When I first traveled to southernmost South America, in 1979, both Argentina and Chile were under the yoke of brutal military dictatorships that killed and “disappeared” thousands of their opponents. While I arrived, the grimmest days had passed in Chile, where the 1973 overthrow of constitutional President Salvador Allende was startingly violent but the worst ended relatively soon. Argentina’s military junta, on the other hand, had staged a bloodless 1976 coup that got far worse over the weeks, months and years, with a far higher death toll.
I experienced some of this in public. Chile's regime enforced a nighttime curfew and highway checkpoints were frequent, though I never felt at risk there. I do recall personally disagreeable incidents in Argentina, and I also witnessed the police and military stopping city buses to frisk passengers on the highway between the international airport at Ezeiza and the city of Buenos Aires.
Behind closed doors, though, things could be different, at least in Chile. As I made friends there, I learned they resorted to humor to take the edge off. General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the unquestioned leader of a military junta that also comprised the heads of the Armada de Chile (Navy), Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACh, or Air Force) and Carabineros de Chile (national police), acquired the nickname “Pinocho” (Pinocchio)—for obvious reasons—and they told jokes about him. Was Merle Haggard right?
|In many jokes about Pinochet, César Mendoza was an unwitting victim.|
Even then, Chileans could be circumspect. While Pinochet appeared in all these jokes, a key figure was often César Mendoza, head of the Carabineros, widely regarded as the junta's dim bulb. At an informal but discreet weekend retreat on the Chilean coast, called to discuss labor issues among a small group, I recall hearing some of these.
|General Mendoza was unclear on the concept of the DC-10.|
One joke, for instance, told the tale of junta members boarding a plane (warning: explanation of Spanish-language pun ahead). Mendoza is the last to board and, before doing so, he pauses to hit himself repeatedly on the forehead. Asked by Pinochet why he’s doing that, Mendoza responds that “My general, on the side of the plane it says ‘DC-10’.” (In this context, in Spanish, “¡Dése!,” the imperative form of darse, would mean, “hit yourself,” in this case ten times).
|Chilean liberator Bernardo O'Higgins begged Mendoza for a horse.|
My own favorite, though, concerns a moment when Mendoza is sitting in his office and the portrait of Bernardo O’Higgins, the leader of Chile’s independence movement, speaks to him: “Mendoza, this country’s in bad shape. I want out! Bring me a horse!”
Stunned, the stuttering Mendoza rushes to Pinochet’s office and exclaims “G-G-G-General, the portrait of O’Higgins spoke to me!” The nonplussed Pinochet responds, “Don’t be silly, Mendoza, get back to work,” but Mendoza insists that the dictator accompany him to his office.
Relenting, the reluctant Pinochet accompanies his subordinate back to his desk and eyes the portrait of O’Higgins, who responds in exasperation: “Ay, Mendoza! I said a horse, not a burro!”
|Shortly after Pinochet's arrest in London, taggers in Santiago chuckled that "The circus announces the capture of the gorilla."|
In the end, to some degree, the joke was on Pinocho. After his arrest in the United Kingdom on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, he was a pathetic figure and his Chilean opponents could laugh in public. Even though the dictator ultimately escaped formal punishment—except for his year and a half under house arrest—the rest of his life was not what he imagined when he reluctantly accepted the result of the 1988 plebiscite that restored democracy in his home country. He lived his final years in disgrace rather than the glory he always envisaged.
|On this Santiago wall, a British bobby apologizes that "Justice takes time..."|
As we in the United States contemplate what our near future holds, we can take some solace in the hope that the current occupant of the White House—already the object of widespread disgust and ridicule—may fare no better than Pinochet. Unlike Chile's dictator, he may even suffer legal consequences, but that will be a process rather than just an event. Ideally, he'll be unable to laugh it off.
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