The Sorrows of Santiago: Augusto Pinochet and Chile
A white and tan, nondescript bus pulled up to the station, I got off it, slept in the car taking me to my new home and awoke only to wonder where were the mountains, the great Cordiera I had heard so much about had gone. Smog and dark clouds hung over the already laden and tense air. I was 17; the year was 1998, and Santiago, Chile awaited me. I remember the year, because it was when Pinochet had elected himself senator for life and called in the army to curb the increasingly large and frequent protests.
It was a hot August. Almost all the Chileans were fixated on the World Cup in France. On the day of the victory in the quarter finals at the World Cup, the crowds were boiling over with joy and pushed to the breaking point when Pinochet called in the army in order to ward off unrest. His last stand to guarantee his eternal and indisputable power wasn’t taken lightly, and the people were teeming and still are over years of injustice.
On the day of the soccer match, the euphoria was infectious. Everywhere you went, people smiled broadly, and they kept smiling even when no one was looking at them. While I was taking the bus to Plaza Italia to celebrate, a young boy with a blue painted face kissed me. I couldn’t have been more pleased being 17. I joined in for a bit, that is, I joined in kissing and waving flags. People were clapping in tandem with beeping car horns. I had taken a fantastic nap and woken up in another world that was wonderfully friendly and awoke my sense of free spirit.
When I arrived to Plaza Italia in the underground, the celebration had changed to horror as I saw hundreds of blue people whose face paint was streaked with tears. I pushed past the guards to get out onto the street, away from the frantic hordes of people trying to reach the safety of the underground. In Plaza d’Italia, I stumbled into something unexpected, not like a beautiful woman, or a robbery in an alleyway, no, what I saw was a purposeful attack on people trying to celebrate a victory for their country.
In South America, there are places you can disappear into, little detours, side trips where you can be marked deeply and permanently changed. You may disappear on Lake Titicaca in Peru after suddenly joining a cult of Quechwa Indians who drink corn liquor all day sitting on straw mats. You may be in Buenos Aires, Argentina playing dice with the locals, going into debt, tapping your feet to the tango. Armed rebels may hijack your bus, people may wash up on shore killed for their organs, and you may have champagne with the best looking man you’ve ever laid eyes on. In South America, you never know what lies around the next corner – it could be love, it could be death, maybe, and it’s your taxi running out of gas.
Yet, I’ll never forget Santiago, because it was a country with so much unfinished business revolving around the crimes of one man. This man was the symbol of the “Dirty War” (1973-1990). This man was the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This November, the new socialist President Ricardo Lagos has reformed the constitution in an attempt to dismantle the last vestiges keeping Pinochet from being brought to justice for the torture, killings and illegal arrested represented by over 35,000 cases.
I won’t forget Santiago, because I witnessed on one, memorable occasion what the Chilean people have struggled with for nearly fifty years. Along the walls of skyscrapers in downtown, on that day I stepped out of the metro, I saw people embracing each other, not out of passion, but out of fear. I saw a young girl limp, clutching her boyfriend in both arms. When his forehead bled, she wiped the droplets from his eyes with her jeweled hand.
I looked past the people and went towards the barren street. To my left, encircled around the statue of a military hero, riot police lined up with shields. German shepards barked in the distance. Alone on the colonnade, I wandered further into a subconscious reality, letting each face unfold in my mind.
I remember precisely what I was wearing, I had on a skirt and a pair of shoes I’d purchased the day before. The shoes gave me an extra two inches on my 5’9 frame. I couldn’t hide.
For a moment, I found myself walking alone down the street. All the other people were on the sides, near the buildings. I was utterly bewildered standing in the middle of an empty colonnade with about 40 troops gathered in a human wall in the square, a few yards away, ready to charge.
I clung to my sack and wondered why I was there standing alone with 40 armed troops all aiming their menacing stance at me. Then, suddenly, I heard thousands of screaming civilians running in my direction. My first thought was, “oh shit”. It was as literary as that. “Oh, holy, shit”, I said. Dumb, like a starfish clinging to some imaginary rock, I hesitated for a few seconds. Young Chileans were passing me like I didn’t exist. After a few seconds, hundreds were already running ahead of me. It seemed like an eternity.
