Si Vas Para Chile: The Struggle for Hope

The tide turns

Yet, for all the trauma the country was experiencing, Allende’s popular support did not dissipate.  When I returned to the US at the end of 1972, the right was focusing its attention on gaining the two-thirds majority necessary to use quasi-legal means to remove Allende from office.  It was with jubilation that I saw that, far from falling below one-third, the UP significantly increased its support in the congressional elections nearly winning an absolute majority.  My joy mixed with fear, however, because the right’s electoral failure meant that, if they could not defeat Allende democratically, only military insurrection could reverse the flow of popular support.  In June, a small regiment moved tanks in on the Moneda, but their attempted coup was premature.  By September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s reign of terror had begun.


Return to the land of hopes and fears

Now, thirty-three years later, I returned to Chile for the first time.  Rather than the anonymous cab driver who drove me to Santiago in 1972, a leading Chilean journalist, Ernesto Carmona,Consejero Nacional of the Colegio de Periodistas, met me at the airport.  Sitting in the modern airport coffee bar, over espresso coffee and chain-smoked cigarettes, Ernesto told me of the five hundred page work he had written documenting the fates of some of the three thousand Chileans who were “disappeared” by the junta.
Ernesto connected me with some remarkable Chileans of the Allende years who remained committed to socialist ideals.  I met Mireya Baltra, a dynamic woman who had gone from selling newspapers in a kiosk to become Minister of Labor in the Allende government.  Mireya spoke with passion of the UP’sattempt to build a new society through electoral means.  She told me of her exile and how she’d crossed the Andes on horseback with Gladys Marín, a leader of the Chilean Communist party, to get back into Chile in order to confront the Pinochet government.  Knowing how many had been tortured and murdered by the junta, it amazed me to see this small woman before me who had dared to put herself directly in harm’s way in order to bring into the open the vicious reality of Pinochet’s abusive power.
Through Ernesto I was also able to converse with Victor Pey, a close friend of Salvador Allende, now in his nineties.  These were conversations more than interviews and I took no tape recorder nor even wrote down notes.  I wanted to talk to these people, to experience the world through their eyes.  Victor recalled how Allende and his foreign minister, Clodomiro Almeyda (whom I’d met briefly in 1972) had been forewarned on a visit to the Algerian president, Houari Boumediene, that without complete control of the army, they could not succeed.  Almeyda returned to Algeria for a conference of non-aligned nations in the first days of September of 1973.  Boumediene questioned Almeyda on how things stood.  Almeyda assured him that, as difficult as the situation was, the army was committed to constitutionality and would hold firm with the government.  Boumediene spoke frankly: it was a matter of weeks or even days, he said, before the army would turn and usurp Allende’s government.
Victor told me of the Saturday before the coup when he had lunch with Allende in the home of Miria Contreras, “La Payita,” Allende’s secretary and companion, whose son was detained and disappeared along with all those who stood with Allende on the fateful Tuesday, September 11.  General Arturo Prats, who up until a few days before had held the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean army before being replaced by Pinochet, was already there at the house, waiting for Allende.  Allende told Victor of what Prats had warned him.  Prats told Allende that he had spoken to Eduardo Frei.  Of all Chileans, Frei, former president of the republic and leader of the Democracia Christiana, was held most highly in esteem by a great many Chileans.  General Prats had told Frei that civil war was imminent; he told Frei that he, Frei, was the only person who could step in to prevent a bloody coup d’etat.  Frei only lowered his head and said nothing.  Prats repeated his plea to be sure that Frei heard and understood him.  He urged Frei to step in to lead the DC to act to prevent the bloodshed, but Frei again said nothing and only bowed his head.  Victor, exiled from Spain and imprisoned by the Nazis in France when Franco defeated the Loyalists, once again found himself in exile.
The horror of the Pinochet regime is now well documented including more than thirty thousand documented cases of political arrests.  Torture became routine.  I visited Villa Grimaldi, in the heart of a residential Santiago neighborhood, where virtually all of its five thousand prisoners were tortured.  Stephen Volk, a friend of mine in Chile in 1972 and former Research Director of the North American Congress on Latin America, told me that seventy percent of all women imprisoned by the junta were raped.
A person did not have to be a politically active to be victimized by the brutality of the coup.  I spent a day with Mario Irarrázabal, a gentle and humorous man who is one of Chile’s finest sculptors.  Mario was never involved politically but soon after the coup he found himself arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.  When he was taken, Mario did not even know why he had been arrested.  Only afterwards, did he discover that he had been taken as a hostage to pressure the Catholic Church.  Because Mario’s brother was a significant figure in the church, the junta had used Mario to press the church into easing its stand against the junta.  I asked Mario how long he was imprisoned.  He told me that, once he was released, he realized that it had only been a short time, but, he said, “when you are being tortured, there is no time.  It is forever.”
In Mario’s studio, his sculpture told the history of life after the coup.  Mario went to Germany after his release, he told me, to sculpt and forget.  But the mind is not so easily fooled:  His work was filled with grotesque military figures.  When Mario returned to Chile, his military figures gave way to ordinary humans, but they were deeply embedded in monumental blocks.  Only now, some thirty years later, are the human figures beginning to fully emerge from the blocks.  Only now do they stand together in groups of free standing people with the monumental blocks opening and receding into the background.
Music is also an arena in which some of the strongest political thoughts and emotions are often expressed and this remains true in Chile today.  Pinochet’s regime recognized this, allowing expression in small clubs for a time before crushing them brutally and imprisoning many of the artists.  I visited Joan Jara whose FundaciónVictor Jara celebrates her husband’s life and work.  It was, of course, Victor Jara who wrote and sang songs that became anthems forUnidad Popular supporters until his hands were crushed and he was murdered by the military in the National Stadium where so many were imprisoned after the coup.  We spoke of the necessity to keep memory alive not only as a remembrance the past but as a fire for the present and the future.
Later I went with another musician, Ismael Duran, to a different kind of memorial.  Ismael was asked to play his guitar and sing at the memorial to the death of Miguel Enriquez, leader of the MIR who was murdered by the junta in 1974.  As we paused for a moment in our wanderings in the enormous central cemetery of Santiago looking for Miguel Enriquez’ grave site,  Ismael sat, tuned his guitar and sung a heartfelt elegy to Enriquez, who died in his conviction that the people could rise up and defeat the facistas who had taken over his country.  Before we’d gone to the cemetery, Ismael introduced me to a woman to whom he lent some of the space he was putting together for a new peña-like space called Bandolero.  She had been imprisoned for twelve years under Pinochet, but now she was fighting again, trying to organize women who work at home making hand-made special items like shoes that sell for hundreds of dollars while earning far less than the pitiful minimum wage.

