Friday, May 11, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (III)

One of the frustrating things about living in Pinochet-era Chile was that the recent history was amazingly hard to nail down.

I’m not talking about the atrocities that were committed during and after the coup. Those were well documented in the international press before I left the U.S. for South America. I’m talking about what things were really like in Chile during the Allende presidency and the subsequent coup, or golpe de estado.

Many people wanted to tell me how terrible things had been during the administration of Salvador Allende and how much better things were once he was gone—even with all the curtailments on liberty that came with military rule. When I finally managed to hear people on the other side, it was not surprising that their version of those years was completely different. But the differences between the two versions were so vast that it was more than just a matter of spin. It was like people were talking about two completely different countries.

During the year that I was there, I met very few other Americans, but at one point I did meet one who had been in the country for years. He was with the Peace Corps, and he had been there through the lead-up to Allende’s election, his entire 34-month presidency and the military coup that ended it. At last, I thought, I will get an objective account of what it all was really like.

I told him how I had been hearing irreconcilable versions of recent Chilean history and that logic insisted that they couldn’t possibly all be true. As a fellow American and outsider, I asked him, could he tell me once and for all how it really was? His reply was brief: “It’s all true.”

I was confused. How could it all be true? He repeated, “It’s all true.” I tried again. Two contradictory things cannot both be true, I insisted. He smiled and said all he was going to say, “No matter what you’ve heard, it’s all true.”

This refusal to bow to logic was utterly consistent with a part of the world where a good many people regularly asked for favors from dead acquaintances and where newspapers carried matter-of-fact accounts of UFO abductions. Chile might have been one of the more Europeanized countries in Latin America, but it was still Latin America. All that Magic Realism stuff didn’t just come out of nowhere. I began to believe that maybe two different realities could co-exist in the same time and place.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so confounded. The same thing has been going on in my own country for years. Conservatives and liberals have their own mutually exclusive narratives for what has gone on in the U.S. for the past several decades. One’s reality is bound to be different depending on who one is and from where one is viewing things. Or depending on how one chooses to view things because of a bias stemming from a feeling about how the world should work.

But some things I could see for myself. I could see bullet holes in the side of a tall building that dated from the day of the golpe. I could see an inflation rate that was coming down from a triple-digit high. And I could see undergraduate students in my classes whose academic preparedness had clearly suffered during their primary and secondary schooling, which would have been during the tumultuous Allende years. It was obvious that the country had suffered in many ways during those years. The question was whether it was due primarily to Allende’s policies and social agitation (as the right insisted) or to international economic sabotage led by the United States and its then-president Richard Nixon (as the left contended).

In any event, whatever moral and logistical support the Nixon administration had given the military regime was over. Jimmy Carter was now president, and his administration was decidedly cool to Pinochet. Stung by this, Chileans would frequently wag a finger at me and tell me to “tell President Carter he needs to understand the Chilean reality.”

The Chilean reality that I saw was that the economy was improving and life was normalizing. I got a personal glimpse, however, into the dark side of Chilean reality when I made a new friend. She was a classmate in a German class I was taking at the local German cultural center. Her father was a Communist who had held local office during the Popular Unity government. He was detained during the September 11 golpe but was later released. Her brother did not fare so well.

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