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The long shadows of Augusto Pinochet: Peace Boat passengers meet survivors of the other 9/11 in Valparaíso, Chile

Photo: When Peace Boat docked at Valparaíso, Chile last week, a group of passengers met with former prisoners under Chile’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. Photo by Airi Katsuta.
When Peace Boat docked at Valparaíso, Chile last week, a group of passengers met with former prisoners under Chile’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. Photo by Airi Katsuta.

For most North Americans, the mention of 9/11 evokes grey airplanes against white cirrus; slow television seconds; and the obscene inward folding of metal and glass.

This collective memory is video-looped on CNN specials, honored by fire-fighter parades and nurtured at candlelit vigils, so that peripheral details – whether we were at biology class that day, or had told an ex we still loved them – can stick to its sides like post-it notes.

But 9/11 has entirely different associations in Chile, more difficult to pin to a central image. For Erika Arbulu, who met with a Peace Boat group when the ship docked in Valparaíso last week, the day began with radio interference, and then military songs over the transmitter.

At 7 am on September 11, 1973, Admiral José Toribio Merino’s navy captured the Chilean port city of Valparaíso. At 8 am General Augusto Pinochet’s army – secretly backed by the CIA – moved on Santiago. And by 2:30 pm, Chilean jets had bombed their own presidential palace and Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first popularly elected socialist president, was dead.

And on that September 11, the first day of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, people began to disappear.

Arbulu, who was 22 at the time, told the Peace Boat group that she headed into the streets after she heard the military on the radio. “No one understood. Everyone was wondering what was going on. Then the police started arresting people: students, residents, everyone. No one knew why they were taking them.”

In the US, the collective trauma of September 11 is canonized – and on occasion wheeled out for political ends. However, in Chile the memories of the tens of thousands who were murdered, tortured, imprisoned, exiled or ‘disappeared’ under Augusto Pinochet are still obfuscated by the state.

Erika, Patricia, and Ana-Maria’s story

Photo: Survivors of Pinochet’s dictatorship and Peace Boat participants hold up a sign that calls for the removal of a statue of Admiral Jose Toribio Merino, who led the Chilean navy capture of Valparaíso in the coup d’état of September 11, 1973.
Survivors of Pinochet’s dictatorship and Peace Boat participants hold up a sign that calls for the removal of a statue of Admiral Jose Toribio Merino, who led the Chilean navy capture of Valparaíso in the coup d’état of September 11, 1973. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

“The story is never complete; it’s like a wound that never heals.”
Patricia Spahie

Where do memories live? In the mind, of course, but they also loiter in stairwells and parking lots; they can be contained in photographs, or in the smell of cologne or cordite. For Erika Arbulu, the most vivid memories of Pinochet’s dictatorship are housed in an indistinct white building partway down Artillería Hill.

In 1974, one year into Pinochet’s dictatorship, Arbulu was arrested for distributing political pamphlets and taken to the Silva Palma military barracks, nestled among the pretty pastel houses that cascade towards Valparaíso Port. Arbulu was dragged to the basement locker rooms of a former basketball court at Silva Palma and tortured for five days before she was moved to an official prison.

In 2003, Chile opened its National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (the Valech Commission) and the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (the Rettig Commission). Reports issued by both commissions estimate that there were 35,000 victims of human rights abuses under Pinochet, with 28,000 tortured, 2,279 executed and 1,248 “disappeared.” However, human rights organizations claim that the real numbers are far higher.

When the Peace Boat group stopped at a vista above Artillería Hill last week, Arbulu hugged her elbows into her body and twisted a ring on her finger. “I try to avoid this place. I try to pass it,” she said.

Arbulu’s friend Ana-Maria Alcazar, who had helped other activists evade the military before she was captured herself, told the group that political prisoners – usually students – were tortured, raped, and electrocuted at Silva Palma. “I thought they would kill me there; I thought I was going to die,” she said.

