Isabel Allende: Chile under the gun

How did Chile's generals manage to overthrow a democratic government and maintain their brutal junta for 17 years? For novelist Isabel Allende, a close relative of the flawed but idealistic man Augusto Pinochet swept from power, the pain of confronting these questions is acute. As the death of the dictator closes a grim chapter in her nation's history, she describes what living through it was like - and the joy of seeing her homeland heal itself
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The Independent US

To give an idea of what the military coup was like, you have to imagine how a citizen of the United States or Great Britain would feel if the army rolled up in full battle gear to attack the White House or Buckingham Palace, and in the process caused the deaths of thousands of citizens, among them the President of the US or the Queen and Prime Minister of Great Britain, then indefinitely suspended Congress or Parliament, disbanded the Supreme Court, abrogated individual liberties and political parties, declared absolute censorship of the media, and finally, over time, strove mercilessly to extinguish every dissident voice.

Now, imagine that these same military men, possessed with Messianic fanaticism, installed themselves in power for years, prepared to root out every last ideological adversary. That is what happened in Chile.

The socialist adventure led by Salvador Allende ended tragically. The military junta, presided over by General Augusto Pinochet, applied the doctrine of "savage capitalism", as the neoliberal experiment has been called, but refused to acknowledge that, to function smoothly, it requires a labour force free to exercise its rights. Brutal repression was used to destroy the last seed of leftist thought and implant a heartless capitalism. Chile was not an isolated case - the long night of dictatorships darkened the continent for more than a decade. In 1975, half of Latin America's citizens lived under some kind of repressive government, most of which were backed by the United States.

The Allende family - that is, those who didn't die - were taken prisoner, went into hiding, or left the country. My brothers, who were out of the country, did not return. My parents, who were in the embassy in Argentina, remained in Buenos Aires for a while, until they received death threats and had to escape. Most of my mother's family, on the other hand, were bitterly opposed to the Unidad Popular, and many of them celebrated the military coup with champagne.

My grandfather detested socialism and eagerly awaited the end of Allende's government, but he never wanted it to be at the cost of democracy. He was horrified to see the government in the hands of the military, whom he despised, and he ordered me not to get involved. It was impossible, however, for me to stay on the edges of what was happening. This fine old man spent months observing me and asking tricky questions; I think he suspected that his granddaughter would vanish at any moment. How much did he know about what was happening around him? He lived an isolated life, he almost never went out of the house, and his contact with reality came through the press, which suppressed the truth and overtly lied. I may have been the one person who gave him the other side of the picture.

At first, I tried to keep him informed because, in my role as a journalist, I had access to the underground network that replaced serious sources of information during that period, but eventually I stopped bringing him bad news because I didn't want to frighten or depress him. Friends and acquaintances began to disappear; some returned after weeks of absence, with the eyes of madmen and signs of torture. Many sought refuge in other countries. In the beginning, Mexico, Germany, France, Canada, Spain and other countries took them in, but after a while, they had to call a halt because thousands of other Latin American exiles were being added to the waves of Chileans.

In Chile, where friendship and family are very important, something happened that can be explained only by the effect that fear has on the soul of a society. Betrayal and denunciation snuffed out many lives; all it took was an anonymous voice over the telephone for the badly named intelligence services to sink their claws into the accused, and, in many cases, nothing was ever heard of that person again. People were divided between those who backed the military government and those who opposed it; hatred, distrust, and fear poisoned relationships. Democracy was restored more than a decade ago, but that division can still be felt, even in the heart of many families.

Crimes perpetrated in shadows during those years have, inevitably, been coming to light. Airing the truth is the beginning of reconciliation, although the wounds will take a long time to heal because those responsible for the repression have not admitted their guilt and are not disposed to ask for forgiveness. The acts of the military regime will go unpunished, but they can no longer be hidden or ignored. Many, especially young people who grew up without political dialogue or without a critical spirit, believe that there's been enough digging through the past, that we must look to the future, but victims and their families cannot forget. It's possible that we will have to wait until the last witness to those times dies before we can close that chapter of our history.

By 1980, I was no longer in Chile. I stayed awhile, but when I felt repression tightening like a noose around my neck, I left. I watched the country and its people change. I tried to adapt and not attract attention, as my grandfather had asked, but it was impossible because, in my situation as a journalist, I knew too much. At first, my fear was something vague and difficult to define, like a bad smell. I discounted the terrible rumours that were circulating, alleging that there was no proof, and when proof was presented to me, I said those were exceptions. I thought I was safe because I wasn't visibly "involved" in politics, in the meantime sheltering desperate fugitives in my home or helping them over embassy walls in search of asylum.

I thought that, if I were arrested, I could explain that I was acting out of humanitarian motives. Apparently, I was somewhere on the moon. I broke out in hives from head to foot, I couldn't sleep, and the sound of a car in the street after curfew would leave me trembling for hours. It took me a year and a half to realise the risk I was running, and, finally, in 1975, following a particularly agitated and danger-filled week, I left for Venezuela, carrying a handful of Chilean soil from my garden.

