death of his colleague Father Andre Jarlan, who died of a bullet (perhaps not fired unintentionally) on September 4, 1984 as he sat reading the bible in their modest rectory in La Victoria. I spoke to him on various occasions, as did so many journalists, but I recall with special sentiment the last interview I did with him, on camera, for a documentary we later offered to the national television network in 1990.  That was the year Chile returned to democracy and he returned to La Victoria after the dictatorship deported him in 1986.Our documentary was never aired, but this last interview was so special, so intimate in tone, so heartfelt and thoughtful. I did not get to see him again. Until the day of his funeral, when, for the first time since I returned to my homeland in March of 2010, I felt his presence”