Friday, July 18, 2008

Laughing at Repression

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first visited Chile, most of South America languished under repressive dictatorships, the most notorious of which was General Augusto Pinochet's. It was durable, lasting from 1973 to 1989, and his influence has lasted much longer. The impending publication of The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet, by Chile's United Nations Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz, of which I have a review copy, has me reflecting on my travels then.

Muñoz, who worked in Salvador Allende's government until its overthrow by Pinochet and accomplices, also helped President Ricardo Lagos resist Bush administration pressures to participate in the Iraq debacle. At the same time, Muñoz worked hard to enforce sanctions against Al Qaeda.

At the time I traveled to Chile, in 1979, ideological purists often argued that to do so was tantamount to approval of the dictatorship. Such moral absolutism has a certain appeal - there may be parallels with contemporary Burma - but I finally decided that traveling anywhere involves compromises, and that I would learn more by experiencing Chile than avoiding it, especially as I was about to start grad school in Geography at Berkeley. I later spent most of a year in Chile's far north altiplano while researching my M.A. thesis on traditional llama/alpaca pastoralism in Lauca National Park (pictured here), in the highlands along the Bolivian border. I've never regretted going.

Pinochet also fancied himself a geographer, once taught at Santiago's Escuela Militar (War College), and even wrote a textbook called Geopolítica (Geopolitics), which I have never seen. Thus I had to laugh out loud when I read Muñoz's comment that Pinochet's book "contains a map of the United States...that situates its capital in the Pacific Northwest, revealing the author's apparent confusion between the city of Washington, D.C., and the state of Washington."

In the course of my own time in Pinochet's Chile, I made many friends with whom I am still in frequent contact, and that gave me insights into life under a dictatorship that I might never have otherwise appreciated. Privately, for instance, many Chileans told Pinochet jokes, but the punch line was often at the expense of Carabineros police chief César Mendoza, a junior junta member who was widely regarded as a buffoon. Even in private, Pinochet could be a little too hot to handle directly.

One of my favorites, which says something about Pinochet's character, starts with Mendoza sitting in his office beneath a portrait of Chilean independence hero Bernardo O'Higgins. O'Higgins suddenly comes alive and issues an order: "Mendoza, this country's in bad shape. I want out. Bring me a horse!" Running to Pinochet's office, the stunned Mendoza stutters that "General, O'Higgins s-s-s-spoke to m-m-m-me!" Pinochet tries to brush him off, but the insistent Mendoza finally persuades him to take a look. As they enter Mendoza's office, O'Higgins speaks again: "Ay, Mendoza! I said a horse, not a burro!"


chuck goolsbee said...

Burro? Ass? What's the difference?

As for "the other Washington" I for one am very glad that all those politicians are a continent away from here!

--chuck goolsbee
arlington, washington, usa

Wayne Bernhardson said...

"Burro" is a pun in the original Spanish, but in slang it means "ignorant" rather than "ass," though Pinochet was demonstrably both, and much more.

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