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The Lessons of Santiago

By David Cogswell
Review | May 1, 2010

SANTIAGO, Chile - I don't suppose I'm unusual in this regard, but I often feel that traveling is the only time I feel really alive. Back home embedded in the rules and routines of life, captured in a web of entanglements, obligations, bills to pay, forms to complete, deadlines to meet, habits to maintain, bores to honor -- it can suck the life right out of you. But when I'm traveling I feel like Jesse James on the run. I know they're going to catch up with me eventually, but at the moment I am two steps ahead of them. I am free.

The experience of travel brings you into fuller awareness of your mortality. It pushes you into collision with the finite nature of your life and your world. Days and weeks may all seem the same when you are hiding deep in your daily routines, but when you are in a place far from home and you're experiencing many things for the first time, you become acutely aware of the fact it may be the last time you will see these things. You can't help but be in touch with your mortality.

Louis Ferdinand-Celine wrote, "That's what moving about, this traveling is; it's this inexorable glimpse of existence as it is during those few lucid hours, so exceptional in the span of human time, when you are leaving the customs of the last country behind and the customs of the next one have not yet got their hold on you."

Ralph Waldo Emerson said society is in conspiracy against the individuality of every one of its members, and traveling gives you a rare moment of weightlessness, freedom from the social and political realms of human life. Traveling removes you to some degree from the life system you have built, that which produced you, and that in which your habits are incorporated. Travel also removes you from your support system, so it is inherently dangerous. It exposes the traveler to many unfamiliar, uncontrollable events and forces. The risk is usually outweighed by the pleasures, but virtually all travel is risky. That is much of its charm.

Without exposing yourself to the random element, you can have nothing new. And that is probably why we travel. We need something new. Travel brings much that is new. Practically everything is new when you're taking a trip. It helps you to realize that every moment of your life, even if you are caught up in empty routines, is unique. You can fall into repeating the same things over and over, and persuade yourself that that will make everything the same and life will have no risk. But in fact, every minute presents the chance for something different, something out of the routine. Traveling teaches us that, if we are willing to pay attention.

Our generation is reviving the primordial nomadic ways of the species. We travel just to travel. We travel because we have within us great seas of longing to roam the earth, to see its great wonders and beauty. We suppress it. Some never feel it. But for many people, travel is an irresistible call, a yearning that must sometimes be quenched.

So it was that on April 14 I left my life of quiet desperation and set out on a trip to Chile. The transition that took place as I prepared, packed and took off on my trip was something like Walter Mitty morphing into James Bond. Shazam! I am Captain Marvel. I may look just like another American tourist. But in my own mind I am dashing and bold, like James Bond. And it doesn't matter what I really look like to people looking at me. It's what I am seeing and experiencing that is exciting. And the travel destination looks even better in real life than it did as part of the scenery flashing by in the Bond films.

I traveled to Chile with a group of tour operators from the U.S. Tour Operators Association as a guest of Turismo Chile, the country's public/private marketing agency for tourism. Turismo Chile set up a program to show a sample of the long narrow country in three of its regions. Santiago, the centrally located capital city, was our hub. It's a major metropolitan center where half of Chile's 15 million people live. From there we traveled south to Patagonia, which is still largely a remote wildland, and north to Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth.

Chile is often referred to as the longest country on earth. I'm not sure how that is calculated, but if you look at a map you get the point. Chile is one very long and lean country. It's nowhere more than 150 miles wide. As a reference point, Chile is only three fourths the width of Kansas, which is 200 miles wide north to south. But while Kansas is 400 miles long, Chile has a coastline of almost 4,000. The overall length is 2,672 miles. Keep in mind, the distance from New York to Los Angeles is only 2,500 miles. Chile stretches out this great distance along a north-south axis, which means that the northern part of the country is in the tropics, and the southern tip is roughly 600 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula. The country is defined by the Andes Mountains on the east and the Pacific coastline on the west.

Turismo Chile took us deep into the south, where we saw icebergs, and then far north to the world's driest desert. It all radiated out of Santiago, where our trip, and any experience of Chile, begins and ends.

By the way, it must be said that while it was only six weeks after the Feb. 27 earthquake, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, that there was little visible evidence in Santiago of the disaster. Many people are still avoiding travel to the area because their last media images were of an earthquake disaster. But in fact, Chile mobilized and recovered from the earthquake with unbelievable speed. It goes with the character of the Chilean people. Some attribute it to the strong cultural influence of the German immigrant community, but Chile is a very industrious, efficient nation.

Santiago is a large modern urban center with striking skyscrapers on its skyline as well as beautiful architectural monuments from its colonial period. It has a lovely Latin grace, and with the Andes as a backdrop, it cuts a striking figure.

During our guided tour of the city, the thing that had the most impact on me was seeing the Presidential Palace, where you can still see the scars from the military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. I have seen gripping footage of airplanes bombing the Presidential Palace when the military, under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet, launched a military coup and took over control of the country. (See Youtube http://bit.ly/16oOUq). The president died in the attack. The official cause of death was suicide.

