With the government seizing at least half our incomes each year and the “multi-diversity” crowd sowing seeds of anger and disunity that could well lead to civil war down the road, I hear more and more people talking of places to relocate themselves and their capital: New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. And Chile. Chile? Isn’t that where a kinder, gentler Socialist-Communist coalition elected Salvador Allende in 1970 and a brutal military coup took place in 1975? That’s the only version I knew about back then, certainly the only version being discussed on college campuses. Thus it was surprising to listen to a Chilean friend recently who was in the United States to study English for a few months say a good word about Pinochet, the army general who governed the country from 1973 to 1989. At that tune Pinochet stood for election, lost, and stepped down. Felipe, my Chilean friend, described the stability that had taken hold while Pinochet was in office. Inflation holding at around nine percent and an economy that no longer depended on a single industry, mining.
He also explained how the first major disruption of Chilean democracy had taken place. After all, virtually two-thirds of the people had voted against Allende in 1970. Due to a peculiarity of the Chilean Constitution, when one of the candidates does not gain a simple majority, the Congress decides. The Christian Democrats (similar to our own Democrats in many ways), who had come in third, cut a deal with the radical left, and the rest is history. Much was made of the demand that Allende sign “guarantees” that he would follow the constitution, guarantees which lasted a New York minute. By 1973, with the economy and the constitution in shambles, even the Christian Democrats were calling for a coup.
After my friend suggested I come and look for myself, and after, coincidentally, the editor of an investment newsletter announced he had moved to Santiago (his words, “You know it as well as I do: the America we grew up to know and trust is no longer the land of the free. That is why I had to leave.”), I decided to go south. I wanted to meet some writers and artists, and since my wife couldn’t go, the trip could serve as cover for fly-fishing Chile’s famous trout streams, escaping the February snows of Missouri.
I was invited to dinner my very first night in Santiago by Felipe’s English conversation teacher, Charley McCarthy, an American retired from the cruise ship business, and his Chilean wife, Marta. Over Pastel de Chocla and good local red wine, we held a wide-ranging, marvelously civilized conversation, which included the other guests, Marta’s brother, a neuro-radiologist and his educator wife. I mentioned wanting to talk with Jose Donoso, perhaps Chile’s best known novelist—well, the good doctor knew Donoso’s brother, also a physician. He would try to make contact during the week. (I was never to succeed. Donoso had fallen very ill in Spain, and was being treated in a local clinic.) We talked, of course, of Neruda, and his fellow communist, Volodia Teitelboim, author of a biography of Neruda I had read before leaving home. Teitelboim, formerly the party leader in Chile, had until recently been passing his time in Russia, ever since Pinochet came to power. Another Stateside friend had written a letter of introduction to Jorge Edwards, also a well known writer. Someone left our table to give him a call (everyone I met in Chile seemed to know the person you mentioned, or to know his cousin who did), returning to say Edwards was currently at the embassy in Paris. I called Nicanor Parra myself since I had met him earlier in the United States, and learned he was at the beach.
What I hadn’t figured on was that everyone who could leave the city was gone until school started the first week in March. Well, when in Chile, do what the Chileans do; I drove south with Felipe the next day, and while he enjoyed the air in Pucon (some eight hundred kilometers to the south), I fly-fished the Trancura River. I was told by the guide that the fishing was even better around Coyhaique in the Aisén region (2,300 kilometers from Santiago). After dallying in Puerto Montt on the way south, I fished the fabulous streams around Coyhaique, the Simpson River and the Ñirehuao, the first surrounded by the towering Andes, the second on the edge of the pampas. All in all, like Colorado or Wyoming before Barbra Streisand started visiting. After several days at the end of the country in Patagonia around Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales (there’s a hotel in the Paine National Forest at $400 a day for a single, for those who are interested; I had an Austral beer at five dollars, the only one to be had for probably 75 miles), I flew back to Santiago, hoping the locals had returned, and they had . . . in spades. El Centro was jammed.
What’s on the minds of Chileans? For one thing, they were upset with President Eduardo Frei for having pardoned the drug smuggler involved in the largest drug seizure in Chilean history (a half ton of cocaine from Bolivia, on its way to the United States). The smuggler’s family is active in the party of the president, the Christian Democrats. The pardon was especially embarrassing since it occurred just as the government was kicking off its drug abuse campaign. The president was attacked not only by the two conservative parties. National Renovation and the Independcnt Democratic Union, but even by some elements of the Concertacion.
“Concertacion” designates the coalition made up of Christian Democrats and everyone else on the left, the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy, and the Radical Social Democratic Party. One Chilean described the Concertacion as a sack of cats, outwardly “in concert,” but snarling and clawing inside.
