Late From Chile: From a Recent Traveler in Chile

On Thursday 11 August, the 4th nationwide protest against the Pinochet regime took place. At the end of the day 19 persons lay dead (others would die the next day) and close to 100 were wounded, almost all of them victims of the calculated and pre-meditated repression by the Armed Forces, under Pinochet’s strict orders.

The protest movement — for work and democracy — has made Pinochet uneasy. Though not a direct threat to his power, it has made it increasingly clear that his authority rests almost exclusively on his control of the army (not the other services). The calling of a 4th protest for the 11th of August was thus seen by Pinochet as an affront to his authority, which therefore he had to put down. For if one’s authority rests on one’s control, then one cannot ignore such affronts to authority, however ineffectual or symbolic they be. Hence, Pinochet announced that a curfew was to be set (at 6 PM) on the 11th; that 18,000 soldiers were under orders to control the situation (proving prophetically that Santiago was indeed a sieged city, sieged by its own army or occupation); and that they were under orders to deal sternly with all manifestations of protest.

Several sit-ins and peaceful marches took place that afternoon but other than temporary arrests not much else happened. That night, however, things changed. The banging of pots and blowing of horns was met by tear gas and bullets. At first I thought the soldiers were simply shooting in the air to scare protesters (almost all of whom were protesting within their homes). And so it was in the plushier neighborhoods. In the poorer ones, however, they shot to scare and to kill. Many people were killed while standing in their yard (in poor neighborhoods, the yard is sort of the living room); others while they waved a white flag and tried to buy medicine for a sick relative; many, including several children and women while inside their homes. Others were shot putting up barricades or burning tires on the streets, but none because he was shooting (though there was some of that — for in any such situation such lumpen emerge). The Armed Forces simply fired at will. And bullets simply stopped where they stopped (what kind of protection is a wooden panel against the Army’s firepower?).

Indeed, Junta member General Matthei, in a very un-subtle reference to the army’s repression, stated that in the areas controlled by the air force, none of his troops was shot at; all was tranquil; no civilian was wounded. Retired General Viaux — who led an attempted coup to impede Allende’s election — stated he was ashamed of the Army’s role. For him, such a misuse of the Army for purposes of repression was justification enough to protest, aside from the economic and social hardships the country was being forced to endure. The Episcopal Conference as well as most Chileans — even pro Junta Chileans — were stunned by the obvious gross overreaction of the government, to a by now recognized legitimate form of protest (when peaceful, as it has been in 95% of the cases). As the President of the Chilean Medical Association for Santiago stated: How many more must die for President Pinochet to understand?

What can we do? Denounce such repression, not become insensitive to it because it is by now routine. I know things are worse in other countries: they have no Church to speak for them; no courts, however weak, to protect them; no press, however controlled, to give another viewpoint. Yet in few other countries is a change so easy to come by. Pinochet’s power now rests almost exclusively on the brute force of the Army and his apparently unchallenged control over it. The vast majority of the population, political groupings, and socio-economic associations would like to see him go. Yet he won’t, for there’s no place for him to go. After Somoza’s assassinate not even Paraguay is available. So he’s gong to fight it out to the finish. Only the Armed Forces can remove him. And any such thought is risky.

The US role in this latter regard could be decisive. For to date our signals are that we want Pinochet to open up, to dialogue — but not to give way to an elected government real soon (say within a year or two, as we normally ask any new Junta, much less one already ten years in power). I think that Ambassador Theberge’s recall to Washington for consultations for a good long time (not because he hasn’t been doing a good job, but because this is possibly the clearest signal that the US would welcome an early transition to an elected government — what the opposition asks for) would be among the measures to be considered. For it is now important not only to do the right thing (what silent diplomacy claims to do) but to be seen as doing it (what public diplomacy claims to do). I’d prefer a public repudiation of the regime, but that might be giving too much vent to my personal concern with Chile, and insufficient to our policy needs elsewhere. Hence, the recall of the Ambassador might be the best mix of silent-cum-public diplomacy available. We should not stand by and let one man impose his will on a nation. If he’s allowed to persist, I fear that the .11th of September protest — commemorating 10 years of Pinochet’s accession to power — will be a bloodbath.

Keep up your writing and pray for an improved turn of events.


  • A Recent Traveler

    At the time this article was published in 1983, the writer had travelled recently in Chile; family reasons required anonymity.

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