(AN OLD POST) Brink of Death, Beginning of Life, Memento Mori, Memento Vivere, Someplace in Between
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte is dead now.
The notorious dictator ruled for 18 years from 1973 to 1989. Now the international news media has swept in from around the world to cover the massive heart attack suffered by Chilean retired general and Dictator Augusto Pinochet this past Sunday. It was a huge event in Putin’s Russia, where Pinochet had been idolized for putting in place an economic turnaround (see page 5). CNN had a red alert header across its web site, said one supporter, one of thousands outside the Escuela Militar in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Las Condes. Another said that El Pais of Spain was doing a biased spread on the life and times and that the Miami Herald had put it on the front page. El Mercurio had the Times of London link to complement their coverage and all the faithful were broadcast around the world supporting the person whom they believe saved Chile from Marxism, Civil War and economic ruin. Pinochet’s mourners lined up for hours to see his body, demonstrate their faith and defend his legacy.
Pinochet was the figurehead of the military coup which violently destroyed the longest running democracy in Latin America. It all beganon the 11th of September, 1973, stayed in power for 18 years. In the process he cleaved families, personal identities as well as a national identity. The numbers are numbers, “only” 3000 killed in an “efficient” extermination of the “escoria” propagated by Castro and Salvador Allende. 30,000 people, according to last years official government Valech Report, were tortured.
I was in the desert north of Chile when he first experienced the throes of death, a week before his actual death. I started asking questions.
Everyone has an experience. Some people talk about it directly, and frankly, like Juan Carlos, a twice daily shuttle driver between the mining town of Calama and the increasingly tourist resort of San Pedro. He tells of when he found himself drinking with an older family friend a while back and noted his stubby fingertips. They had been separated by many years and so he asked what happened, what was his story? All his nails had been lifted with the insertion of bamboo stakes in torture brought by Pinochet and DINA henchmen. Another driver listening on the edge of the conversation interjects, and says that around Calama rumour goes that the bones of the “detenido desaparecidos” detained and disappeared, are underneath the inches thick concrete and asphalt tarmac of the Airport.
3 hours away, in the desert oasis of San Pedro, Fabiola Lopez has dreadlocks, is openly lesbian and her 5 year old daughter builds (mud) sand castles in the dusty street in front of the 15 bikes to rent for the Germans, French and American tourists. She talks about Pinochet and she talks about her Catholic Church upbringing, stories that her refrigerators were always full during the tightest times during Allende and impunity. She went to the school with the sons of Pinochet’s brother she says, growing up body surfing the waves of the Chilean Central Pacific Coast. They liked cocaine, flaunted their last name and were let off the hook by local police upon infraction of the law.
“The death of Pinochet will mark the end of an era.” Karen is a friend of Fabiola’s and a short, powerful and dark massage therapist from San Pedro (who “has seen seen more famous asses than you would believe.” Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, along with other Hollywood big hitters, have passed through). “It will mark the end of the patriarchy.” Her landlady hid mine unionists from Calama in her home, like in the Underground Railroad, except in vain. Police ferreted them out quickly in the small town.
Operación Retiro Televisores, or Operation Remove Televisions, in which members of the Pinochet police services dug up the bones of executed political prisoners to dump them in the ocean from helicopter, or otherwise hide their whereabouts has a memorial in the desert. Juan Carlos can see it each way on his shuttle drive, 70 yards away from the road in the remarkably barren desert, a tall cross rising above an encircling fence.
The sign on the side of the road says “Memorial.”