After Alcazar’s release the military would continue to show up at her family’s house and demand information on suspected dissidents. Alcazar’s husband and two brothers were also imprisoned under Pinochet’s regime, and her daughter, then six and placed under the care of Alcazar’s mother, is still receiving psychological treatment.

Despite the efforts of Peace Boat partner organization Cine Forum, who would like to turn Silva Palma into a museum, the now abandoned white building has bean earmarked for demolition. “We want ownership of our history and we want these buildings to be recognized as torture centers, not eliminated from history. It is like they are saying this never happened,” Arbulu said.

Photo: From left, Erika Arbulu, Ana-Maria Alcazar, and Patricia Spayaie in front of a memorial for Valparaíso’s murdered and disappeared. The handwritten names are of alleged torturers who have yet to face any punishment.
From left, Erika Arbulu, Ana-Maria Alcazar, and Patricia Spahie in front of a memorial for Valparaíso’s murdered and disappeared. The handwritten names are of alleged torturers who have yet to face any punishment. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

After the torture center, Arbulu was sent to a women’s prison. The three years she served there before being exiled to Belgium were tough, but compañeras like Ana-Maria Alcazar, and Patricia Spahie – who also shared their testimonies with the Peace Boat group – helped her cope with the psychological trauma.

Along with other imprisoned women, the three would commit small acts of defiance in jail, such as wearing black on September 11 to mourn Salvador Allende’s death. Such actions risked punishments from the guards, but gave the women a means to express themselves.

Some 25 years since Chile’s formal return to democracy, Arbulu and her friends continue to mark September 11. Every year, as part of a protest organized by the NGO Cine Forum, they put on lipstick and mascara, paint their nails, and line up in front of Valparaíso’s Naval Museum at the top of Artillería Hill, where a statue of Admiral Jose Toribio Merino stands in proud salute.

Anna-Maria Alcazar said, “It is incredible that now we are in democracy it is still there; it is not possible that this man stays there.”

To show solidarity with the thousands tortured under the military, Peace Boat passengers helped to hold up signs in front of the statue of Merino, who led the capture of Valparaíso on September 11. The main banner read ‘Fuera la estatua de Merino, asesino y golpista‘: throw out the statue of Merino, assassin and thug.

Photo: Relatives mourn Valparaíso’s disappeared at a memorial ceremony near Valparaiso University.
Relatives mourn Valparaíso’s disappeared at a memorial ceremony near Valparaiso University. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

After Artillería Hill, the Peace Boat group attended a ceremony in front of a memorial for Valparaíso’s murdered and disappeared. On top of a plaque commemorating victims of the dictatorship, a hand penned list gave the names of 53 alleged torturers yet to face trial.

Unlike the Archives of Terror in Paraguay and Argentina, the testimony of victims given at Chile’s Valech Commission cannot be used in trials, and is to be kept secret for 50 years. Pinochet’s Amnesty Law of 1978 bestowed amnesty on all persons who took part in politically motivated criminal acts while the state of siege was in effect between 1973 and 1978. This law has provided a legal pretext for the courts to close investigations into deaths and disappearances in the most violent period of the dictatorship.

Only around 60 of hundreds of estimated torturers have ever faced trial in Chile and, according to Arbulu and her friends, many still walk the streets of Valparaiso. “They really never left,” said Patricia Spahie. “The story is never complete; it’s like a wound that never heals.”

At the memorial ceremony, the daughter of a disappeared lawyer who had defended dissidents, a representative of a local human rights organization, and the father of a martyred activist addressed a Peace Boat audience. Men in dark suits held photographs of friends they had not seen in 40 years and there were guitar covers of Pablo Milané and Violeta Parra songs. Peace Boat passengers presented mourners with 1000 origami cranes they had folded onboard, traditional symbols of peace in Japan.