During one week in February, Socialist Party President Camilo Escalona and Party for Democracy President Jorge Schaulsohn (perhaps the most important politician of the left) met with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Castro is an addiction for the left, and this visit was a way for the leftists to thumb their noses at everyone else. This was the first official visit of a Chilean delegation since consular relations were restored during the Aylwin administration, the one preceding Frei’s. All this occurred near the time when our loyal French “comrades,” who invented nose-thumbing of anyone who might ever have pulled their huevos out of the fire, wined and dined the “great liberator” in Paris.
Another big domestic story was that of retired General Manuel Contreras, formerly head of the Chilean intelligence police (DINA). He was convicted by a lower court for his role in the 1976 assassination in Washington, D.C., of Allende’s Foreign and Defense Minister Orlando Letelier, and the case is now before the Chilean Supreme Court. After being exiled by the Pinochet government, Letelier ended up in Washington, working as a fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies, one of our own centers of radical thought. At the same time, Letelier was given the task of coordinating exiles in the United States and was paid a thousand dollars a month by Beatriz “Tati” Allende, treasurer of the Socialist Party, who was living in Cuba. She was married to Luis Fernandez de Oña, a senior member of the Cuban Embassy. Previously, Fernandez de Oña had been the desk officer in Havana coordinating Che Guevara’s Bolivian activities. During Allende’s government, she, along with Allende’s mistress, generally decided who would see Allende and who wouldn’t. Sometimes her husband would sit in for her in her absence. A year after the Letelier assassination, the Cuban press agency announced she had committed suicide.
Like anywhere else in the world, but especially in tightly knit Santiago, the good citizens gossip and guess what actually took place. In the opinion of some I talked to, Letelier was not only actively attempting to overthrow the Pinochet government, which he certainly would have confirmed, but he was in the pay of the Soviet-directed Cubans. During the trial in the United States of Townley (the American who had been involved in the assassination), a fellow prisoner of one of the other conspirators said he was told that Letelier was killed because he was a “double agent who had been educated at the Espionage College . . . by the CIA.” Some Chileans also believe that for some reason Tati Allende was eliminated. Her husband had abandoned her by then. Those on the left would hotly deny this, of course.
A mysterious woman indirectly involved in the assassination effort was at first only known to be blond, and very attractive. To aid my effort to meet artists in Chile, I was put in touch with Nena Ossa, former director of the National Museum of Fine Arts for 12 years. She graciously took me to meet Benjamin Lira, one of Chile’s outstanding contemporary painters. In the course of our trip to his studio, she told me that a magazine editor had erroneously speculated that she was the mysterious woman involved in the Letelier affair, and this error had cost her several friends. At the time, even the alias of the actual woman, Liliana Walker, was not known. By the time her name was known, two of Nena Ossa’s former friends had died without ever learning the truth. As she reminisced about the Allende years, she remarked that she had been in London when an old school friend worked in the Allende government’s press agency. Her friend permitted her to read all the incoming and outgoing cable traffic between Santiago and London. Ms. Ossa said she in turn passed on any interesting information to William Buckley and National Review, for which she sometimes wrote. So only the tiniest bit of espionage.
With these fragments of Chile’s time of troubles as prologue, I stood before Lira’s solitary, meditative nudes. The effect of these single figures is quietly to arrest the viewer’s attention, whereupon he is led to meditate himself. Because of the texture of the surfaces, portions of which may have been removed to reveal an earlier surface in the way of old frescoes, one feels as if he has accidentally entered a room of a newly discovered Pompeii. And as our habit is to try to illuminate our present by looking at our past, the viewer is driven to scrutinize each of these human figures for some human essence, or if one will have no talk of essences, for some new perspective on this curious caravan through time we call man. Sniffing some narrative spore, I comment on some subject possibilities while tracking, but Lira gently dismisses any such intent. How unsettling to have the artist at hand with me champing to veer off on my own painting. Yet I confront human faces often with no mouths, faces locked in with helmet-like visors of medieval armor. Then the more recent work where the faces now can speak if they wish. I keep my stubborn analogy to myself, but for me there remains some subterranean part of the Chilean soul in this, an opening up, an emergence from the time of troubles.
Are Chile’s troubles over? Of course not; nobody’s troubles are ever going to lie over. But 22 years after Allende and the Marxists departed and six years after Pinochet gave up the leadership, life seems reasonably buoyant. Obviously, most Chileans don’t live like those in the suburbs of Santiago, Providencia, and Las Leones, for example. Given that comparison, most people in the States don’t live like those in Beverly Hills (and are glad of it). Yet, even in remote southern farm towns like Coyhaique, there is a bustling, healthy rhythm. Far out on the perimeter of Santiago, rampant new business construction is much in evidence.