I started to run. I ran with everyone else. I ran when the mounted police with bayonets came. I felt those warm bodies and the stemming breath of the horses next to me, as I darted back and forth. I ran for my life. We were all, running, running to beat the band.
I, suddenly, veered to the right and hid behind a cement wall. Three other people followed me. At a certain point, when a group is being attacked, people become individuals. Any notion of solidarity is out of the question – it’s every man for himself. My three followers, fearful, shaking, frantically looking around, were all like me – alone, scared and afraid. There wasn’t any time to talk. No one wanted to look each other in the face. Were they afraid to recognize the fear in others? What if the face disappears and is never seen again?
They were catching their breath, eyes fixed on the row of riot guards. I wanted to see their fear. I looked at their faces. They looked at the tanks and the cabineros on horseback. I looked at their eyes, the eyes of an intelligent animal trying to hide. They looked at the people being beaten and chased in every direction.
I darted from the wall, shirked along the side of a building with a number of others. When I turned the corner, the street filled with a mother-of-pearl haze. I didn’t recognize it at first. Instinctively, I brought my scarf to my nose, but my eyes were already exposed to the tear gas. I couldn’t see and choked. I fell into the smoke like a leopard in the dark.
II. An Hour Later
The sky was always clear that day and the street long. The shopping district of Providencia was only a few miles away. I watched the aftermath from a TV in a store window. The camera panned wordlessly to the hundreds cornered against the buildings in the square. Merchants were walking by the TVs as if nothing was occurring a few miles away. They were used to it, perhaps it was better to ignore.
I wanted to know what the police had done with those people. I walked back through the park and from a distance. Safely situated on the other side of the combat, I saw the police from a different side, their backs. From that direction, I had the impression of how much more impersonal the back is to the face, but I was no longer interested in watching this cat and mouse game. The people were cornered, the story almost over.
I passed another park dividing the two main parallel streets. Everything had a subdued air, sedated and surreal. People relaxed on the benches; young couples, taking advantage of a few hours away from their families, kissed, huddled under picnic blankets. I continued walking on, spotting a young Chilean boy in front of me who was wearing a baby blue shirt that contrasted his dark features. He looked like a famous Chilean tennis star. I began to speed up; he slowed down.
Soon we were walking next to each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of men armed with bats beating up a man in the grass. After the combat with the police, some of the people were looking to make trouble with anyone to get out their anger. These men with bats were picking innocent victims incensed by the violence they had encountered before. The young boy in blue saw the men coming towards us and looked directly at me. I never could understand why he did that.
He turned to me silently and said, “Ven conmigo”, taking my hand.
We crossed the street at the same time as the banditos. The stranger’s hand went against my stomach. “Stop”, his hand motioned. We stood still, still as a country pond full of alligators. The men went around us like the parting of the Red Sea. They picked up an old man on the bench a few feet in front of us and beat him. He was old, defenseless, as there were ten strong men making meat of him. No one came to his aid. We didn’t help either.
From behind, the cabineros on horseback came, hooves thundering on the pavement like a pack of heavy hyenas. The marching band of galloping, nervous horses pounced on the banditos as the cabineros rustled like a furry of blue-tinted butterflies. The stranger and I were staid in the shadow of a statue of the military hero behind us, caught in the moment of a battle. This was a battle, however, that could be forgotten.
But I didn’t forget it marked me the way history tries to imprint itself on the present with monuments. It leaves something heavy, stone, a stain on your consciousness. My memories of it are a penance for a history of pain in a country that has never been able to put it to rest. The families of the disappeared, the dreams of youth destroyed, the passion for justice, lingers about the air and in the minds of the people, as a kind of living fiction. Each country yields to a new pallet of circumstances that few foreigners can truly understand, but Chile, for me is an exception. We must try to understand it, because if we don’t these crimes will happen again and again all over the world.
After a few minutes, the stranger and I were the only ones left. The beaten man was carried away. Not a word was spoken. We nodded to each other and parted ways.