'We feel the old splits resurfacing ... people fear anything could happen'

As the Pinochet saga drags on, Phil Davison talks to the Chileans who stay off the streets and try to get on with their lives - whoever is in power

YOU DID NOT see the Montes family, from the working class Santiago suburb of San Joaquin, shouting into the TV cameras during Friday's hearing for former dictator Augusto Pinochet in London. You will not see them demonstrating in Santiago either. That is because they are typical Chileans.

Like the vast majority of Chileans, the Montes family are too busy working to feed, clothe and educate their children. Like the vast majority of Chileans, they long ago accepted General Pinochet as part of their political system, not only the coup leader but the man who handed over his power to democracy. And like the vast majority of Chileans, they are angry that Britain and Spain, as in days gone by, appear to be running their lives.

For those who have not been to Chile recently, it may be hard to understand that the vast majority of people here are not up in arms for or against Gen Pinochet. Those seen on TV supporting him are a tiny minority of wealthy or upper middle class Chileans who regard him as the man who saved their country from a Castro-style communist regime. Those who demonstrate against him here are mostly relatives of the more than 3,000 people who were killed or disappeared during his 17-year military regime. The vast majority of Chileans are neither.

Friday night's decision by Chile's civilian government to back Gen Pinochet's defence to the hilt - and to retaliate against Britain - surprised no one here. Nor did Gen Pinochet's statement suggesting he was "sacrificing" himself for the good of his country after saving it from the scourge of communism. What worries people is the fact that the government's harder stance is clearly a result of pressure from the armed forces chiefs, who had kept a low profile since Gen Pinochet stepped down as army commander earlier this year.

The Right is wounded and flexing its muscles. The Left remembers the old days and is afraid. After years of free speech, Chileans are now returning to the habits of old, wary of expressing their opinions in the streets.

"People are upset. We had a strong democracy, of which Pinochet had become a part," said Cesar Montes, a 31-year-old Santiago electrician. "We were well on the path to reconciliation. Now, since Pinochet's arrest, we feel the old splits resurfacing. People feel anything could happen." Like every Chilean now in his 30s or 40s, Cesar served as a soldier during Gen Pinochet's regime under the country's compulsory conscription.

"That's why people here understand the military," he said. "Every family has or had a pelado ["shaved head," or conscript]. When they see a young soldier, they know he's cold, he's hungry, he has been humiliated, he's been forced to crouch with his head on the ground for an hour at a time to learn discipline, to get what the officers call huevones [big balls]."

Cesar lives with his wife Sandra, 27, and three children - Reina, 11, Cesar Jr, 8, and Sebastian, 10 months, with his parents Cesar and Alicia and his German Shepherd, Killer, in a tiny stone house in the suburb of San Joaquin. His father is a construction worker. His mother earns a little on the side from a fruit, vegetable and sweetshop set up in their yard. Cesar considers himself well off, earning pounds 75 a week as an electrician.

A little shrine in the corner of their living room, where there is barely room to walk past the three chairs and coffee table, reveals that, like the majority of Chileans, they are devout Catholics. Cesar's mother and father were typical conservatives, Christian Democrats, when the Marxist Salvador Allende took office in 1970 from a Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, father of the current president of the same name.

"Everybody knew that Allende wanted the poor people to live better. He wanted the poor to have clothes on their back, he wanted them to eat meat," said Alicia, Cesar's mother. "The rich didn't like that. So they started to sabotage him. They hoarded food. Shop shelves were empty, yet people saw lorries dumping good potatoes into ditches at night. They had factories, electric pylons blown up, so they could say 'Look what a bad president he is.'

"We had to get up at five in the morning and queue for hours just to get bread. I couldn't get food for my kids, so I started to blame the government. Plus, there was a lot of looting as people got hungrier. I know a lot of women who deliberately stopped having children because they didn't know whether they could provide for them. When Pinochet staged the coup, we felt sorry for Allende, we knew it was the rich who had screwed him, but there was a sense of hope.

"They shut down all radio and TV except the military channel, which said Allende had committed suicide," she went on. "Nobody believed it. In his last radio broadcast, he said he would not come out alive. The most likely thing is that he fought to the last moment. His body was never shown to the public. If he'd committed suicide, they'd have shown his body as proof."

Gen Pinochet imposed a total curfew for three days, restricting people to their homes. That is why, the Montes said, those not affected were initially unaware that leftists were disappearing. "Then all the food reappeared, so poor folks were happy," said Alicia. "Since we were not involved, we didn't really know what was happening. But one day a neighbour came by and said she had seen bodies being loaded into a military lorry. Then another neighbour's brother-in-law disappeared. There was a lot of fear."

"People didn't hate the military. Every mother's son was in or had been in the military," said Cesar, who later served in the army from 1986-88. "But it was the carabineros [police] who carried out the repression, they are the ones who 'disappeared' people. No one blamed Pinochet for that. If his mano duro ["hard hand" or iron fist] had not existed at that time, where would this country be today?

"A lot of people thought he would never go. But he handed over to democracy in 1990 and he retired from the army this year," added Cesar. "Even though I was never a supporter of his, when he was arrested in Britain, I felt rage. Everybody around here did. We felt that, if we had accepted his transition to democracy, how could a single foreigner, the Spanish judge Garzon, not even a government, intervene that way?"

"We have a strong family tradition in Chile," his mother interrupted. "It's like, I can scold Cesar if he does something bad, but I won't let anyone outside the family scold him."

"Pinochet now has more support here than before he went to London. More than ever," Cesar went on. "They're going to make a martyr of him."

Leading article, page 24; Joan Smith, Alan Watkins, page 25

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