A month later, my husband and my children joined me in Caracas. I suppose I suffer the affliction of many Chileans who left during that time: I feel guilty for having abandoned my country. I have asked myself a thousand times what would have happened had I stayed, like so many who fought the dictatorship from within, until it was overthrown in 1989. No one can answer that question, but of one thing I am sure: I would not be a writer had I not experienced that exile.

The hard question is why at least one third of Chile's total population backed the dictatorship, even though, for most, life wasn't easy, and even adherents of the military government lived in fear. Repression was far-reaching, although there's no doubt that the poor and the leftists suffered most. Everyone felt he was being spied on, no one could say that he was completely safe from the claws of the state. It is a fact that information was censored and brainwashing was the goal of a vigorous propaganda machine; it is also true that the opposition lost many years and a lot of blood before it could get organised. But none of this explains the dictator's popularity.

The percentage of the population that approved of him was not motivated solely by fear: Chileans like authority. They believed that the military was going to "clean up" the country. "They put an end to delinquency, we don't see walls defaced with graffiti any more, everything is clean, and, thanks to the curfew, our husbands get home early," one friend told me. For her, those things compensated for the loss of civil rights because she wasn't directly affected: she was in the fortunate position of not having her children lose their jobs without compensation, or of being arrested.

I understand why the economic right, which, historically, has not been characterised as a defender of democracy, and which, during those years, made more money than ever before, backed the dictatorship, but what about the rest? I haven't found a satisfactory answer to that question, only conjectures.

Pinochet represented the intransigent father, capable of imposing strict discipline. The three years of the Unidad Popular were a time of experimentation, change, and disorder; the country was weary. Repression put an end to politicking, and neoliberalism forced Chileans to work, keep their mouths closed, and be productive, so that corporations could compete favourably in international markets. Nearly everything was privatised, including health, education, and social security. The need to survive drove private initiative.

Today, Chile not only exports more salmon than Alaska, but also, among hundreds of other non-traditional products, ships out frogs' legs, goose feathers, and smoked garlic. The US press celebrated the triumph of Pinochet's economic system and gave him credit for having turned a poor country into the star of Latin America.

None of the indices, however, revealed the distribution of wealth; nothing was known of the poverty and uncertainty in which several million people were living. There was no mention of the soup kitchens in poor neighbourhoods that fed thousands of families - there were more than 500 in Santiago alone - or of the fact that private charities and churches were trying to replace the social services that are the responsibility of the state. There was no open forum for discussing government actions or those of businessmen; public services were handed over to private companies, and foreign corporations acquired natural resources such as forests and oceans, which have been exploited with very little ecological conscience. A callous society was created in which profit is sacred; if you are poor, it's your own fault, and if you complain, that makes you a Communist. Freedom consists of having many brand names to choose from when you go out to buy on credit.

The figures of economic growth, which won The Wall Street Journal's praise, did not represent real development since 10 per cent of the population possessed half the nation's wealth, and there were a hundred people who earned more than the state spent on all social services combined. According to the World Bank, Chile is one of the countries with the worst distribution of income, right alongside Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The head of a Chilean corporation earns the same, or more, than his equivalent in the United States, while a Chilean labourer earns approximately 15 times less than a North American worker. Even today, after more than a decade of democracy, the disparities in wealth are staggering because the economic model hasn't changed. The three presidents who followed Pinochet have had their hands tied; the right controls the economy, the Congress, and the press. Chile, none the less, has proposed to become a developed country within the span of a decade, which is possible if, in fact, wealth is redistributed in a more equitable fashion.

Who was Pinochet, really? Why was he so feared? Why was he admired? I never met him personally, and I didn't live in Chile during the greater part of his government, so I can only judge him by his actions and what others have written about him. I suppose that, to understand Pinochet, you need to read novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, because he had a lot in common with the typical figure of the Latin American caudillo so aptly described by those authors.

He was a crude, cold, slippery, authoritarian man who had no scruples or sense of loyalty other than to the army as an institution - though not to his comrades in arms, whom he had killed according to his convenience, men such as General Carlos Prats and others. He believed that he was chosen by God and history to save his country. He was astute and suspicious, but he could be genial, and, at times, even likeable. Admired by some, despised by others, feared by all, he was possibly the man in our history who has held the greatest power in his hands for the longest period of time.

In Chile, people try to avoid talking about the past. The youngest generations believe the world began with them; anything that happened before they were born doesn't interest them. And it may be that the rest of the population shares a collective shame regarding what took place during the dictatorship, the same feeling that Germany had after Hitler. Both young and old want to avoid discord. No one wants to be led into discussions that drive even deeper wedges. Furthermore, people are too busy trying to get to the end of the month with a salary that doesn't stretch far enough, and quietly doing their job so that they won't be fired, to be concerned about politics.

