Coastal Post Online


December, 2002

Letter from Magallanes Part I
By Jim Scanlon

Over the years, my trips to Chile have gotten easier, and so enjoyable that they verge on something I have never had - vacations. Eight trips, from 5- 6 weeks each, over an 11 year period have given me almost a different life, in a different place, climate, culture, language, with a different set of friends, mostly in Magallanes far to the south on the windy, cold Strait of Magellan.

Magallanes is very large, 132,000 sq. km, one third the size of Italy, wild and sparsely populated, most people, about 150,000, living in Punta Arenas, a well known city that had it's golden age before the opening of the Panama Canal, and since then has had to work hard to survive. The discovery of oil and natural gas in 1945 helped.

Every morning I read "La Prensa Austral." I love this newspaper for its local news and announcements, its crime reporting,, fires, auto accidents, missing juveniles, court cases, budgetary problems, business news, educational issues, international news, want ads, editorials.... Once a week there is a special section on ancient civilizations. They print a student aptitude test each year and I flunked algebra miserably!

It's to give even a hint of the cultural activities that take place in this small city! Every day is a new surprise. There are clubs and societies from Chamber Music to rap and hip hop not to mention every sport imaginable. Anyone interesting passing through town gets discovered and an article with a photo. I made it twice.

The big story this year is "Caso Coimas" (a bribery scandal) which fills the all papers every day, after day, and has shaken the ruling coalition, "La Concertation." Several legislative members of this "center-liberal" coalition have been accused and indicted for corruption: i.e. accepting money from businessmen in return for favors. It is hard to understand the outrage since it all seems like business as usual in the US.

The Catholic Church is also in big trouble here. Accusations of sexual abuse of children by priests, are provoking angry outbursts up and down the country from parents of victims and also great irritation from church officials, at having to deal openly with their intractable problem with male sexuality. Probably the worst case is that of a bishop who was "retired" and sent out of the country (and it's courts) to a monastery in Columbia. When an uproar developed, he was transferred to a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky where, presumably, he will have little opportunity to interact with children. There, he reportedly said [he] " ready to bear the cross that Christ has given him." Presumably also, a different cross than the court might have given him. Every day I read "El Mercurio" a conservative "business class" sort of newspaper. Just about every day there are one or more articles on neighboring Argentina, that enormously large and rich country, now fallen on very hard times. Four children recently died of malnutrition in Tucuman province in the north. Photos of children looking like starving Ethiopians have appeared. The central government was not to make its $805 million debt payment to the World Bank, and seems to be hopelessly stuck in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The devaluation of the their peso was devastating, reducing incomes overnight by 60%! Try to imagine your paycheck minus just half that! It could happen to you to!

Although there has always competition and friction between them, Chileans are not gloating about their neighbor, the former "good example," role model of the IMF for emerging countries. They provided troops for UN missions, opened up their markets to foreign investors, privatized state owned companies, reduced state expenditures, got "lean and mean," declared war on inflation, pegged their peso one to one with the dollar and then - something went wrong. It's like a plane crash. The aircraft manufacturer blames the pilot, and crew and they blame the design of the plane, others, the weather, others the maintenance ...and children are now going hungry. Now Chile is the "good example" of the IMF.

No, Chileans are not gloating, they worry. You see it in the papers every day. They worry no matter how good things age going. When Alan Greenspan says to the world Chile has a stable economy, that doesn't stop them from worrying, it's like water off a duck. When the Heritage Foundation praises Chile's free trade policies, they worry.

They not only actually seem genuinely upset and sympathetic, the government has made more than a few empty gestures, like lifting a ban on Argentinean beef although it is not entirely certain that Chilean cattle won't come down with "fiebre aftosa." Absolutely no arrogant indifference, no sarcasm, preaching or finger wagging as came from Paul O'Neil the US Secretary the Treasury. Maybe they see themselves in their neighbor's misery, maybe they remember what it's like to have their economy, their society come crashing down, after a "regime change". They don't say, but it is nice.

They worry when their economy grows too fast and when it doesn't grow fast enough. They worry about Iraq and the US and the Euro and the Dollar. It's a business culture that worries about the sustainability of their resources. They worry about the environment, drugs, alcoholism, teenagers. They just started worrying about violence towards women.