Pinochet instituted an immediate jackboot regime, rounding up allies and presumed allies of the Allende government by the thousands, using a stadium as a concentration camp, instituting harsh curfews that lasted for years, imprisoning, torturing and "disappearing" thousands of Chileans. According to the Valech Report on Political Imprisonment and Torture of 2004, at least 27,255 people were tortured by the regime. Approximately 2,603 people were killed or disappeared, and an additional thousand remain unaccounted for. Pinochet remained in power from 1973 to 1990.

This horrific attack, in which a civilized, democratic nation sunk into fascist barbarism virtually overnight, received little attention in the United States. It seemed so far away in 1973. And yet the appearance of tanks on the streets of Santiago was not that different from what it was like when Hitler rode his tanks into Paris, or when Soviet tanks ripped into Prague in 1968. The reason it didn't get much attention in America was probably because our government was largely responsible for the takeover. How the government of the U.S., which only three decades before had saved Europe from fascism could be responsible for initiating a fascist takeover of a democratic country is a long story.

To summarize, Chile's president, Salvador Allende, was elected in a close three-way election in 1970. He was a doctor and an avowed Marxist. Once in office, he nationalized copper mines that were held by American corporations in an attempt to channel the wealth from the country's number one resource to its own people. Allende used the money for public programs and became wildly popular with the poor, but not with the economic elite, and certainly not with US corporations.

Nixon tried to prevent Allende from ever taking office. The idea of a democratic government calling itself Marxist in the Americas was not acceptable to Nixon and American corporate power. They wanted other countries to accept their rules about who owned what. American companies had big investments in Latin American countries, with low costs and were reaping great profits. American presidents at that time were thinking in terms of the domino theory. If Chile's socialist experiment succeeds, it could set an example and cause others to go the same way. It was a disaster to American business that could not be allowed to happen.

So Chile, like Vietnam, became an example. We can't let a Latin American country go communist, the thinking went, even if it came about democratically. Kissinger said, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

After the election, but before Allende took office, Nixon sent an order to CIA Director Richard Helms, saying, "Make the economy scream to prevent Allende from coming to power or unseat him." Nixon used his power through the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to cut off sources of credit for Chile.

A communiqué to the CIA base in Chile said, "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end, utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden."

Edward Korry, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, said, "Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."

Peter Kornbluh, in "The Chile Coup -- The U.S. Hand" (http://bit.ly/9yRXVL), described the U.S. strategy. "Covert funds were funneled into Chilean congressional campaigns; CIA agents stayed close to disgruntled Chilean military officers; to keep the military on edge, the CIA planted false propaganda suggesting that the Chilean left planned to take control of the armed forces; and the CIA secretly poured $1.5 million into one of Chile's leading newspapers, El Mercurio. But the CIA covert operation was only one leg of what U.S. officials called 'a triad' of actions toward Chile, according to National Security Decision Memorandum 93. A second leg was 'correct but cool' diplomatic pressure and a third leg was the 'invisible blockade' of loans and credits to Chile."

After the coup, Nixon opened credit lines and poured American aid into the country to get the economy rolling again. American politicians and press lauded the coup as a freeing of the country from communism. But to many Chileans who lived for years under curfew of an oppressive government, it was not such a good thing.

Now 20 years since Pinochet was pushed out of power, The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was opened in January to preserve the history of the Pinochet period. The museum was closed for repairs when I was there. It was the only time the earthquake actually affected my trip in a negative way. Chile has now established itself in its new democratic period. It has seen several elections and transitions of presidential power since the dictatorship ended in 1990. The newly established democracy has now lasted longer than the Pinochet dictatorship itself. But the memories are still fresh for many Chileans. In fact, outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, who attended the opening of the museum, was one of the thousands who were tortured. She said the museum sends a signal of the country's "desire to never again suffer a tragedy like the one we are remembering here."

Because the story was largely kept out of the American press at the time, most Americans did not know of that earlier 9/11 and never learned of their own country's involvement in establishing and maintaining a harsh dictatorship in Chile, as it did in many other countries. Though this history is well known to Chileans and other Latin American and European countries, it has been largely hidden from Americans themselves.

One of the local guides I spoke to in Santiago said the tour operator she was working for, which served an affluent US clientele, told her not to mention the American part of the history when showing the presidential palace because it's politically sensitive.

The result of this is that when Americans travel to other countries, they have no idea of how other people see Americans, and why other countries do not always see America as we see ourselves, as the benevolent guardian of democracy and human rights throughout the world. Our lack of historical knowledge makes us vulnerable when we travel abroad.

It's a sobering reality and sad, no doubt, to learn that such things can happen and that the world may not have been quite as we pictured it in our youth. But I, for one, am glad to know the truth, unpleasant as it may be in this case. It requires me to expand my world view and re-establish my love of my country on a different basis. I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw's definition of patriotism: "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it."

1 Comment

I'll step out of the shadows for a sec to say how much I got out of this piece from last year, especially having just returned from two months of traveling in Southeast Asia. Wasn't on a tour but recognize your sentiment: "...when Americans travel to other countries, they have no idea of how other people see Americans..." Gave it my best shot. Anyway, fun following you from afar, old friend.

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