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Santiago Diary


By Dan Swanson

HOW CAN I EXPLAIN the horror of Chile? Chile today is an old woman picking through the garbage in downtown Santiago, looking for something to eat; Chile is 20-year-old Clara with her broad smile, who matter-of-factly told me that "about 50" of her friends were killed or disappeared in the coup; Chile is a ruined dream, a land drenched in sorrow and quivering with fear and desperation.

Not all of the following diary was written while I was in Chile late last year and early this year; parts of it would have implicated both my friends and myself had I been searched. I have naturally changed all the names and altered various incidental facts.

December 22--My Spanish friend Enrique and I crossed the border from Argentina today, smuggling in a recent issue of an Argentina magazine which contained an article warning us about life in Chile. The article explained that economic crisis had reduced the once gay and voluble daily life of Chile to a bitter struggle for survival. It said unemployment in greater Santiago approached 20 per cent while inflation continued at an annual rate of over 300 per cent. (These figures were confirmed in January by El Mercurio, one of Santiago's three pro-junta newspapers). We had feared we would be searched at the border, but we had the good fortune to be in the same bus as a lieutenant of the Carabineros, Chile's national police. He was smuggling in a large cache of Argentina whiskey, so we sailed right through customs.

December 23--We took some long walks through Santiago today, sweltering in the 85-degree summer heat and trying to cook up some ways to get people to talk openly with us. On almost every available wall or other open space we could see where colorful political slogans had been painted over by the junta. We ambled past La Moneda, the presidential palace half destroyed by bombs and tanks in 1973--the inside still gutted although a sign on the outside said repairs were proceeding.

An amazing number of small children were around, either begging in a straightforward way or doing its equivalent--selling old candies. The young couple we met in the central plaza were cautious, but they did say that the number of small beggars had increased greatly in the last two years. We had seen this before, in Peru and Bolivia, but we agreed that the kids here had a certain glazed look in their eyes that was new to us. Perhaps we are imagining things.

In the afternoon, we went for ice cream and the waiter lingered after noticing our foreign accents. "This is a fascist country," he said, unprompted, and launched into a detailed attack against the Pinochet government. We listened, astonished, pretending ignorance. "Were things better once?" I asked. "Yes--under Allende--and that's why they killed him," he answered.

December 24--Christmas Eve. The Chileans did all their last minute shopping today, not in the handful of fancy stores, whose owners complain in the newspapers that business has fallen off, but from a horde of street vendors stretching five blocks who were selling things like home-made wooden toy trucks and paper party noisemakers. About a million kids bubbled through the streets with their parents.

At the last minute, Pinochet announced that the unemployed would receive a special Christmas bonus--five pesos, the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents.

December 27--At about 10, after exploring Santiago all day, we went to a small bar for a few beers. In walked a beautiful little girl, about eight years old, selling aspirin, trailed by three or four smaller brothers and sisters. Her name was Silvia, and she and her charges sell in the streets from early morning until they catch the last bus home before the 1 a.m. curfew. We bought some aspirins, and she went shyly up to Enrique, put her arm around him and gave him a big kiss.

December 28--Today we met Hans, a 65-year-old leftist who was born in Austria and came to Chile in the 1930s fleeing Hitler. He and his buddies, other desperate, old and some not-so-old radicals, hand around the park which lines the Mapocho River. Hans used to put his cosmopolitan background to use in the hotel business--he speaks three languages--but the tourists are afraid of Chile these days; the hotels are empty and Hans has been out of work for over a year.

He is an amazingly warm and wonderful man who seems to know half of Santiago. A middle-aged vendor of balloons meanders by and Hans tells us, "He's with MAPU [the Christian left]." We take Hans to dinner--he had not eaten all day--and the waiter and he exchange knowing winks and oblique references; they were both members of the Socialist Party.

At night, we sit in the park again and an older man, conservatively dressed, strolls along, notices Hans and sits beside us, exchanging pleasantries in the friendly Chilean way. Emilio leans over and whispers, "They are of our line." Instantly, the man's face darkens and he begins to speak fervently. "We Chileans are cowards. We permit this criminal government to keep us down," he says. We try to reassure him that the Chileans are hardly cowards but he will not be dissuaded.

January 2--A slight case of the flu kept me in bed for New Year's Day, but Enrique went out drinking, and told me that the curfew had been relaxed to 3:30 a.m., but that there were police and soldiers with their sub-machine guns on almost every street corner. The curfew, which continues more than two years after the coup, usually begins at 1 a.m. and ends at 5:30 a.m.; anyone caught in the streets between those hours is taken directly to jail for the night.

Hans says that several months ago a military patrol stopped two acquaintances of his, one of whom made a false move. The patrol immediately shot him.

Pinochet, in his New Year's message, promised the Chileans peace and prosperity for 1976. "Every Chilean must put his shoulder to the wheel," is the junta's slogan.

January 4--We went to four of five bookstores today looking for Pablo Neruda's memoirs. The junta has banned the book because the last three pages, written in the 13 days between the coup and Neruda's death, show too vividly the bitterness of a dying man. (I later bought the book outside of Chile, Neruda wrote,.... Then tanks entered into action, many tanks, to fight bravely against one man alone, the president of the Republic of Chile, Salvador Allende, who awaited them in his office, without more company than his great heart, enveloped in smoke and flames.")