They never seem satisfied and secure. Maybe its from having existed for 500 years beneath a huge, eroding mountain range and the ocean, on top of an earth quake ridden subduction zone. But for all the talk about Chile's adherence to "free trade" and policies of the so called "Chicago School of Economics, they never privatized, or sold Codelco, the state owned copper corporation or ENAP the state owned oil company. They don't seem to eager to do so now.

They don't seem to worry about that inconsistency and they definitely do not worry about population growth and smoking cigarettes.

Since 1990, the first year of transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule, it has been a pleasure over the years to watch the slow steady improvement in the appearance of things-buildings, roads, shops, the people, all look better. Punta Arenas looks like a different city!

It has been inspiring, to watch, trip after trip, this conservative, basically European Catholic society, slowly, very slowly and methodically deal with the tremendous disruption of the coup d'etats of 1970 and 1973 and their aftermath.

In 1990 and 1992 I didn't think they were doing very much. By 1995 I began to understand a little better. In 1998 General Pinochet was arrested in England and held in gentlemanly confinement for a year-that sped up the rate of change-but not that much. They work slowly, at their own pace. They were at it in 2001 and are still at it today.

It seems pretty clear now, that everyone is waiting for General Pinochet to die and sort of fade away, like Francisco Franco and, I suppose, Fidel Castro. There was a suspicion among Europeans and Americans that Pinochet might have tricked the British when they let him go "for reasons of health"-and then walked unassisted from the plane in Santiago. He has kept a very low profile for the last two years. I saw a candid, unposed photo of him just a few days ago, and he looked bloated, very old and unhealthy.

In mid October, when I arrived, the commander of the Air Force was replaced and jailed for covering up evidence relating to people murdered and "disappeared" back in the late 1970s. (imagine that!) They slowly pick away which upsets many outsiders while Henry Kissenger, one of the authors of the monstrous crime committed against this country, lives free and unmolested.

I wonder from time to time if powerful, influential men like Kissenger and Pinochet are ever troubled by the evil deeds they did, or felt they had to do, like the deeply troubled Macbeth and his wife? Or did Shakespeare put another one over on us, his audience, we who despite so much evidence to the contrary, want so desperately to believe that evil deeds are punished, that bad men suffer?

Two years ago, a long buried suspicion emerged that Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Christian Democrat, (not a communist or left wing comsymp) the President of Chile, who would not join the CIA plot to keep Salvador Allende from taking office, was murdered with a poisonous bacterial agent. His son who later became President, and his daughter, a Senator, still share this view.

The names of Nixon, Kissenger and Helms keep reappearing in connection with the coup, but just recently I saw something new, a footnote linking the elder George Bush and the CIA he headed at the time, with "Operation Condor," the cooperative alliance of the secret police of Chile, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil to arrest, torture and murder each others dissidents. Today, I suppose the victims might be said to have been "wanted for terrorist activities."

It seems unlikely that any South American officials will reveal anything damaging to the party now in control of the executive office, the congress and the CIA. They are much too practical to do anything that might in any way damage their economies.

But, Chile is, after all a working democracy, with a reasonably free press and, more importantly, it is a Catholic culture, with a latinate language and culture, descended from Ancient Rome, highly legalistic, hypocritical, secretive, guilt ridden and emotional, so, anything might happen. Think Shakespeare, think tragedy: Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, murder, poison, treachery, bodies all over the stage! If Pinochet had ever read, and, more importantly, understood, King Lear, he would never have voluntarily surrendered his power.

The Frei murder case might loosen tongues. The "fingerprints: of George Bush's CIA are all over the place, but-it seems unlikely that Pinochet will ever talk, although he spoke imprudently many, many times when he was on his high horse. He may not be content to let "history" judge him-and he could make millions in a book deal! It could happen!

Pinochet's daughter, who is bright, articulate and very protective of her father, has openly criticized former friends of the dictator, who made a lot of money and have now abandoned the old man --she might. She expressed genuine thanks to some of her father's enemies for rescuing him from English treachery, so she has genuine feelings, which, as we all know, often cause trouble.

Maybe when the old man dies, or maybe when the elder Bush dies or ...maybe when we all die with George the younger! You never know.

But I digress. I should get back to Magallanes and why I keep coming here-the Ozone Hole. (to be continued in January)


Coastal Post Home Page