Each morning, during my daily trek towards the foothills of the Andes, I pass the Tobalaba Aerodrome, a site that serves a variety of private planes. For most residents of La Reina, the Santiago neighborhood where my wife and I have a home, this is an open, attractive and friendly place in a congested city, a guarantee that no skyscraper will obscure the horizon. In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government, I feel less positive about this airport.
From there, a few weeks after the September 11, 1973 military coup, a giant Puma helicopter packed with Chilean army officers took off on a mission entrusted to them by General Augusto Pinochet: to ensure that Allende supporters who they already were were vindicated by local military tribunals in the south and north of the country were sentenced to light sentences and summarily executed. Among the 97 political prisoners killed by the Caravan of Death was a friend of mine, a young communist named Carlos Berger.
Carlos and I were colleagues at Editorial del Estado, Quimantú, responsible for publishing popular magazines and millions of books at very low prices. I remember him handsome and serious and sometimes mischievous, but most of all I remember his intense involvement in the peaceful revolution Allende started when he won the presidency in 1970. The last time we saw each other, Carlos told me with overflowing emotions: that his wife, Carmen Hertz, had given birth to a son, Germán, who would grow up in a country without exploitation, without injustice, he added. Carlos himself left Santiago to run a radio station in Calama, known as the mining capital of Chile. Little did he know that this transfer to the north of the country at the age of 30 would mean his death sentence.
Although he did not violently resist the coup, he was sentenced to 70 days in prison, which was commuted to a fine. He was about to be released when the caravan of death arrived in that Puma helicopter, with fatal outcome: on October 19, Carlos and 25 other political prisoners were put on a truck that got lost in the páramos of the Atacama desert where their guts were gutted with corvos before being shot at point-blank range. The mutilated bodies were buried under the anonymous sands of this place, the driest in the world.
Years later, this tragedy would claim new victims. Carlos’ parents, Julio and Dora, eventually committed suicide. As for Carlos’ remains, his widow Carmen had to wait for a mock burial until 2014, when forensic scientists identified some small human fragments found in a dune as those of the missing man.
Last year, Carmen, a well-known human rights activist and now a congresswoman, co-sponsored legislation that will fund the construction of a memorial in front of the airport entrance to commemorate human rights violations at the site. For it was not only the place from which the caravan of death set out. Other Pumas helicopters were later used to dispose of and throw into the sea political prisoners who had died under torture. The military tied railroad tracks to the dead so they could sink into the Pacific Ocean and their tattered bodies wouldn’t accuse the killers. A cruel and effective way for them to remain “disappeared” forever. And that is why the memorial, austere and imposing, in front of the airfield will feature a series of raised branches screaming to the sky against the flights of death. The law, which has already passed the House of Commons (88 votes in favour, 49 against, 15 abstentions – note those numbers), is expected to be ratified by the Senate soon.
Another way to remember what happened and should never happen again.
But not everyone is happy with the memorial. A group of La Reina residents have launched a campaign to stop the monument from being erected. They are fearful, they say, that the site could become a site of conflict and unrest. Social networks warn that it will fuel violence, that mobs will come to paint walls, build barricades, loot shops. Although there hasn’t been a single instance of such violence in front of the many human rights monuments scattered across the country, it hasn’t deterred those who suggest it would be better to move the monument to another part of the city. Out of sight out of mind?
Prisoners at the National Stadium in Santiago, September 27, 1973. Bettmann Archives
Such protests in a lonely Chilean neighborhood wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if they weren’t representative of something more serious. This attempt to rally citizens against a memorial to human rights victims is another skirmish in a larger and protracted national struggle for remembrance that has intensified as the 50th anniversary of the coup approaches. The question that Chileans are bound to answer this year is: how do we want to remember that day in September 1973, when the presidential palace was bombed and Salvador Allende died along with the democracy he was defending?
There are two main answers to this question.
The administration of President Gabriel Boric, a charismatic 37-year-old former student leader and ardent Allende admirer, is organizing a series of activities and commemorations that will culminate on 9/11. The focus will be on memory and human rights to guarantee a future in which dictatorship is unthinkable, especially for the new generations who have not experienced the endless nightmare of terror suffered by their elders. The most important thing, therefore, is to educate young people who are increasingly skeptical that democracy can respond to their frustrations and fears.
The stakes are high.
Like so many countries in the world, Chile is in crisis. Rampant crime, waves of immigration, economic insecurity, drought and wildfires, political polarization, quasi-environmental hatred are fertile ground for the rise of authoritarian populism, fueled by nostalgia for the days when one man ruled a strong government in Chile and it abandoned order the streets. To inoculate against new forms of tyranny, it is not enough to remember the atrocities of the past, the railroad tracks that overwhelm us, but it is also necessary to reaffirm the popular belief that a different and better Chile is possible is the dream that fueled Allende’s peaceful and democratic revolution. It’s also a way for Boric, whose government is still recovering from last year’s crushing defeat of a progressive constitution, to change the narrative and regain initiative by reminding people how many overly wealthy politicians and businessmen who call themselves democrats, the seventeen years of Pinochet’s dictatorship benefited from that, as did many of his accomplices.
Remembering this root – one would say original sin – Pinochetista is not comfortable for the Right, which viciously opposes the Boric Left. Its leaders prefer the 50th anniversary to be an opportunity to put the past behind them – a refusal whose persistence and tenacity is demonstrated by the 42% of congressmen who chose not to leave the Aerodrome memorial to permit. If you need to remember the past, they say, you need to remember your trauma, the mistakes and turmoil of the Allende years, how the desire for a socialist society created insurmountable divisions that compelled the armed forces to act. . The “excesses” (the assassination of Carlos Berger?) are deplorable, but Chile must learn again the basic lesson of the coup: if we continue to demand too much change, the outcome will be disastrous. And virulent. Boric has to be careful not to push for overly radical reforms.
These two visions will clash throughout the year as they have for the past five decades.
In Chile, as in the rest of the world, how a nation understands its most traumatic past constantly determines its deepest identity, the kind of future it envisions for its children.
I cannot predict how my country will emerge from this search for an elusive unity, a consensus about who we really are.
I hope that the dead will not be missing in this process.
Hopefully, Chileans can hear the voice of Carlos Berger, who, from the dark night he lives in, demands that we remember him and, with this gentle and fierce memory, create a world where no child like Germán grows up without a father , without a father … like Julio and no mother like Dora dying of pain and despair, no widow like Carmen needs a memorial to commemorate it. It would be the best recognition and legacy of Carlos and so many other brothers and sisters whose lives ended after the coup: may his memory be an encouragement to unite us and not divide us so that as a nation we are capable of fear , to conquer hate and blindness that prevent us from doing justice to the living and the dead.
Ariel Dorfman He is the author of Words from the Other Side of Death and soon also the novel Allende and the Suicide Museum.