Chile on the big screen

The film premiered in Chile in August

The film premiered in Chile in August

This month The 33, the long-awaited film about the 2010 mine rescue in northern Chile, opens in the United States, and nine survivors of the accident have filed suit against their lawyers, charging that they were cheated out of their share of proceeds from the film.

Following the rescue the miners were showered with gifts and trips, including visits to Disneyland and Israel, and they formed a company which they expected would help them share earnings and manage their finances. According to Luis Urzúa, the group’s leader, the contracts they signed were not what the lawyers said they would be, and they received only 17 percent of the $150 million paid to their organization. Almost all of the miners have suffered health problems in wake of the rescue, especially post-traumatic stress, and several have had trouble finding and keeping jobs. The Guardian has this story on the lawsuit:

And here’s a link to the official trailer for the film:

Another film about Chile, scheduled to be released early next year, is Colonia, a thriller about the infamous German settlement Colonia Dignidad used by the Pinochet dictatorship as a detention and torture center (see earlier posts and ) Some of the settlers, however, have remained in the community and have sought to turn the site into a tourist destination. The New York Times story:

Burn After Reading: Pinochet and the Iranians

Some time ago I wrote about a Freedom of Information request I’d made in 2007, searching for any documents dealing with the Pinochet regime’s arms sales as part of the research for my second Chile book, The General’s Slow Retreat.  The requested material was not released until five years later, and unfortunately did not contain anything that I could immediately use, especially since the book had already been published.

One of the documents, however, is worth summarizing here, in view of the Iran nuclear talks and the glimpse it provides into the murky world of arms dealing among developing countries. It is the story of the regime’s disastrous attempt to sell cluster bombs to Iran and is largely gleaned from Chilean and Spanish news sources, which broke the story early in 1990, just weeks before Pinochet was due to hand over the presidency to an elected president. And it reads like the plot of a Coen brothers movie.

But first, some background.  In 1984 an Iraqi plane landed at Santiago’s airport to collect a load of cluster bombs produced by a private Chilean arms dealer, Carlos Cardoen, who later accused the army’s munitions manufacturer FAMAE of stealing his technology to make its own cluster bombs. The Iran-Iraq war continued, and the Chilean army decided to see if it couldn’t get in on the action as well.  So in October 1985 one of FAMAE’s affiliates enlisted the services of an international arms broker, Bernard Stroiazzo, and an agreement was reached with Iran to sell 500 of its new cluster bombs at a cost of $14,000 each. As each bomb was estimated to cost around $2,500 to produce, the deal should have been lucrative indeed. But there are serious problems. The declassified State Department document, written by U.S. Ambassador Charles Gillespie, reports that

“During early 1986 on two separate test runs in Iran, the cluster bombs prove defective, destroying one Iranian phantom jet and nearly killing the head of the Iranian air force who participated in the demonstration. After the second incident, the Iranian authorities take middleman Stroiazzo and several Chilean technicians hostage pending financial compensation for Iranian losses.”

The Pinochet regime offers to replace the destroyed Iranian jet with an F-5 aircraft, if the Iranians will also purchase an additional $200 million in military hardware, including more cluster bombs and 15 additional aircraft from Chile. The F-5, however, had been purchased from the United States years before the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Chile for the regime’s human rights abuses.  To make this transaction, it would need U.S. government authorization, which seemed improbable. In addition, the Chilean air force was not keen to sell off so many of its aircraft and those officers hoping to rebuild ties with Washington were worried about possible repercussions. The head of FAMAE, Colonel Carlos Carreno, was scheduled to travel to Tehran to negotiate the deal, which presumably involves selling the F-5 by covert means. But three days before he is due to depart, the colonel is kidnapped by the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front,  whose earlier actions included an attempt to assassinate Pinochet. The deal with Iran falls apart. The hapless Colonel Carreno reappears three months later in Brazil, holding a rosary and refusing to say anything about his abduction.

Meanwhile, arms broker Stroiazzo somehow manages to escape his Iranian captors and “begins negotiations with Chilean authorities for financial compensation for Iran and for himself.”  An army general who heads the regime’s secret police offers Stroiazzo a potentially lucrative deal to build a toxic waste plant in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, but local opposition to the project causes authorities to back away from the project. Stroiazzo responds by filing a multimillion dollar international lawsuit and the story finally breaks. The document concludes that the political fallout “has some potential for damaging Pinochet’s and other elements of the armed forces’ image, but the incoming government does not appear particularly interested in actively pursuing the matter.”

From Calama to Oklahoma

Nostalgia_for_the_Light (2)

The University of Oklahoma’s Center for Social Justice has honored Chile’s Association of Relatives of Executed and Missing Political Prisoners of Calama with an award named in memory of Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who helped identify victims of political violence in Argentina, Guatemala and other countries. The award committee said that the Calama group “embodies the spirit of the award, to recognize the efforts of those who strive to restore the humanity and dignity of communities that have suffered human rights violations.”

Here’s a link to an earlier post on the case, which was the subject of a book by my friend and colleague Paula Allen:

A Chile news summary

The BBC Spanish language network, noting the 15-year anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s detention in London, asks what real effects his arrest had.  According to Amnesty International, the case gave a boost to the principle of universal jurisdiction in human rights cases:

Bloomberg reports that a Pinochet-era business and investment system is being abused by very wealthy Chileans to avoid paying taxes, with only 0.3 percent of taxpayers paying the top rate:

The Financial Times reports on Chile’s presidential race, where former president Michelle Bachelet leads a field of nine candidates with 44 percent and her opponent Evelyn Matthei with only 12 percent. But the election is likely to go into a second round, as Bachelet seems unlikely to win a clear majority in next month’s voting.

