In the States, about the only thing I knew about Chile was Pinochet. Pinochet the tyrannical foe of free elections. Pinochet the evil dictator who eats babies for breakfast.
A week into my visit to Chile. Pinochet had not even come up in conversation. I blamed it on the company I was keeping, namely Patricia the lush lipped pampered princess. She showed no trace of the white liberal guilt which pervaded the affluent earth waifs I pursued back at Stanford. I'm used to women who feel obliged to question their privileged position, who lament the plight of those less fortunate and make a few token gestures in that direction. They earnestly discuss the homeless over cocktails. They pooh-pooh companies doing business in South Africa. They don't eat grapes. And they always vote Democratic, which tends to relieve a lot of guilt, and also allows them, when the Republican wins, to throw our hands into the air and blame everything on the conservatives. Patricia and her coterie of privileged Chileans possessed no such guilt. These women strutted unabashedly on the upper crust, not bothering to glance below.
True to my training, I was feeling a little guilty as I made the club rounds with the leather-clad princess. What about the oppression I read about in Time? I resolved to bring up the Pinochet issue at the family dinner that Patricia had invited me to. The apartment, on the outskirts of Santiago, was small but elegantly decorated. To demonstrate my seriousness and to compensate for the implications of my long unruly hair, I declined scotch and drank orange juice before dinner. Just after the main course was served, I brought up The Subject.
"So tell me about Pinochet," I said.
"Maybe I am the wrong person to ask," replied the mother, the family spokesperson. "Because I am in love with Pinochet. He is like a father to me. He has dedicated his life to saving this country, and now that he has succeeded, the country refuses to save him." She went on to tell the story of their exile to Colombia when Allende came to power ("with only a third of the vote," she wailed). The Allende regime prohibited the distribution of Walt Disney comics, which was the family business, and had replaced Mickey and Donald with "KGB comics."
"The KGB makes comics?" I asked. "Yes, and they are very bad," the mother said.
"Not funny," the father added, his first comment of the evening.
"So we spent a few years in Columbia," the mother continued, "and when Allende was...what's the word?"
"Killed?" I offered. In the Stanford International Relations department it was an indisputable fact that Allende was the victim of a CIA plot.
"Killed himself," inserted the father, his second comment of the night.
"When Allende committed suicide," the mother went on, "we returned. My mother had continued to live here the whole time and she had to queue up to get soap and black bread. You can't imagine how excited she was to get a piece of stale bread. Nobody was working. Pinochet came in and said, 'You have to work now,' and 'Tonight you go to bed early because in the morning you must work some more.' And the country obeyed, and the country was saved." Somewhere in this chronicle, somewhere around the 'obeying' part, I knew she was neglecting the human rights abuses which, in the American mind, had linked Pinochet with that ultimate landmark of historical evil, Hitler.
"Wasn't there something about rounding folks up in a soccer stadium and shooting them?" I asked.
"Discipline," explained the father, his third and final comment of the night. His tone made clear that no further elaboration should be expected. The daughter, wide-eyed at my heresy, was dispatched to get dessert.
"And now," the mother mourned, "we have elections." She explained that the likely victor was Aylwin, the Christian Democrat, whom she despised. She hadn't forgiven the Christian Democrats for "handing over the country to Allende." Bchi, Pinochet's finance minister who had been credited by many with Chile's recent economic success, was running a distant second. The daughter brought out a signed photo of Bchi--she obviously revered him like a rock star.
"Aylwin is in cahoots with the communists," the mother hissed. Among the communists supporting Aylwin's campaign, she noted, was that notorious pinko, George Bush.
"If the Christian Democrats win, the I will encourage my daughter to leave the country."
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