Finally, relatives of eight activists who were disappeared in Valparaiso read out their names. “Horacio Olivares,” the MC called. Presenté, chanted family members in the audience. “Maria Martinez,” Presenté, chanted the gathered musicians, actors, and lawyers. “Salvador Allende,” Ahora y siempre, chanted a man in a wax jacket with a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips – the former political prisoner Omar Rubio.


Omar Rubio’s Story

Photo: Omar Rubio, arrested in 1973, shows Peace Boat passengers around Valparaíso’s Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel, a prison during the Pinochet era.
Omar Rubio, arrested in 1973, shows Peace Boat passengers around Valparaíso’s Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel, a prison during the Pinochet era. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

“We didn’t overthrow the dictatorship, so this so-called return to democracy: it’s a formal thing. We are still being run by a political constitution that comes from Pinochet.”
Omar Rubio

Walking through what used to be Valparaíso Prison with Omar Rubio was a disquieting experience – not least because the place looks so nice these days.

In 1999 Valparaíso Prison was officially decommissioned and turned into the Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel, a community space for recreation and arts described by its designers as ‘a flowerpot in the Valparaíso hills.’

The Peace Boat group explored an old exercise yard planted with jacarandas, ceibo and magnolia trees as Rubio told his story. “When I was here, the place was much uglier,” he said.

Rubio, a former member of the Chilean navy who stayed loyal to Allende, was arrested in the south of Chile at the end of 1973 and transferred to Valparaíso in 1975. He served one year in the prison before being exiled to Canada.

In an open-plan garden decorated with graffiti murals – formerly a containment area for child prisoners – Rubio counted backwards from the perimeter wall to his former cell, 310. To create a high-ceilinged exhibition space, the third floor of the former prison had been removed. “The political prisoners were housed in the third level, and they made that disappear,” Rubio said. “With that, all the memories disappeared.”

Another notable prison feature absent from the cultural center was ‘the submarines’ – flooded basement cells with steel floors and dimensions of one cubic meter. According to Rubio, prisoners who disobeyed orders or spoke about politics would be sent to the submarines for up to 36 hours. “You couldn’t sit, and you couldn’t stand up. You had to crouch the whole day. You couldn’t walk out of there, they had to drag you out.”

Among exhibits at Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel that pertained to the dictatorship were battered cell doors displayed behind glass partitions, and in what used to be the women’s prison, an audio-visual exhibit in which visitors could listen to the recorded testimonies of inmates. Above each set of headphones was a photograph of the inmate and a description of what they were wearing on the day of their arrest.

Peace Boat volunteer interpreter Erica Nakanishi-Stanis had watched a woman listen to one of the headphone sets for a while before realizing that she was the one pictured in the exhibit. “She sat there quietly listening to herself recount what she had gone through, and she just looked so small,” said Nakanishi-Stanis. “I think it was made worse by the fact that she was surrounded by all this frippery: here is a woman reliving the horror of what she’s gone through, and it’s been made pretty.”

Photo: Volunteer interpreter Erica Nakanishi-Stanis interpreted Omar Rubio’s story for Peace Boat passengers.
Volunteer interpreter Erica Nakanishi-Stanis interpreted Omar Rubio’s story for Peace Boat passengers. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

Rubio secretly returned to Chile from Canada to join the underground resistance movement of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) in 1984. However, the fight was short lived: by November 1985 Rubio’s group had been almost entirely wiped out by the regime. “Only two of us survived. We left through following orders – through Peru and then back to Canada,” Rubio said.

Pinochet’s presidency ended in 1990, however he remained head of the Armed Forces until he retired in 1998 to become a senator-for-life. Although Pinochet was arrested in London, he died in 2006 with over 300 criminal charges for human rights violations, tax evasion and embezzlement still pending. In 2013 Chile’s National Association of Judges publicly apologized to Chilean society for abandoning its role as a protector of basic rights during Pinochet’s rule.

Before returning to the ship, the Peace Boat group explored the Parque Cultural Ex-Cárcel, walking an elevated concourse as toddlers ran wobbly diagonals across a grass esplanade below. Rubio surveyed the former prison’s grounds, “You have to understand one thing,” he said. “We didn’t overthrow the dictatorship, so this so called return to democracy: it’s a formal thing. We are still being run by a political constitution that comes from Pinochet.”