The Heritage Foundation has an admiring article on Chile’s economic development over the past 25 years:

The Christian Science Monitor reports on President Sebastian Pinera’s visit to the San Jose mine on the third anniversary of the miners’ rescue, an event which marked the high point of his administration. He attended the opening of a museum at the site, attended by 13 of the 33 miners and said the rescue changed the meaning of the “Chilean way.”

“Before, the Chilean way meant something half-baked and improvised. It transformed into doing something with faith, unity, and hope,” he said.

Nostalgia for the dictatorship

Nostalgia for the Light

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman has sent a letter to his country’s education ministry denouncing an incident in which a screening for students of his award-winning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, was interrupted by the school’s director. The film, shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, links the work of astronomers researching the origins of the universe with efforts by relatives of the disappeared to locate remains of their loved ones. One reviewer described it as “remarkably lyrical, strikingly beautiful documentary reflecting on memory, mortality and the inexorable passing of time.”

Nostalgia for the Light was awarded best documentary by the European Film Academy and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, among other international film prizes. Here’s a trailer for the film:

And here’s a translation of Guzman’s letter:

Sra. Carolina Schmidt Zaldivar

Minister of Education

París, October 6, 2010.

Dear Madam Minister,

On September 28 a history teacher at the Farmland School in central Chile (Curacavi), Daniela Moraga, Zavala, mother of two children and gradúate of the :Metropolitan University Education Sciences department, showed her students my award-winning film, “Nostalgia for the Light.”

She selected this work in particular because it seemed a “sensitive and altruistic” way of discussing the issue of the detained and disappeared, a subject which, according to the teacher, “is approved by current [Chilean education ministry] plans and programs.”

During the screening the school’s director violently burst into the room, turned on the lights and put an end to the showing, telling the students (who were astonished) in a very aggressive way that “her school” did not permit videos alluding to the time of the dictatorship because these “are things that cannot be dealt with in schools.”  She added that it was “political material of politicizing effects for third-year high school students.”

The director convened the Council of Teachers where she repeated the same accusations before the teacher, threatening her with dismissal without severance pay.

Fortunately the young teacher Daniela Moraga Zavala is a well-informed person who possesses a serene personality. She is a professional with experience who knew how to defend herself calmly until she had refuted the arguments of the director, who is also the establishment’s proprietor.

Madam minister, I will take it upon myself to divulge in detail this regrettable incident in the cities I will visit in the coming weeks during the showing of this same film: Berlin, Hamburg, Lyon, Rennes, Lisbon and Grenoble. And I will repeat this example during all public appearances in the future because it is a symptom of the Chilean situation.

For your information, “Nostalgia for the Light” has received 32 prizes and distinctions around the world (I attach a list at the end) and it is not a work that spreads anger but on the contrary, puts the everyday fascism which still reigns in many corners of Chile in its proper place, to the shame of everyone.

Distinguished madam minister, I cannot stop writing this simple letter because it is not possible to remain indifferent in the face of offenses received by a decent teacher like Mrs. Daniela Moraga Zavala, who is part of the ministry which you direct.

With my respectful greetings,

Patricio Guzman

Chilean filmmaker

Hollywood Academy member

Chile’s tobacco habit

It’s been four months since a ban on cigarette advertising and smoking in enclosed public spaces took effect in Chile. The World Health Organization says over 40 percent of Chileans smoke, the highest level of tobacco consumption in the Americas and Chile’s health minister Jaime Mañalich recently told The Economist that treating tobacco-related illnesses eats up a quarter of the nation’s $10 billion public health care budget.

The anti-tobacco campaign was not easy and Lezak Shallat, who headed the drive has this piece on the Berkeley Media Studies Group web site:

Chile’s nicotine habit dates back more than two millenia, at least in the northern region, according to recent archeological discoveries near San Jose de Atacama:

Grief in the Atacama Desert

Two women search for the remains of their loved ones, killed in wake of Chile's 1973 military coup, at a site in the Atacama desert

Two women search for the remains of their loved ones, killed in wake of Chile’s 1973 military coup, at a site in the Atacama desert. Photograph by Paula Allen

A new edition of Flowers in the Desert by my friend and colleague Paula Allen is about to be released, with a foreword by Isabel Allende and an essay by this blogger on General Augusto Pinochet’s legacy in Chile. The book has already drawn the attention of Publishers Weekly, which published the following review:

“Who was it that invented that horrible euphemism ‘disappeared’?” Isabel Allende asks in the foreword to this chilling volume of photographs, interviews, and stories released for the first time outside of Chile to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup. Documentary photographer Allen’s haunting images feature the women of Calama, with shovels and bags, searching for the remains of their dead husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons—men whose bodies lay in unmarked mass graves in the desert following brutal executions. “I didn’t believe they had killed my brother because when you don’t have a body, nothing is certain,” says Vicky, one of the women interviewed and photographed. Many of the images show the women on their quest, digging for bones, but the most affecting photo is less literal: an image of women walking through a cemetery, carrying buckets and shovels. For all they’ve lost, these women prevail, and here, they tell their stories. The resulting book—with text in both Spanish and English; an afterword by Ariel Dorfman; and contributions from Patricia Verdugo, Peter Kornbluh, and Mary Helen Spooner—is a stunning record of the fallout from the Pinochet coup that effectively depicts the effects of the horrifying mass killings on the family members left behind.

And Paula Allen’s web site, where you can find more of her photographs: