Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (VI)

One of the lasting effects of my year in Pinochet-era Chile was to foster deep-rooted fear, repulsion and resentment of bureaucrats, functionaries and minor government employees with temporary but significant control over my life.

I understand that there are public employees everywhere who work hard, do a good job under difficult conditions and who perform valuable services. But we have all had the experience, at one time or another, where we start to feel like a character in a story by Franz Kafka.

My first introduction to the truly intractable bureaucrat was in France, where a government job is actually quite prestigious and is respected and admired by most French people. But just do a Google search for “French bureaucracy” and you will get all kinds of horror stories from foreign residents. The main memory this topic brings to my mind is not the most egregious example, but it is the most enduring one. It is a memory of standing for a half-hour in a post office queue only to have the employee I was waiting to see shut the window with no warning and put up a “Closed for Lunch” sign—leaving me and others the choice of waiting for an hour until he came back or going to the end of another snaking queue. Call me spoiled, but I was used to post offices where there was a single queue for all the windows rather than forcing customers to play roulette with their personal time.

I also have my stories about dealing with functionaries in Chile. My landlady had a regular explanation for any complaint I brought her about an experience at a bureaucrat’s hands. “She must have been a Christian Democrat,” she would say. It was a popular theory that the government was full of Christian Democrat appointees who were resentful because the military had taken over the government directly after the September 11 coup instead of turning it over to the centrist Christian Democratic Party (PDC), as some had expected them do. The PDC had a successful presidency until 1970, but its popular leader was prevented from another term by term limits. In the end, the party wound up putting Salvador Allende in power by supporting the Popular Unity instead of the Conservatives to settle a three-way race.

Most of my own bureaucratic nightmares, not surprisingly, had to do with immigration matters. During a break in the middle of the school year, I decided that I wanted to visit Chile’s north and Bolivia. Admittedly, I was naive because of how easy it had always been for me to cross borders in North America and Western Europe. After a few great days in the Atacama Desert and seeing the world’s largest open pit copper mine at Chuquicamata, I arrived at the Bolivian border and was told that, if I entered Bolivia, I would not be able to come back into Chile because I did not have a re-entry visa in my passport. I immediately did the paperwork to get one, but by the time I finally got it (it took several days) I had run out of time. I headed back south disappointed, but I blamed no one but myself.

After the end of the school year in January, I planned to visit Chile’s Lake District and the Argentine city San Carlos de Bariloche. I was determined not to make the same mistake as before. Well in advance I visited the appropriate government office to get a re-entry visa. “But you already have one,” said the gentleman, eying the one I had obtained but never used to go to Bolivia. That re-entry visa was a few months old. Could it still be used? Yes, he said. Was he sure? Yes, he said. So off I went. I was a bit uneasy but decided I was just being paranoid.

I had a great time traveling through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world by bus and by boat and by bus again to the summit of the Andes. There was one nervous moment at the Argentine border. I had a weekly newsmagazine with me and the cover featured a provocative illustration about three small disputed islands in the Beagle Canal of Tierra del Fuego over which at that moment Chile and Argentina were actually close to going to war over. I thought it prudent to bury that magazine deep in my duffel bag. But the Argentine border guard seemed to have x-ray vision. He opened the bag, immediately reached down below my clothes and pulled it straight out. I did not get it back.

San Carlos de Bariloche was a beautiful place that felt a bit like Switzerland. While there, I had what was probably the best steak I ever ate in my life. The reputation of Argentine beef was well deserved.

When the time came to cross the border back into Chile, I found that my paranoia hadn’t been that unreasonable after all. The Chilean border guard looked at the re-entry visa in my passport. “This is several months old,” he said. “This isn’t valid.”

I insisted that I had been told by an official in Concepción that the date on the re-entry visa didn’t matter and that it was still valid. The border guard insisted otherwise. Fortunately, after nearly a year in South America, my Spanish was quite good and I could keep up an argument. Also, I had learned during my year in France that sometimes a well-played temper tantrum could break an impasse like this. It has never been my nature to shout or show great anger, but sometimes Latin people just wouldn’t take me seriously if I didn’t. In the end, he shrugged his shoulders and let me pass. But, significantly, he refused to stamp my passport.

At this point, I felt that I was home free. I had only a few weeks until I would get on a plane and fly back to the States and all the headaches about travel documents would be a thing of the past.

To get on that plane, however, I needed to get an exit visa from the Chilean government. That involved various visits to different offices and many forms, certifying that I owed the Chilean government no taxes and that there was no warrant for my arrest, etc. The most nerve-wracking visit was to the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI), a government intelligence branch with police powers. Notorious under its previous name, the acronym DINA, it was associated with disappearances, torture and, most spectacularly, the assassination of exiled Socialist politician Orlando Letelier in a car bombing in Washington D.C. in 1976.

There was nothing particularly sinister about my CNI interview, but my heart sank as my interviewer flipped through my passport. He looked up at me and said solemnly, “You are not in this country legally.”

Given that I had a student visa that was good for a full year and had kept my nose clean and owed no taxes and I was merely heading back to my own country, I hadn’t expected any problems. But the gentleman had quickly focused on the fact that the stamps in my passport showed that I had left Chile for Argentina and there was no stamp showing that I had crossed the border back in. I told him the story of the re-entry visa and the mixed advice I had been given by government officials. He was having none of it.

I had to come back for a second interview. In between I told my girlfriend the story, venting about how unreasonable the CNI man was being. She laughed and suggested that I just wasn’t explaining it right to the gentleman. She offered to go back with me and “interpret.” I was nearly pleased when she got no further with him than I did and she came away shaking her head over it the way I had. Somehow, in the end, we managed to convince him that there was little point in refusing to approve my exit visa because it would only result in me being forced to overstay my student visa and making me a prisoner of his country for no particular reason. In the end I got my exit visa.

It was an emotional parting to leave Chile and all the friends I had made during the year. Ahead lay a week in Peru, a visit to Machu Picchu, meeting a young man who would become one of my closest friends ever and, finally, home.

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