Friday, May 4, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (II)

The Rotary Foundation guidelines were extremely clear. As a Rotary Fellow in Chile, I was strictly prohibited from engaging in political activity or even political discussions.

Whatever qualms I might have had about my institutional benefactor curtailing my freedom of speech were more than balanced by my instinct for survival. In 1977, Chile was not only under military rule but under military curfew. You could be shot for being out on the street too late at night. The country’s long established political liberties had been suspended. So I knew that I was better off not mouthing off with my own opinions about what was going on.

But that didn’t mean that everyone around me wasn’t telling me their opinions at every opportunity. This came as a surprise to me. I had done some traveling around Spain during the later Francisco Franco years, and at that time Spaniards seemed to be paranoid whenever any political topic was broached. I was expecting Chile to be somewhat similar, but it wasn’t. What I came to appreciate was that Chile had had a long history of political discussion and argument, and that hadn’t changed simply because the military was now in charge.

But the political discussions that were going on was very one-sided. Everyone I spoke with was very pro-junta. That shouldn’t have been too surprising, since the people who would have been most anti-junta were by that point dead, in prison, in exile or just keeping quiet out of discretion. Being a young idealistic student, I did seek out other opinions, but people who didn’t like the junta were hesitant to speak about their feelings with an American. But eventually I did gain the confidence of some of those people and heard their side as well.

While all the pro-junta opinions I was hearing did not blind me to the known atrocities committed by the junta, living in Chile was a revelation because it turned out to be a much different country than the one regularly described in the international media. The sort of leftist publications that students (such as myself) would have been reading in the U.S. and Europe portrayed Chile as a terrorized place with a populace cowering in perpetual fear. The fact was that life went on very normally. The economy, under policies taken directly from Milton Friedman, was improving, and the middle class’s standard of living was rising. There was, of course, a lot of poverty in Chile, although not as much as in many other Latin American countries. If nothing else, that year was the one in which I learned that anything I read in the leftist press would always have to be adjusted for its ideological filter.

As for the press in Chile, it had a filter too. Strictly speaking, there was not government censorship per se, but newspapers and magazines ran the risk of running afoul of post-coup security measures if they happened to publish the wrong thing. So there was a high degree of cautious self-censorship. But I came to understand that newspapers had their own way of getting a story out without getting themselves into trouble. If a story was out there that was negative to the government, they would go to the government for a reaction. I mostly learned about problems or contentious issues in the country from articles that followed the “a government spokesman denied...” formula.

In many ways, Chile under Augusto Pinochet was not what I expected. The biggest irony was the fact that I had originally hesitated to go there because I feared for my safety. The reality was that I have never felt safer in my life than the year I spent there. Because of the military’s heavy-handed security, crime was virtually non-existent. As long as I followed the rules and broke no laws, there was really nothing to fear. Of course, this was at the cost of people’s political liberty, which in the end is too high cost. The stability that Chile had in those days was not sustainable forever. Too much power in the hands of a few breeds corruption, and people will not tolerate repression of dissent forever.

I felt no small amount of guilt over the personal safety I was enjoying at the expense of so many who had perished or suffered at the military’s hands. In any event, that sense of safety began to slip away once I began dating a Communist and when I found myself obliged to participate in a national vote.

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