At night in Santiago, the capital of Chile
the police walked the main streets downtown in teams of two.
They had sub machine guns slung across their chests.
muzzle toward the ground.
I wondered why?
I remember looking at all the billboards illuminating the Chilean night and thinking the Russians don’t have a fuckin prayer at winning the cold war ‘cause they got no commercial mojo. No Disney, Elvis or John Wayne and the signs over Santiago for Coca Cola, Ford, Levis, Timex and Winston were all brazenly pointing “norte” to the American Dream.
Name me one Russian movie star
or one famous Russian made movie from this era
I rest my case.
In 1979, as far as I knew, South America wasn’t much different than North America.
I thought that Peru, Chile and Argentina were like Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, States sharing borders on one big cooperative continent.
I was delusional.
Peru, Chile and Argentina were at war with every neighbor they had. I was told this was true for all the countries in South America. Roll out the barbed wire in your mind and where cheerful, colorful billboards welcome you to Michigan envision hostile military check points where your life could be forfeit.
“How nuts is this?” I say to the waiter serving me Nescafe and toast for breakfast at the hotel. “I’m sitting in Santiago, closer to Jaun Valdez and his frickin coffee beans than I’ve ever been in my whole life and I can’t get a real cup of coffee!”
¿Me excusa, qué usted dijo? He said.
“Oh nada realmente” I replied and tried to smile.
Every where I go Nescafe is proudly served. Apparently Nestle Corp. had hypnotized the local populace into believing Nescafe was a cut above Juans beans, and was an affordable piece of progress hermetically sealed in convenient individual silver packettes. Besides, to Chileans, Jaun Valdez was just another “granjero campesino asqueroso de Colombia, su enemigo.” ¿Por qué desearían apoyar su vida humilde de la cosecha de la haba bebiendo el café? (Filthy peasant farmer from Columbia, their enemy. Why would they want to support his lowly bean picking life by drinking coffee?)
Growing up in the Estados Unidos I’d been hand fed the All American, popcorn and happy ending version of history, where time and time again little old put upon America got pulled into a fight they didn’t start or want. World War I and II por ejemplo. Miraculously the good old Red White and Blue would somehow rise to the occasion, showing up just in time to save the day, like John Wayne and the Calvary. In my ignorance, I thought Vietnam was an anomaly. I thought the United States was the John Wayne of the world, ready to come to the rescue with smiling saddle bags full of wit, grit, chocolate and charity.
In 1979 I didn’t understand that John Wayne’s movies often glorified Genocide. I didn’t understand what it meant to stand at the bullet end of US foreign policy or how much human suffering and misery could be glossed over by the words “failed foreign policy.” I didn’t understand that the United States was the exporter of dreams and instigator of nightmares.
I had no idea that American fingerprints were all over the downfall of the Allende Government because Allende had dared to be socialistic, and a successful one, in our hemisphere.
From “The Pinochet File”, page 32, paragraph 4, “The fact remained, however, that Washington had been covertly involved in a shocking act of political assassination abroad – the Chilean equivalent of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.” Page 35, paragraph 2: “At the time of the Schneider assassination, only a handful of high U.S. officials and CIA operatives knew that this atrocity was set in motion by an explicit presidential directive for covert action to undermine Chilean democracy. Unwitting of how and why General Schnieder had come to be shot the State Department recommended to Kissinger that President Nixon send (the following) condolence message.
“The shocking attempt on the life of General Schneider is a stain on the pages of contemporary history. I would like you to know of my sorrow that this repugnant event has occurred in your country…
Repression has a weight that pulls thoughts from the mind and hope from the heart. I could feel it everywhere in Santiago. Eye contact was avoided, smiles were absent. Back then in Chile the thoughts supported by Gloria Steinem or Erica Jong couldn’t have found a hook in the closet of consciousness to be hung on.
1979 was the year I learned that Repression can be red white and blue.
One dismal and rainy morning I met her. She was staying at my hotel. Her face and skin were bright. “Do you speak English?” I queried. “Yes.” She said. “Just arrive?” I asked rhetorically to start a conversation. Brought together by the commonality of language we chatted over toast and Nescafe. She was waiting for her ride to pick her up. She was a teacher from the Midwest who’d come on missionary work for her church. She was so eager to be about the Lord’s business.
I saw her again the next morning. She, like the sky, was quietly crying. “They were laying in the mud, children, just babies, lying on the muddy floors where they lived, dying of diarrhea…… lying in the mud.” Her voice trailed off helplessly. Eyes downcast, she was lost in horror, touching the reality of dying of dehydration while lying in cold wet mud. Our eyes never met. God was no where to be found.
I used to think she didn’t look at me because she didn’t want me to see the despair and defeat where just a day ago the glory of God burned brightly. But now I think she didn’t want anyone to see the desperate, fiery passion that had been ignited in her soul to cut and run home to safety.
After that morning I never saw her again.
In Santiago 1/3 of the people were out of work. There is no unemployment insurance, no safety net. In a city of 3 million that means roughly one million are starving. I saw some of them living in large cardboard boxes on the side of the highway.
Many of the men on my crew were in their late teens, married with children. They made 500 pesos a day, which would buy two slices of Pizza and a beer in downtown Santiago. How they managed to feed their families still mystifies me. One thing was clear they were trapped without opportunity to change their lives or their children’s lives.
Santiago is the capital of Chile. Their equivalent of the White House, which is actually white, was downtown off Ave. Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. In 1979 it was a bombed out hulk with pock marks from 50 MM gunfire written all over its white walls. A sense of unease came over me as I thought how would I feel if this was The White House?
Do you remember how you felt watching the twin towers come down on 9/11? Hold that thought and digest this one, US pilots flew the warbirds that precision bombed the Chilean White House. The day after the coup American products were on the shelves in Santiago. They weren’t in cargo ships on their way to the port in Valparaiso, or even in containers on the docks at Valparaiso.
As Micheal Moore said “It isn’t a question of why have they attacked us, it’s a question of why haven’t they attacked us sooner?”
I did eventually find out why the Santiago police wore machine guns slung across their chests with the muzzle down. That way they can just pull the trigger and the firing action will bring the muzzle up spraying everything in front of them.