Monday, May 21, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (V)

In hindsight, I am sure that I was never in any personal danger during my year in Chile. As I’ve already written, in many ways I felt absurdly safe because of the military clamp-down enforcing law and order. And I scrupulously followed the requirement I had agreed to with the Rotary Foundation not to discuss or get involved with anything political.

While I was quite happy to listen to other people’s political views when they wanted to share them, I avoided expressing any opinion on Chilean politics myself. Maybe I had taken a risk by becoming friends with a Communist and visiting her family’s home, but I figured I surely couldn’t have been in any more danger than my friend and her parents, and the military were leaving them alone. (Her brother, who had continued to engage in some level of political activity after the coup, was a very different story.)

Soon after my arrival in Concepción, I was a guest at a meeting of my host Rotary Club. Typical of Chileans, its members all greeted me warmly and cordially and had endless amounts of chat. One man in particular, though, was very quiet and serious. He wore a uniform, and we had no conversation. But at one particular moment he slipped me his card. It indicated that he was an officer in the carabineros, the paramilitary national police force. He indicated, rather seriously, that, if at any point I needed help, I should call him. I guarded that little paper rectangle like a precious jewel. I never went out without it. I considered it my get-out-of-jail-free card, my ace in the hole. If things should ever go wrong for some reason, I figured that man’s card would be an extremely handy thing to be able to produce. Fortunately, I never had an occasion to. To this day, I still have the card.

In a completely unexpected way, my proscription against political involvement became untenable toward the end of the year. Elections had been suspended after the military coup, but in late 1977 President Pinochet called a plebiscite, or consulta, to be held on January 4, 1978. This was prompted by unrelenting international criticism of the regime, including formal condemnation by the United Nations General Assembly for not respecting human rights. Pinochet announced the consulta with an angry television address. The nation would vote yes or no (i.e. expressing agreement or disagreement) with a single sentence that was actually two statements joined by the conjunction “and.” The first statement was, “Faced with international aggression unleashed against our country I support President Pinochet in his defense of the Chile’s dignity.” The text continued, “and I reaffirm the legitimacy of the government of the Republic to sovereignly lead the country’s institutional process.”

In other words, Pinochet had stacked the deck. Very few Chileans would be willing to vote no on the first statement, which was essentially equivalent to “I love my country.” But a vote in favor of part one was necessarily a vote for part two, which was in favor of keeping Pinochet in power. This conflation bothered some people, but not others. In the house where I was living, I saw a generational split. My landlord’s son, who was close to my own age, was bothered by the unfairness of requiring people to vote yes or no on the two questions together, when they might agree with one but not the other. “Fortunately, that presents no conflict for me,” replied his father with finality. In his mind, there was no reason not to see the two questions as one.

The consulta presented a particular problem for me. During the coup, the electoral rolls, for whatever reason, had been destroyed. A new system had to be devised to regulate the voting. The solution was to have voters present their national identity cards upon which a stamp would be affixed. The stamp would prevent anyone from voting more than once. And any identity card that did not have a stamp would be considered invalid. In other words, everyone with an identity card was required to vote.

I myself carried an identity card, a requirement for residing and studying in the country for a year. Surely, as a non-national, I wouldn’t be required to vote. But the journalists on television repeated several times that, unlike traditional elections, the polls would be open to “extranjeros y analfabetos” (foreigners and illiterates). My polola (girlfiend) was endlessly amused (at my expense) by the fact that they kept using the two words together, as if to imply that they were one and the same. But this way of conducting the vote had a perverse result. Since there was no absentee voting, Chilean citizens outside the country (the ones most likely to vote no) could not vote, but a non-Chilean like myself was actually required to vote by virtue of temporarily residing in the country. I had so much trouble believing this that I went so far as visiting local government offices to verify if I was really required to vote. I was told I was.

While the vote was guaranteed to get a high, if not nearly unanimous, yes vote, I personally had no particular reason to affirm my support for the government’s position or for the government itself. But the idea of voting gave me pause. Rumors were circulating that the government would have a way of telling how an individual voted and that there could be retaliation against those voting no.

On the day of the vote, I went to the polls, as required. It was very different than polling places I had frequented in California. For one thing, there was the conspicuous presence of men in uniform with rifles at the ready. When I presented my identity card, the poll worker looked at it suspiciously, eying my surname. “Are you Swedish?” he asked in a tone that was mildly accusatory. The Swedish government had been one of Pinochet’s most vocal critics. “No,” I replied, “I’m from the United States.” Presumably thinking of then-President Jimmy Carter, his face suggested that this was only marginally better. I received my ballot and went into the booth. The poll worker stood just outside the curtain. “Señor Larson,” he called a couple of times, “do you need any help reading the ballot?” I kept declining until I had made my X. People’s concerns about how secret the ballot would be were not completely unfounded. The ballot was not produced by a printing press but was mimeographed. And the paper was very thin. It was quite easy to see through it. I did my best to cover it with my hand as I dropped it into the box.

In the end, the results of the vote were strange only in that the no vote was actually surprisingly large, given how the question was phrased. Seventy-five percent had voted yes, 20.41% had voted no, and the remainder had been blank or otherwise invalidated. But it was more than sufficient to allow Pinochet to claim he had an overwhelming mandate. And the size of the no vote actually had a silver lining for the government. Because it amounted to a fifth of the voters, no one seriously accused the government of election fraud.

For a few weeks after the vote, I found myself looking over my shoulder and clutching my magic card. But as time went on, I relaxed and decided that any concerns I might have had were unfounded. And, anyway, I had met my requirement, and my identity card was still valid. There should be no problem when I had to submit it to the authorities to get my exit visa to leave the country. That had been my concern all along.

And I was right. When it was time to apply for an exit visa, the identity card presented no problem whatsoever. It was something in my passport that nearly kept me from being able to go home.

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