Today’s entry deals with several items on Chile, including former president Salvador Allende, his birthplace of Valparaíso, and the controversial HydroAysén dam project in Patagonia.
The Allende Autopsy
In the more than 40 years since his rise to power and subsequent death in a military coup, former Chilean president Salvador Allende Gossens has been one of the most polarizing figures in the country’s history. Over the last several years, there’s been a consensus, based on testimony from his personal physician, that Allende killed himself rather than surrender to his military opponents. In the year 2000, the government of president Ricardo Lagos dedicated sculptor Arturo Hevia’s monument to Allende (pictured above) at the southeast corner of Santiago’s Plaza de la Constitución, opposite the presidential palace.
This week, though, Chilean authorities exhumed Allende’s body from its resting place in Santiago's Cementerio General for an autopsy that would determine whether, or not, the former might have been executed by the soldiers who stormed the palace. This morning, TVN (a public TV station) suggested that Allende was indeed executed, though the Allende family - including his daughter Isabel (a cousin of the novelist of the same name) - castigated TVN for speculations in advance of the results.
This week, in part because of the news, I watched the DVD of director Patricio Guzmán’s film Salvador Allende (2004). I regret to say that, after the artistry of Nostalgia for the Light, about which I wrote recently, it’s a huge disappointment - rather than a true documentary, it’s a 100-minute hagiography for someone who was no saint. Guzmán clearly idolizes Allende, an unquestionably interesting figure, and apparently made no effort to interview anybody from the opposition - and by the opposition I don’t mean the military thugs who overthrew him, nor the few Chileans that Guzmán shows spewing verbal venom in archival footage.
Rather, I mean the political opposition who had serious misgivings about Allende, rather than just his friends and followers. Allende spent more than 20 years in the Chilean Senate, and it would have been revealing to hear from legislators who worked with and against him, in the same institution. For instance, former President Patricio Aylwin (still alive today at age 92) succeeded Allende as president of the Senate and led the democratic opposition within Congress. The interviews with former US ambassador Edward Korry are informative in revealing how Richard Nixon did everything possible to undermine Allende’s government, but Korry’s time on screen only suggests that Guzmán was simply looking to vindicate Allende by painting his enemies as villains. In the case of Nixon and his Machiavellian aide Henry Kissinger, this was not difficult.
One of the distinctive features of Chile’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaíso is its assortment of ascensores, the picturesque funiculars that connect many of its hills neighborhoods with the financial and commercial districts along the city’s waterfront. At one time, nearly three dozen of them shuttled up and down the precipitous hillsides and, just a couple years ago, more than a dozen still did so. Though they give Allende's birthplace much of its character, many of them are privately operated and, unable to turn a profit, have closed.
Under municipal control, only half a dozen still function but, according to an email I recently received from Martin Turner of The Yellow House B&B, the government will by August purchase ten of the privately operated ones that are still in near-working condition. According to the online Santiago Times, Valparaíso’s Cámara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) is planning a series of restaurant developments near them, beginning with the neighborhood around Ascensor Barón at the east end of downtown. Presuming this development is done tastefully, in accord with UNESCO guidelines and the city’s traditional architecture, it will make historical preservation profitable as well as aesthetically pleasing.
The controversial HydroAysén dam project may have been approved by a Chilean government commission, but that doesn’t mean opposition has ceased - there have been numerous demonstrations against the project and, last week, even The New York Times opined against it in an editorial entitled “Keep Patagonia Wild.” According to the Times, “[M]ajor studies have made it clear that Chile has extraordinary renewable energy sources, including solar, geothermal and wind power that could be developed with far less impact on the environment.”
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