 

Carolina and Pilar’s Story

Photo: Pilar Vásquez and Carolina Herrera speak with Tanaka Toshiko, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima who joined the Peace Boat study tour in Valparaiso.
Pilar Vásquez and Carolina Herrera speak with Tanaka Toshiko, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima who joined the Peace Boat study tour in Valparaiso. Photo by Joseph Hincks.

“Every time there’s a protest, it ends up with students fighting cops.”
Pilar Vásquez

Besides armed struggle, one of Omar Rubio’s tasks with the MIR was propaganda: one assignment required him to plant hundreds of leaflets on the roofs of city buses so that anti-Pinochet messages would flutter over town. Like Erika Arbulu and her friends who still engage in a yearly act of protest in front of Artillería Hill’s Merino statue, Rubio’s work continues 25 years after Chile’s return to democracy.

Every September 11, Rubio and his colleagues visit schools to talk about their experience under the dictatorship. However, he said that students’ knowledge of the regime’s cruelty remains cursory.

18-year-old Caroline Herrera, whose father is a member of Peace Boat partner organization Cine Film said, “They just teach us that this happened, the dictatorship happened, and it lasted for this many years: the formal stuff.”

Seven Chilean high schools closed on September 11 2013 because students had occupied them in honor of the 40th anniversary of Allende’s death. However according to Herrera, young people in the country are split over Pinochet’s legacy. “I have classmates that are like, what are you saying, Pinochet saved the country, without him we would be totally poor right now, like Cuba.”

A significant portion of Chilean society reveres Pinochet for precipitating the country’s ‘economic miracle.’ However the extent to which Chile’s economic revival can be attributed to the dictator’s policies remains uncertain: the US – fearful that other Latin American countries would also adopt socialist policies – imposed sanctions on Chile during Allende’s presidency, and declassified documents revealed that Nixon ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream.’

Herrera said that although the Merino statue makes her angry, until now she has not attended the annual protest outside Valparaíso’s Naval Museum: her father – who was imprisoned under Pinochet – worries that if she becomes known as an active protester she will be targeted by police.

Herrera’s friend, 22-year-old Pilar Vásquez, who had travelled from Concepción to Valparaíso to meet the Peace Boat group, and has attended many protests around issues such as high student tuition fees, said that police violence was common.

As Peace Boat passengers shopped at souvenir stands beside the road or leaned against the palisades to admire the sweep of Pablo Neruda’s city, Vásquez spoke about her experiences as a protester. “Every time there’s a protest, it ends up with students fighting cops,” she said. During one sit-in, police attacked Vásquez and her friends with water cannons and tear gas. “I stood aside, and I almost threw up because I couldn’t breathe. The police were running everywhere and they started hitting everyone. I was scared. Since then, I’ve resented the cops.”

And more than at the converted prison or overlooking Silva Palma, it was while Carolina Herrera, who had whispered English translations all day, and Pilar Vásquez who was worried that the porotas granados we had eaten for lunch was going to make the 9-hour bus trip back to Concepción uncomfortable, that the memories came to life.

The two girls chatted about university, classmates who said communists eat babies, and the Japanese cultural exposition they planned to attend that evening; and underneath swam the horror that Ana-Maria Alcazar and Erika Arbulu at the same age, 18 and 22, could be tortured in the basements of Silva Palma; that Horacio Olivares, Maria Martinez and their friends could simply disappear.

Comments

  1. Francisca silva
    jfklsdg
    February 24, 2015, 8:55 pm

    sjklgjklgfd Caroline XD. Nice text !! It’s very nice that foreigner people knows about Chileans history, because not even chileans know about it

  2. Sara
    February 18, 2015, 1:44 pm

    Best yet. Upsetting & lyrical. Send it wider.