by Tim Dawe
Like many Australians in 1973 I had little consciousness of South America. If there was a slight neuronal stirring, it owed much to Hollywood, with conflated images of Central America and dark, swarthy men with moustaches fomenting yet another revolution against El Presidente.
That year I was in Germany, engaged in the rite of passage into adulthood that is the backpacker tour of Europe. But 1973 was also the momentous year when the elected socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens was brutally crushed by jackbooted fascists in a bloody military coup. It brought to power a dictator whose name resonates to this day: Pinochet.
So what was all this to me, an innocent abroad? It was just grainy, black and white images on hard-to-understand German TV of a far-away crisis; funny-sounding foreigners (without moustaches) living down to their political stereotype.
The images rolled: city scenes, broad boulevards, and big buildings – one that looked like Buckingham Palace. Into that streetscape emerged military vehicles, jackbooted officers, and tanks. The tanks stopped and waited in the middle of that wide boulevard for an incredibly long, few minutes.
Then the order was given; tanks fired, shells thudded into the Buckingham Palace building, walls collapsed – chaos and carnage, fire and smoke. And with the acrid whiff of CIA complicity. When the smoke finally cleared on a broken palace and empty streets, an elected President of Chile was dead.
Days later the TV images were of young men in their 20s, students like me, with woolly hair, beards and leather jackets, like me. But these young men were cowed, scared, fearful – and beaten. Beaten around the head as they emerged from some dark hole and beaten again as they were hurled into trucks. But like me the thousands of extrajudicial killings, usually by a whispered, or tortured, list. Court testimony details enthusiatic murderers, those forced into depraved killings, those tortured to death, and the many innocents who “disappeared”.
So began Pinochet’s el dia decisivo – a decisive day made easier with ‘approval’ from the CIA – and the decline into torture, murder and tyranny. Just another bloody South American Revolution.
That was then…
Now, 43 years later I stand in that wide boulevard before that same building. I am in Santiago de Chile. This is no grainy, black and white image. The presidential palace, known as La Moneda, is awash in bright sunlight. The colours of spring are everywhere, from the green grass of the plaza, to the pink and white flower gardens and a line of 10 huge Chilean flags extended welcomingly in the breeze.
Workers in dark conservative suits stroll past me on their lunch break. Students sit and talk or canoodle on wooden benches, and everywhere is clean. The only smoke in these streets is from the cigarettes of workers ousted from their offices.
The presidential palace, functional and plain yet imposing, is now freshly painted and fully restored. And democracy is restored to the Chilean people – all of them; it’s taken hold with five democratically elected presidents, from the right and the left, both men and women, ruling peacefully from La Moneda. The military dictator, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, so adored by the exclusive elite and some mono-culturists, is dead.
The terrifying regime has gone, and with it 17 years of brutal armed repression, heavy-handed suppression of human rights, torture, spying and stultifying conservatism. Military totalitarianism has been swept away.
Or has it?
Standing in front of La Moneda on my first visit to Santiago de Chile I urge myself not to form opinions based on the casual observations of a tourist…unsuccessfully! Why break the habits of a lifetime?
Of all the buildings in Santiago de Chile this one in front of me has the most personal connection. We go back four decades. It draws me in. I feel a slight apprehension, some tingling.
I cast an eye to the left and see the modest and rather odd statue of the bespectacled Allende, seemingly pushing against the wind (forces of the right? change?). The poor man; in his life they cut him off at his knees. In his bronze they allow birds to crap on his head. No such comical indignity for Pinochet. Will there ever be a (public) statue?
As I approach the plaza I am reminded of the story of Casa Moneda, literally coin house or mint, and the comparison between Spanish and British colonialism. In the early colonial days Spain requested the fledgling community of Santiago de Chile to mint its own coins. The Governor could not accede to the request because the colony had insufficient funds. With that, Spain gave permission for a wealthy ‘grandee’ to build and operate a mint for use in the colony. On a wide boulevard, big enough for future tanks, he built La Moneda, later to become the presidential palace, the seat of power of the Republic of Chile. Would Imperial Britain sanction an individual to take responsibility for an Australian colony’s currency?
Democratic presidents now decree La Moneda to be open for the public to wander through and take photos. So with all this democratic freedom in the spring air, why do I feel a sense of foreboding at the sight of so many large men in brown military uniforms? These look like no ordinary men, and no ordinary uniforms. There are distinct grades of police observable.
First is the ordinary street cop who doubles as tourist adviser. He slouches unarmed in a crumpled uniform at major intersections, often furtively smoking a cigarette, and oblivious to traffic violations around him. A regular on the beat, he engages in idle chatter with residents. He looks ordinary and is non-threatening. Other street cops, perhaps upwardly mobile, spend their entire shift guarding palatial private properties at the expense of protecting the public.