It's assumed that digging too much into the past can "destabilise" the democracy and provoke the military, a fear that is totally unfounded since the democracy has been strengthened in recent years - since 1989 - and the military has lost prestige.

Besides, this is not a good time for military coups. Despite its many problems - poverty, inequality, crime, drugs, guerrilla wars - Latin America has opted for democracy, and for its part, the United States is beginning to realise that its policy of supporting tyranny does not solve problems - it merely creates new ones.

The military coup didn't come out of nowhere; the forces that upheld the dictatorship were there, we just hadn't perceived them. Defects that had lain there beneath the surface blossomed in all their glory and majesty during that period. It isn't possible that repression on such a grand scale could have been organised overnight unless a totalitarian tendency already existed in a sector of the society; apparently, we were not as democratic as we believed.

As for the government of Salvador Allende, it wasn't as innocent as I like to imagine; it suffered from ineptitude, corruption, and pride. In real life, it may not always be easy to distinguish between heroes and villains, but I can assure you that in democratic governments, including that of the Unidad Popular, there was never the cruelty the nation has suffered every time the military intervenes.

In 1988, the situation changed in Chile; Pinochet had lost the referendum and the country was ready to reinstate democracy. So I went back. I went with fear; I didn't know what I was going to find, and I nearly didn't recognise Santiago or its people: everything was different. The city was filled with gardens and modern buildings, seething with traffic and commerce, energetic and fast-paced and progressive. But there were feudal backwashes, such as maids in blue aprons taking their elderly charges in the wealthy barrios for walks, and beggars at every stoplight.

Chileans were cautious; they respected hierarchies and dressed very conservatively - men in ties, women in skirts - and in many government offices and private enterprises, employees were wearing uniforms, like flight attendants. I realised that many of the people who had stayed and suffered in Chile considered those of us who left to be traitors, and believed that life had been much easier for us. There were many exiles, on the other hand, who accused those who stayed in the country of collaborating with the dictatorship.

The candidate of the Concertacion Party, Patricio Alwyn, had won by a narrow margin; the presence of the military was still intimidating, and people were quiet and frightened as they went about their lives. The press was still censored; the journalists who interviewed me, trained in discretion, asked careful, ingenuous questions, and then didn't publish the answers. The dictatorship had done everything possible to erase recent history and the name of Salvador Allende. On the return flight, when I saw San Francisco Bay from the air, I gave a sigh of exhaustion and, without thinking, said: Back home at last. It was the first time since I'd left Chile in 1975 that I felt I was "home."

In 1994, I went back again to Chile, looking for inspiration, a trip I have since repeated yearly. I found my compatriots more relaxed and the democracy stronger, although conditioned by the presence of a still- powerful military and by the senators Pinochet had appointed for life in order to control the Congress. The government had to maintain a delicate balance among the political and social forces. I went to working-class neighbourhoods where people had once been contentious and organised. The progressive priests and nuns who had lived among the poor all those years told me that the poverty was the same but that the solidarity had disappeared, and that now crime and drugs, which had become the most serious problem among the young, had been added to the issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, and unemployment.

The rules to live by were: try to forget the past, work for the future, and don't provoke the military for any reason. Compared with the rest of Latin America, Chile was living in a good moment of political and economic stability; even so, five million people were still below the poverty level. Except for the victims of repression, their families, and a few organisations that kept a watch out for civil-rights violations, no one spoke the words "disappeared" or "torture" aloud.

That situation changed when Pinochet was arrested in London, where he had gone for a medical check-up and to collect his commission for an arms deal. A Spanish judge charged him with murdering Spanish citizens, and requested his extradition from England to Spain. The general, who still counted on the unconditional support of the armed forces, had, for 25 years, been isolated by the adulators who always congregate around power. He had been warned of the risks of travel abroad, but he went anyway, confident of his impunity. His surprise at being arrested by the British can be compared only to that of everyone in Chile, long accustomed to the idea that he was untouchable. By chance, I was in Santiago when that occurred, and I witnessed how, within the course of a week, a Pandora's box was opened and all the things that had been hidden beneath layers and layers of silence began to emerge. In those first days, there were turbulent street demonstrations by Pinochet's supporters, who threatened nothing less than a declaration of war against England or a commando raid to rescue the prisoner.

The nation's press, frightened, wrote of the insult to the Esteemed Senator-for-Life, and to the honour and sovereignty of the nation, but a week later, demonstrations in his support had become minimal, the military were keeping mute, and the tone had changed in the media: now they referred to the "ex-dictator, arrested in London".

No one believed that the English would hand over the prisoner to be tried in Spain, which in fact didn't happen, but in Chile, the fear that was still in the air diminished rapidly. The military lost prestige and power in a matter of days. The tacit agreement to bury the truth was over, thanks to the actions of that Spanish judge.

Taken from 'My Invented Country' by Isabel Allende, published by Harper Perennial at £7.99. Isabel Allende's new novel, Inés of My Soul, will be published by Fourth Estate in April 2007

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