Chile, enraged

 

CHILE-TRANSPORT-METRO-PROTEST

This blogger’s heart is breaking as the news from Chile keeps getting worse. For the past several days Santiago has been rocked by protests over an increase in public transportation fares, and these protests have given way to rioting and looting. Which in turn has given way to the government imposing a state of emergency, sending the army into the streets and imposing a 7 pm to 6 am curfew.  It seems like a flashback to the dark days of the dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Three people were killed when a supermarket in Santiago was set on fire, and some airlines are cancelling flights to the Chilean capital–airport and airline employees can’t get to work.  And the unrest has spread to other Chilean cities.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet sent me this report from Santiago:

“Friday afternoon, 4 p.m.  I am on the corner of Tobalaba and Providencia avenues, trying to get home in the La Reina municipality of Santiago.  Hundreds of people are on foot, walking calmly and in silence.  It was hot, but people were not complaining.  The buses were not stopping because they were full to capacity. I counted 40 taxis passing by, all filled. Dozens of cars with no passengers, only their drivers, passed by.  I tried to make eye contact. Nothing. No one stopped to offer anyone a lift. I was shocked. The slogan that we’re a solidarity country seems like a joke. Another popular myth.

Santiago awoke on Saturday the 19th with tanks and soldiers in the streets, under a state of emergency.  Along with thousands of my compatriots, I found the scene painful, and in a split second we were back in the dark days of the military dictatorship. As if that weren’t enough, that same day President Sebastián Piñera declared a curfew.

For 17 years Chile was an armored country, with successive states of exception: the state of emergency, the state of siege, of disturbance to the internal peace. Cruel dictatorship. This is the  first time a state of emergency has been imposed since Chile returned to democratic rule, with the brief exception of the 2010 earthquake.  Chile’s digital newspaper El Mostrador bore this headline: “The day after black October 18, the military controls Santiago,  as it did in the 1980s.” But despite this people beat saucepans and honked car horns throughout the capital. The city was under a state of emergency, but it was not asleep. As the hours passed the protests grew and Piñera was forced to suspend the fare increase in the Santiago metro.

Up till then the government had managed to evade the source of the conflict, it only reinforced police action and applied the State Security Law. As we Chileans put it, he threw gasoline on the fire.

For a week now the Chilean capital has been witness to daily demonstrations by students protesting the fare hike.  Saturday’s tally: 308 arrests, 500 soldiers in the streets and reports of 11 people injured.  41 of the nearly 140 Metro stations were damaged, and some were burned. 16 buses were also burned. Police officers injured.  There was looting in some parts of Santiago and a building belonging to the state energy corporation, Enel, was burned.

What happened over the past few days is the unmistakeable scream of a country that can’t take any more. There are millions with pent up rage who feel they have nothing left to lose.  The underlying reason is not the Metro fare hike but the scandalous inequality in our society. Chile is the most unequal country in the region. This malaise was always going to erupt: people feel defenceless in the face of the rising cost of utilities, education, health care and the mismanagement of pension funds.

In the face of despair, extreme actions. Students began fare jumping in the Metro and a group of vandals did the rest, looting stores, banks, burning buses and destroying traffic lights.

Meanwhile, Piñera was writing his official speech and giving assurances that our country, in comparison with the rest of Latin America, “is an oasis.”

Something is very wrong here. Chile’s soul is rotting.”

 

 

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.

 

Wolf House

Casa del lobo

It’s the title of a new film inspired by Colonia Dignidad, the horrific German colony in southern Chile used by the Pinochet dictatorship’s secret police. La Casa Lobo, or Wolf House, is the work of two young Chilean producers, Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña, and recently won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

And it’s animated, a form not usually associated with horror, but the filmmakers used an intriguing approach: if the sinister leader of the cult were a Latin American Walt Disney, what kind film would he make? In an interview with El Mostrador, León noted that reports of abuses at Colonia Dignidad had been filtering out since the 1960s, but nothing was done about it. It is important to discuss this subject, and to find new forms and perspectives to deal with our national traumas, he said.

Here’s a link to the official trailer

20 years ago today, in London…

extradite pinochet

Protesters in London after Pinochet was placed under house arrest.

It was a trip he had been looking forward to, surgery and shopping in London. Britain, he told the journalist Jon Lee Anderson, was his favorite country.  He had just retired as Chile’s army commander, a post he kept after being forced to turn the presidency over to an elected civilian eight years earlier. He and his retinue visited Fortnum and Mason, had a drink with Margaret Thatcher before checking into a private clinic for hernia surgery.

And then he was arrested, held for 15 months while his lawyers and British authorities haggled over a Spanish judge’s extradition request. His supporters argued he was too frail and sickly to stand trial. But when his plane touched down in Santiago General Augusto Pinochet stood up from his wheelchair and walked briskly to his well-wishers, making little use of the cane he was carrying.

Pinochet survived another six years, eluding prosecution for human rights abuses, arms trafficking and corruption, hiding behind vague claims of illness and memory loss.  But his legacy still lives on in some sectors of Chilean society. Earlier this month a ceremony honoring one of his dictatorship’s most egregious human rights abusers,, Miguel Krassnoff, was held at the Chilean army academy, the Escuela Militar. Two army officials behind the tribute were demoted, but not fired.

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.