The irrepressible struggle

That is the kind of spirit I went to Chile to find, the spirit that cannot be dominated, no matter what is done to a person, and I found it over and over again.  As a psychologist – when I returned to the United States I taught psychology at the State University of New York for twenty-five years – I’ve always found the concept of how repression works to be a useful explanatory tool.  If a perception, a memory or a desire is deeply forbidden it can be kept from the conscious mind, but only a great cost.  The repressed doesn’t go away; it stays in the person, struggling to emerge.  Great energy is required to keep it out of consciousness, to prevent it bursting out and demanding gratification.  The more fundamental and urgent the need, the more intense must be the energy devoted to keep it repressed.
Applying this metaphor helps me understand what has happened in Chile, why events of more than thirty years ago still matter today, and perhaps suggests what might lie ahead, not only for Chile, but for humanity.  Over the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, one fact always fascinated me:  No one, literally no one that I knew in Chile, expected anything like the intensity and duration of Pinochet’s repressive brutality.  When Eduardo Frei bowed his head and would not step in to stop a coup, surely he believed that, in days or at most weeks, he and his Democracia Christiana would soon be heading the Chilean government.  As the he and the rest of DC conspired with the US to undermine Allende’s presidency, they believed that soon Chile would be “restored” to a country that was open for business with all the trimmings of a modern democracy.
What they, the “democratic opposition” to Allende, did not consider, however, was that merely removing Allende the UP was not going nearly far enough for those who aimed to crush the people’s spirit, to rein in the hope for a just and equitable society among the masses of citizens.  Pinochet – and his Chilean and U.S. sponsors – knew.  To this day, Pinochet, when he is not feigning mental incompetence to avoid standing trial for his crimes, speaks with pride that those he murdered were killed because it was necessary to prevent the “Marxist takeover” of Chile.  As psychological repression depends on more than sayingthat something is bad, but must terrifythe person into being afraid to even think the forbidden thoughts, so political repression depends on crushing human aspirations so brutally that one cannot even think of revolutionary change without being terrified.
Before the coup, for more than fifty years with only minor interruptions, Chile had democratically elected its leaders.  For less than three years, Salvador Allende led his country.  But to crush the spirit and hope unleashed by the victory of the Unidad Popularrequired sixteen and a half years of one the most brutal police state dictatorships of the twentieth century.  More than three thousand documented executed or “disappeared,” more than thirty thousand political prisoners, the vast majority tortured, perhaps half a million people, one out of every twenty Chileans, sent or escaped into exile.  Noam Chomsky, writing about Nicaragua, explains the brutality of the contras attack on the Sandinistas as the consequence of the “danger of a good example,” the danger that a socialist revolution in Nicaragua could show that a more humane, more just, anti-imperialist state could not only exist but flourish.  As Allende’s friend, Victor Pey, said to me: “How much more dangerous would it be, then, for a free, democratic Chile to successfully choose to become socialist.  Far more dangerous,” he told me, “than even Fidel Castro and Cuba.  Far more dangerous.”
But no amount of repression is ever completely successful over the long run.  The legitimate aspirations of a people will re-emerge no matter how brutally those aspirations are crushed.  I could see that in Chile today:  In the passions that still burn in those who struggled to make the Unidad Popular succeed, in the musicians who sing the praises of their fallen heroes, and in the youth of today, turning out en masse to protest globalization or to sing new politically conscious songs of social criticism.  One evening toward the end of my stay, I went back the cabaret-theatre of the Fundación Victor Jara, to their cabaret/theatre to see a lively evening of comedy and cueca.  The comedy was heavily laced with political criticism while the cueca was full of the emotional exuberance and spontaneity of the Chilean people as couples in the audience, young and old, got up to do join in the festive dancing.  And I knew why I had come back to Chile:  To remind myself that the human spirit, the human need to build a democratic and equitable society, will always find a way to struggle to express itself.
¡La lucha continua!  ¡Viven Los Testarudos!



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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning