Father Jose Aldunate, RIP

Father Jose Aldunate at a human rights demonstration in Santiago during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet

He was born into one of Chile’s oldest families but spent most of his life working for his country’s poor and campaigning for human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Jose Aldunate passed away at the age of 102 on September 28.

This blogger had the opportunity to interview Father Aldunate, known simply as Pepe to many, in the 1980s when he was a parish priest in a poor Santiago neighborhood.  I wanted to pick his brains about living conditions for low income Chileans and what social services, if any, they could access. I expected to hear some kind of political speech, but Aldunate was thoughtful and deliberative. There was a foundation for malnourished children, he said, and some of his parishioners had taken their children there, receiving good care. But unemployment was high, and many of those who did have jobs worked in harsh environments.

He told me of one young man who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, operating a factory machine. When he finished for the day, another worker arrived to begin the day’s second shift. The machine was only shut down on Sundays.

Aldunate had spent part of his boyhood in the United Kingdom (“I had an English nanny!”), attending a Jesuit boarding school in northern England where he played rugby and did very well academically. Back in Chile he followed his older brother into the Jesuits, later dividing his time between teaching and ministering to poor communities.  And he didn’t just minister: Aldunate sought jobs as a laborer in order to better understand his parishioners’ worlds. At the time of the 1973 military coup he started working alongside construction workers in the city of Concepcion, in southern Chile. His residence was raided by soldiers, who confiscated issues of the Jesuit magazine.  People were being arrested around him, but he was spared, and he later speculated it was because his prematurely gray hair made him look like a harmless elderly bystander. He spent five years in Concepcion, working half the year teaching and the other half as a construction worker.

Back in Santiago he worked in a neighborhood which became the site of one of the dictatorship’s most egregious abuses: the case of los quemados, the burned ones. In 1986 two teenagers, one a photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C., were arrested by soldiers during a demonstration and set on fire.  The case drew international attention, with CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace bringing a film crew to the neighborhood.  What would happen, he asked Aldunate, if anyone from the area who witnessed the attack offered to testify?

“It would be dangerous for them,” Aldunate told them.

I obtained a copy of the 60 Minutes segment and invited him to my house to see the program.  He arrived, smiled at my infant daughter sleeping in her bassinet, and watched the video without comment.

I later interviewed him for ABC radio on the anti-torture movement he had helped organize. It was a small group that included many Catholic priests and nuns, who staged brief demonstrations near police stations and any other sites where prisoners were interrogated. At the end of the interview I asked him if he could imagine a time in the future when the movement would no longer be necessary.  He broke into a big smile.

“Oh, I hope so,” he said. “I hope for the day when we can happily dissolve the group because it is not needed.”

That day came the following decade, when Chile returned to democracy. A notorious detention site, Villa Grimaldi, was converted into a peace park and open-air museum and Aldunate participated in the inauguration ceremony.  A group of former prisoners and their families walked through the double metal gate they had entered as detainees, and then the gate was locked securely behind them. The gated entrance was to never be used again, and Aldunate was appointed guardian of the keys.

“These walls which hid death and torture today will have signs of life,” he said.

I last saw Aldunate in 2007, when I visited him in a residence for retired priests in downtown Santiago.  Most of his vision was gone, he walked slowly but was as lucid as ever and was still writing occasionally for the Jesuit magazine. I introduced myself as one of the many foreign journalists who had interviewed him back in the 1980s and mentioned our last interview. He recounted how, with democracy re-established in Chile, members of the group met and decided it was no longer needed. Nine years later he was awarded a national prize for human rights.

One of the board members of the converted Villa Grimaldi made a comment to me that seemed to perfectly sum up this extraordinary man:

“I think Pepe is not of this world.”

 

 

More late justice in Chile

He once seemed a symbol of Chile’s democratic transition: an army general who condemned the Pinochet dictatorship’s human rights record and served as army commander during the government of President Ricardo Lagos, a socialist (2000-06). General Juan Emilio Cheyre published an article in 2003, saying that the military coup thirty years earlier had not been a “triumphant military pronouncement, but a time of acute civic enmity.” Six months later he gave a speech directly criticizing those civilian groups that had urged the Chilean military to stage the 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende’s government. The Chilean press described it as historic.

“Never again excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism,” he said. Chile was building an army for the 21st century and that it was time to move away from Cold War thinking.

And Cheyre’s immediate superior was none other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who was serving as Chile’s first female defense minister.

All this earned him the opprobrium of die hard Pinochet supporters, and Cheyre later said he had received death threats. But the general’s past would eventually surface. Last November he was convicted for his role in the killing of 15 people in the notorious Caravan of Death in northern Chile, where he was stationed after the coup. Cheyre was sentenced to three years’ house arrest for helping to cover up the killings. And this week police arrested him and three other former officials on charges of torturing 24 prisoners during this period.

Which makes Cheyre the most senior official to be held accountable for human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime.

 

 

 

Magnicide!

freiphoto

Former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), whose death was ruled a homicide.

It was 27 years ago that General Augusto Pinochet attended the funeral of a man killed by his own security apparatus: former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Christian Democrat who led Chile from 1964 to 1970.

Protocol demands that acting heads of state attend the funerals of their predecessors, and this blogger covered the funeral.  The dictator’s motorcade pulled up to Santiago’s cathedral and as he emerged from the vehicle there were loud cries of Asesino! Asesino!  from some in the crowd gathered outside, and the jeering resumed after the service when Pinochet left. But the protesters were referring to the thousands of other human rights abuses committed by the regime, and at the time few were aware that Frei had become its latest and perhaps most prominent victim.

Here’s a link to an earlier post on the case.

Frei, one of the most vociferous critics of the socialist government of his successor, Salvador Allende, had even said the 1973 military coup had been necessary.  But as time passed he became a critic and then an opponent and thus came under the sinister eye of Pinochet’s security forces. His driver was an informant, keeping the regime up to date on his activities.

In late 1981 Frei checked into a private hospital in Santiago for a hernia operation and was discharged three days later, seemingly on the road to recovery. But Frei was slowly being poisoned to death and was readmitted to the hospital, where he died on January 22, 1982.

Frei’s body was eventually exhumed and examined by forensic experts, who found traces of mustard gas and other toxins. A judge in Santiago has indicted six people, including Frei’s former driver, in connection with the case, with sentences ranging from three to 10 years. Two of the indicted are former university professors of medicine charged with covering up the poisoning and falsifying the autopsy report.

Some further reading (in Spanish):

Frei’s daughter Carmen’s book on the case, Magnicidio: La historia del crimen de mi padre

And the Chilean newspaper La Tercera has a special report on the investigation.

 

Chile, 30 Years Later

It is the 30th anniversary of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet’s one-man presidential plebiscite, in which Chileans were asked to cast yes or no ballots to determine whether his regime should be extended for another eight years.  He lost, but remained army commander for another decade and then–in accordance with the provisions of his own constitution–became a lifetime member of the Chilean Senate.

His senatorial career, of course, was interrupted by his arrest in London in 1998 and after a prolonged legal battle returned to Chile to find that a man he had once imprisoned was about to become president.

This week a performer whose satirical song, “El Vals del No,” set to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz, sang it at the Chilean Congress. Here is a link to the video; the woman in the striped jacket is late Salvador Allende’s daughter Isabel, now a member of the Chilean Senate.

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.