Second is the armed police or carabineros. They do guard public buildings. They have better uniforms, squarer shoulders and lots and lots of fire power. Much of that firepower is in military vehicles secreted in alleyways: armed troop carriers, vehicles with massive bull bars (but for people) and menacing water cannon. Surprisingly, there are several women in their group, each with tightly brushed hair scrunched back in a round bob at the nape.
Then there are these men in front of me; praetorian guards best describes them. Whether Roman, Iranian or Chilean, their bearing shouts their searing determination to protect the leader at all costs.
Each one is close to 2m, clearly muscular under immaculate uniforms of gilded braid, shiny leather, and jackboots. Some wear golden spurs. All look imperious.They don’t look at you; they look into you – slightly menacingly.
As I cross the paved area in front of the main gate, I recall reports of Chile’s post-dictatorship government; of Pinochet’s carefully laid constitutional time-bombs.
That despite all the conventions of a democratic society, Chile’s military does not report to an elected civilian minister of defence; that in general, (no pun intended) the military’s allegiance is to a superior officer rather than an elected lawmaker, and thereby, the people; that many of Pinochet’s cronies are entrenched today in the Supreme Court and other institutions of power and influence; that the constitution provides for 10% of all royalties from the country’s vast copper exports to be spent on military armaments. And copper represents nearly 40% of Chile’s exports.
Que? The military budget has substantial fixed revenues and no civilian oversight on spending? This is a civilian, democratic government?
I walk to the massive entry gates with the two praetorian guards on either side. This is not Buckingham Palace and these are not ceremonial Grenadier Guards. I doubt they would remain impassive on pulling a silly face. And to prove their positions (in both senses) they stand on a 50cm round plinth for even more height advantage.
What follows next is a conversation of sorts in sign language and Spanglish.
“Buenos Dias,” I say lustily, perhaps subliminally saying, you don’t scare me, this is a free and democratic country.
BIG mistake. Don’t make eye contact! Keep your head down, shuffle like everyone else. Suddenly my cheery greeting has drawn the attention of scores of praetorian guards. Where do they come from?
“You have a bag, señor? Why do you have this bag? Why do you bring such a bag into this place? What do you have in this bag?”
Act stupid! “No entiendo.” Stupid is good. No-one is offended by a fool.
I am sent to another praetorian guard, this one with a table at his disposal. The bag is laid-out, squeezed and prodded. It contains my camera, a map and my water bottle. Tourists’ cameras should be hidden in a backpack – or so I thought. The head-down shufflers pass me, assessed by imperious eyes.
“Turismo?” he queried. Oh, good guess, Diego. This time no words leave my lips. Act stupid, don’t be stupid.
With a dismissive wave of the arm, I was free to go…“Flea!”
Anxiety heightens slightly as more uniforms pop up. What is it about these men? They are all the same height and build. They have the same haircut. Are they clones? The one striding past me is not. He is twenty years older than the clones, smothered in braid and medals, and far too important to even look at anyone like me. He has others to observe.
I walk into one of two pleasant but bland courtyards. A few pieces of modern sculpture look completely out of place. I half hope for a glimpse of a President Mary Robinson walking around Dublin or perhaps a Queen Wilhelmina riding a bicycle around Amsterdam. Instead I am transported to an 1870s Prussian military establishment.
I take a photo. But the photo I want is with the Chilean presidential flag above the gate. I turn back. The angle is better from the first courtyard. If only the wind would pick up. I turn to take the desired photo.
“I take photo, yes?”
“Si, but you cannot return to the first courtyard.”
You have got to be joking. You mean I can’t go out the way I came in like all the others are doing right now? What if I walked backwards, would that help? Some words are best left unspoken.
Only the man with the green plastic backpack and the crumpled, easy-to-wash plastic trousers cannot return. He, and only he, must go out this door and circumnavigate the block back to the plaza. But what happened next took the wind out of my sails – and my stomach.
It was a military exchange between the senior braided officer and a more junior officer. But it was the force of the exchange; the exaggerated movements, the power of the salute, the clicking of the heels of the jackboots, the jangle of the spurs.
It was just a moment but a chilling one. It’s strange how such a brief encounter can affect a person – especially this sensitised person.
Chile is a deeply conservative society. It emerges cautiously from the trauma of a deeply divided country.
But it has not gone through the cathartic purging of other countries emerging from totalitarianism. Many former war criminal and human rights abusers from the junta have not faced a court or even a truth and reconciliation commission but have been pardoned by former comrades still in positions of authority.
As I return to my starting point at the plaza I watch the office workers around Plaza de la Constitucion finishing their lunch. Do I see a hint of cowering or sense the fear of a military uniform? I don’t see it in the loud boisterous Brazilians or in the stylised Argentines after their bloody military dictatorships.
These are the uncertain opinions of a tourist on a three-day visit armed only with a camera, a throw-away map, torn at a crease and stained with spilt coffee – and a 40-year memory. Could it be that military might and rule has not been swept away but lies dormant, secreted in the braid and jackboots, waiting to correct the people’s next electoral ‘mistake’?