The “underclass” of Chile is proportionally larger than in the States, but the politics of class envy are as prevalent as they are here at home. Further, the awareness of this difference in class seems to be a dominant theme or background for much of Chilean fiction and theater. Certainly this is true of Donoso’s fiction; I’m thinking of Coronation and This Sunday. Carola Oyarzún, of Catholic University and a critic for El Mercurio, assures me this is also true in the theater. Egon Wolff is a case in point. In plays like The Invaders, or Paper Flowers, the street hustlers invade and take over the homes of the well off, sort of like Lenny Bernstein having an “at home” for the Black Panthers. As a matter of fact, the balance is so tipped as to reduce the middle class to a stereotype: meaningless, anxious lives filled only with material things and unhappiness. The beggars and street hustlers are always very clever, witty, energetic, and self-assured.
Wolff is in his 70’s, whereas Marco Antonio de la Parra is a younger playwright, at one time part of a group called the “New Generation.” His theater is much different from Wolff’s realism, filled instead with ghosts and grotesque fantasy. Yet, even here, as in Every Young Woman’s Desire, the smart lower-class thief invades a middle-class woman’s apartment and transforms a mousy, repressed young woman into a vamp who ultimately kills him. The dynamics of Parra’s work are more complex perhaps than Wolff’s, but the tumultuous, threatening social upheaval is always in the background.
Another member of the New Generation, Pablo Huneeus, is Chile’s leading social critic. Like Parra (who is trained as a psychotherapist), Huneeus has another profession besides writing, namely sociology. Trained at the Sorbonne, he was a professor at Catholic University when in 1983 he was dismissed, charged with “inappropriate research” for writing the antinuclear book Lo Impensable (The Unthinkable). The university was under direct control of the military. Earlier, in 1980, he was fired from his weekly column in the Santiago daily La Tercera for being critical of Pinochet, and a collection of his essays was temporarily banned by the government. While we sat on the deck of his beautiful mountainside home overlooking Santiago, he remarked that the role of social critic was actually clearer then than now. “Everyone knew who the enemy was then; now that ‘the good guys’ are in power, we are just supposed to be quiet.” He was equally critical of the Allende government in the early 1970’s.
On my last day, I met with Mario Arnello, a lawyer who has lived close to the main currents of Chilean political life for many years. He was a member of the former National Party, founded in 1966 of the Conservative and Liberal parties, and followers of the conservative Jorge Prat, hi the last two big elections of the 60’s, the Nationals had joined with the Christian Democrats to win big. As I said earlier, the trouble started in the 1970 election. The Christian Democrats nominated a candidate when the Nationals considered not much better than Allende. Mr. Arnello, teacher and also poet (he has written a book-length poem, Pedro de Valdivia, An Epic of the Foundation of Chile), told me that the history of the Allende debacle could be traced to its step-by-step destruction of the country’s democratic institutions. Allende had never intended to live up to the “Statute of Guarantees” that he signed as the price for Christian Democrat support. Further, the Christian Democrats had never demanded that Allende agree to the right of property.
Mr. Arnello had invited Senator Francisco Prat to join us, and he came later to our little session. Senator Prat, a tall, handsome man with brilliant blue eyes, represents the IX Region of Araucania, with its capital in Temuco. His great-great-grandfather was Arturo Prat, the Chilean naval hero whose martyrdom during the War of the Pacific is remembered on May 21 as Navy Day. Senator Prat claims to occupy a little “island” in the National Renovation Party. His position is, as I understand it, to come together with those of similar beliefs in the country outside the party as well as in, and not focus on strategies that will keep the RN members in the “Club,” the political and business leaders who govern Chile regardless of party membership. When asked the biggest problem facing Chile today, he said it was unemployment. Unlike the United States, where many of the “unemployed” wouldn’t work even if offered a chair at Harvard, the unemployed here do want work, better work, and are very industrious.
The dynamics of Chile and the States are different, but Chile is moving upward and onward. Southern Chile and the entire Pacific coast arc absolutely gorgeous, giving our own Rockies and coast a run for their money; the people are vital, vivacious, friendly; and if you try out the language, you will not get a sneer as you might from the Frogs on the other side of the Channel. Go see for yourself. As the end here comes closer and you wish to move your assets “offshore,” Chile might just be an answer. Be sure to bring your fly rod.
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