Britons in Chile laugh off fears for their safety

The Foreign Office has warned ex-pats and tourists in Chile to beware of anti-British feeling. In fact they have little to fear, writes David Roberts, editor of Santiago's English-language weekly newspaper 'News Review'
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LAST WEEK, as General Augusto Pinochet languished under comfortable arrest in London, the Foreign Office warned Britons not to make any "non- essential" trips to Chile, because they might become targets of mob violence. "Feeling against Britain and British nationals is running high," said a spokesman. Britons in Chile should keep a "low profile".

The embassy in Santiago advised British citizens "to act with prudence and to stay away from crowds and areas where political meetings and demonstrations are taking place". Worse still, "bars and pubs known to be frequented by the English-speaking community should also be avoided".

So, were the 2,000 to 3,000 of us lying low, fearing for our safety and only emerging with relief after the High Court in London upheld the former dictator's diplomatic immunity? Not exactly. The people of Chile, according to the interior under-secretary, Belisario Velasco, "welcome the British and Spanish, as is their custom ... all the English and all the Spanish who live here can be absolutely calm".

Indeed, Chileans are known as the "English of South America", having picked up many peculiarly British habits over the centuries, such as a fondness for tea-drinking. (Bad habits, too, have made their way to this corner of the world, with local football hooligans often waving British flags in homage to their remote mentors.)

There were anti-British demonstrations outside the embassy and the ambassador's residence, which included egg-throwing and the burning of Union Jacks. There were also reports, as embassy officials put it, of isolated incidents in Santiago involving persons mistaken as British - well, one Australian was hit over the head with a bottle, his assailants apparently believing he was a Pom. The British Council was shut temporarily by the Pinochetista mayor of the fashionable Providencia district, but embassy staff ripped off the "Closed Down" signs, saying the municipal authorities lacked jurisdiction, "and they know it".

The worst indignity known to have been suffered by any British citizen was a few abusive telephone calls - from other British citizens. There are about 10,000 Anglo-Chileans who hold dual nationality, some of whom are so far to the right they make Gen Pinochet look like a liberal democrat. Thanks to them, the Anglo-Chilean Society insisted that national sovereignty be respected in the Pinochet case, and the Chilean-British Chamber of Commerce backed President Eduardo Frei's argument that only Chilean courts had jurisdiction over crimes committed on Chilean soil.

The average Chilean would not be able to distinguish a Briton from any other gringo, but even among those who think they know something about the country which arrested their ex-leader, there are some yawning misconceptions. One friend who claimed that the authorities were "checking up on illegal British workers" could not understand how Britons could dare question Chile's transition to democracy when it is the House of Lords (or Lores, as they call them in Spanish) which will decide Pinochet's fate. "What?" he demanded. "And you have the cheek to complain about our one life senator?" The concept of law lords seemed too complex to be worth explaining. One group of anti-Pinochet demonstrators outside the British embassy believed their prayers had literally been answered and held a banner thanking Princess Diana for a "favour conceded".

The fuss was greeted with disdain by one long-time British resident, who perhaps for obvious reasons declined to be identified. Gen Pinochet, he said, "still receives blind adulation from a formidable group of hysterical middle-aged, upper-middle class, menopausal women who are convinced mi general saved them from mass rape by the communists". All the same, he went on, "I wouldn't like to meet a group of them on a dark night in a Union Jack T-shirt".

But for most Britons, and those who might be mistaken as British, the primary concern is the effect the row could have on business, and not just the consequences of the local jet-set boycotting Scotch whisky. "I think it's a bit of a rash move. I've got a friend who has a travel agency and he's really mad, as everyone from Britain is cancelling," said one Briton in Santiago.

"First we have the Asian crisis, then Pinochet gets arrested by the British, and now they issue these warnings saying Britons shouldn't go to British- style pubs," said Tom Drove, South African owner of the Phone Box, the closest thing there is in Santiago to a genuine British pub. "It's just bad for business."

Put Pinochet on trial, page 28