I wonder what Neruda felt in those last days as he lay dying, listening to the chattering of the machine-guns.

January 7--Through the recollections of Hans and others, I can tentatively reconstruct what happened during the coup. Almost everyone was surprised by the military action, the chaos leading up to it notwithstanding. Allende spoke over the radio at 7:30 a.m., telling the country the Navy had risen and that the workers should occupy the factories. He spoke again two hours later, saying all the military had revolted and that resistance would be futile. The soldiers, following long-standing contingency plans, fanned out rapidly through Santiago and occupied key sites, such as the radio and TV transmission towers atop the hill which overlooks the city.

At mid-day, people were trapped wherever they happened to be, unable to move without encountering swarms of tanks and soldiers. The attack on La Moneda began at mid-afternoon; simultaneously isolated leftist snipers, most of them young people, moved up to the top floors of the dozen-or-so 20-story buildings in the city's center and began shooting at the soldiers below. The snipers held out, in some cases for hours, until the military stormed each building and killed them. Mass arrests, directed by military intelligence, began immediately. Hans lived near the stadium at that time, and he heard the machine-guns at work all night. Everyone I spoke to saw bodies, many bodies, either strewn about in the city center or floating in the Mapocho River.

January 12--One of our new friends, Pablo, seems to have connections with the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), Chile's most extreme socialist group. He was a high-school teacher before the coup, was arrested, taken to the stadium, served over a year in jail and now tries to survive by selling balloons in the parks. He said the prisoners at the stadium were given nothing to eat or drink for eight days.

We took him for lunch today--we end up taking all our friends to eat because they have no money, which visibly disturbs them since it violates their strongly Chilean sense of hospitality--and he describes the days in the Stadium. "They took one of the teachers from my school, a 50-year-old Trotskyist, and put him against the wall and asked him if he knew how to pray. He began to sing the Internationale. The machine-gunned him. I cried all night."

Pablo gave us copies of a MIR poem entitled "We Can Throw Pinochet Out" which he said, is being circulated clandestinely. The mimeographed copies, obviously done hastily, were of such poor quality that the poem could hardly be read.

January 14--Early morning. Automatic-weapons fire chattered last night outside as we tried to sleep, hoping that only stray dogs were being shot. The sadness at times is overwhelming.

January 18--Today we visted one of the soup kitchens set up by the Catholic Church in Santiago's slums to feed the small children. We got there for lunch and our guide, a young French priest, introduced us to the 60 or so kids there by asking them to say hello to "our foreign friends." They looked up from their plates of corn soup and sang out their hellos with big smiles. I thought I was going to cry.

The priest said that the need for the Church kitchen had increased greatly in the past year, and that many undernourished children could not be fed due to a lack of money. He added that doctors had examined the children currently in the program--the ones we saw--and discovered that 60 per cent of them had suffered irreversible brain damage because of malnutrition.

January 19--Today we went with Hans and his sometime girlfriend, Rosa, to an amusement park which was constructed by the Allende government. The swimming pool, which Hans said had been inexpensive before, now charged the equivalent of almost $1 per person admission--this is a country where a worker's daily salary is between $1 and $2.

We sat in the park and talked. Rosa, who is about 45 years old and out of work, is stunningly beautiful except that her teeth are rotting. She gave Enrique and me plastic bead necklaces she had strung together and asked us when we were going to marry Chilean women.

Hans said he heard over the short-wave radio last night--Radio Moscow beams special transmissions to Chile--that Edward Kennedy had again charged the Pinochet government with torture. The Chilean papers obliquely acknowledge the attacks of Kennedy and others in order to villify them--in Kennedy's case, by bringing up Chappaquidick.

The papers today also pridefully showed photographs of the U.S. ambassador at some function with government officials.

January 25--My last night in Santiago. Enrique left for southern Chile a couple of days ago; I will head north for Peru tomorrow morning. Pablo and I went to a pathetic and dirty dance hall this evening where the maids and servants from the wealthy neighborhood of Santiago were enjoying Sunday, their only day off.

Pablo finally came out and said directly that he had been and still was a member of the MIR. He estimated that the organization had approximately 5000 members before the coup; of them, only 50 were still alive and out of prison in Chile. The rest were either in exile, in prison, or dead. The exiles include his wife and his two sons, who are in Costa Rica.

We got drunk and Pablo cut his arm and my arm and symbolically mixed our blood, a bit theatrical but it seemed appropriate at the time. We parted on a darkened street corner just before the curfew and swore we would see each other again.

January 26--On the bus headed north. Hans walked me to the bus station and I gave him some books I had. He would sell them in order to buy his lunch. He encouraged me to tell people in the United States what I had seen in Chile, once again reminding me that it was worse than Germany in the 1930s. He said he was still optimistic. "I was born left and I will die left," he said. "Wherever we of the left go in the world, we have friends," he said. I thought about that, and about other things, as the bus rumbled through the Santiago slums towards the highway heading north.

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