From Santiago to Southampton: A Chilean exile remembers

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Rodrigo Sanchez came to England in the spring of 1976 to study Spanish at Southampton University. Having escaped General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, he was lucky to be alive.

Chile in 1975 had been under a state of siege by the military government "to restore order" for two years since General Pinochet’s coup. A nightly 9pm curfew was enforced by helicopters which hovered overhead and jeeps patrolling the streets. Anyone caught in their searchlights could be shot on sight as a terrorist.

Rodrigo had been spirited away from Chile under the auspices of the United Nations, having endured a year of fear and uncertainty that began when his mother left the house one evening and disappeared.

"I was in a terrible state emotionally," he recalled. "She didn’t call and never came back from her meeting, so I knew immediately something was wrong. I spent all night looking for her. Everyone knew who had taken her, but not where she had been taken, that was the terrible thing."

Rodrigo’s mother never forsook her radical convictions, even at a time when all political activity was prohibited. The left had been driven underground and the risks of clandestine resistance to the regime were perilous.

In the March 1973 elections in Chile 44 per cent of people voted for President Salvador Allende’s four-party coalition. Pinochet’s putsch consequently identified millions of Chileans as his ideological enemies and potential targets.

All to aware of this Senor Sanchez acted quickly to destroy all evidence linking his mother to the socialist government she supported.

"I burnt anything that could incriminate her, and found so many things from the past, like a poster of Allende. That was enough to get you killed in those days."

Like thousands of others, Rodrigo filed a writ of "habeas corpus" the next morning that he hoped might determine his mother’s whereabouts.

Like the same thousands of others he was met by a sheer, faceless wall of official denial. Relatives of the disappeared could only wait, usually in vain.

When Rodrigo returned home, the dreaded internal security force – the DINA – were waiting.

"They had interrogated my sister. She was frightened and shaking, they had treated her very badly," he said.

Accompanying the secret police was an expert in subversive literature who ransacked the house.

Senor Sanchez recalled the element of farce as well as fear in his visits. "He took the complete works of Tolstoy because the book had a Russian name."

In scenes more reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of the future in his book, Farenheit 451, the military lit giant bonfires to burn books on the night following the coup, "like beacons in the deserted streets of Santiago," Rodrigo remembered.

Literature on philosophy, psychology, and sociology was treated as suspicious and purged from university libraries. The works of Sigmund Freud were seen as particularly offensive.

The junta’s censorious actions were extended to cinema as well. As the distinguished Argentine writer Jacobo Timmerman has noted: "Scenes were cut from the Oscar winning film ‘Cabaret’ that portrayed the Nazis of Germany in an unflattering light." Indeed, as in neighbouring Argentina, elements of the military were staunch admirers of Adolf Hitler and were virulently anti-Semitic, convinced of a Zionist communist conspiracy that they felt threatened their belief in a nationalistic, highly fundamental interpretation of Catholicism.

Chile received many Nazis after World War II and it had taken the forceful intervention of the USA during to war to persuade Chile to back the allies against the axis powers. Those sympathetic to Germany were numerous in the country’s establishment, as only a generation or two before, Germans had been numerous within it themselves when they had emigrated to the South of Chile both before and after the First World War.

The armed forces had been Prussian trained, reflected in the regimented hierarchy: goose-stepping and rounded grey helmets of the Chilean army are both still evident today. This is found to be uncomfortably reticent by some European visitors to Santiago.

Having given up virtually all hope of ever seeing his mother alive again, 3 months after she fell into the clutches of the DINA, Rodrigo heard some remarkable news.

The Red Cross informed him she had been traced to the Pirkue women’s prison camp, high in the mountains encircling Santiago, before her transfer the notorious ‘Tres Alamos’ detention centre in the capital.

However, as reports filtered out of Chile regarding the scale of repression the international community began applying pressure on Pinochet. "By now the world’s eyes were on Chile, people could ignore one exile, but not tens of thousands," Rodrigo said.

In response to this pressure, Rodrigo’s mother – who wishes to remain anonymous and still will not return to Chile – was temporarily freed in 1975.

There were renewed purges by the regime as popular discontent began to surface for the first time in the manner of protests by the relatives of the disappeared.

His mother’s release came with several conditions. These were: she signed an official statement that denied any torture had taken place; and, secondly, that she understood she could be "required to give evidence on demand," little more than a coded threat of re- arrest.

Though still recovering from her harrowing ordeal Rodrigo’s mother used this period of breathing space to flee Chile.

Neither her nor Rodrigo will return to their homeland, as they fear Chile’s infant democracy "is held to ransom" by the still influential military.