Chile: The Past is not the Same as Memory

By Carlos Amorín on September 9, 2023

photo: Gerardo Iglesias

50 years after the coup d’état, without forgetting or forgiveness.

On June 29 of that same year there was even a general rehearsal of a coup that became known as “El Tanquetazo”, because more than a dozen armored vehicles, among them some tanks, together with 70 soldiers, arrived in downtown Santiago trying to take La Moneda, the seat of the Presidency. They were repulsed by the loyal forces commanded by General Carlos Prats.

But the conspirators were able to measure the enemy. Their reactions, their speed of response, the quantity and quality of the loyalists. These inputs were decisive in planning the massive attack, by land and air, that would begin the 17 years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

I was there that day.

I had been living in Chile for a little over a year, after evading the massive repression and subsequent coup d’état in Uruguay. I was 19 years old. Along with fifty Uruguayans -children included- I had settled in El Salvador, in the “great north”, in the middle of the Atacama Desert. The state mining company COBRESAL, formerly Anaconda Mining Company, expropriated from the Yankees by the Allende government, was located there.

I was working in the Physiopathology Laboratory recently set up and equipped to carry out the first program to detect the dreaded silicosis, an occupational disease that affects miners and can cause serious permanent damage, even death.

Each and every miner and ex-miner had to go through the program to assess their health status to eventually establish levels of disability that would allow those affected to be relocated to jobs not exposed to silica. My job was to compile the statistics.

These days are the 50th anniversary of Pinochet’s coup. Much has been said, written, filmed, represented about it, and yet it will never be enough. Because social and political processes have an obvious collective dimension, but society is made up of individuals, and the story that each one of them can tell is unique, it is their experience, and it is also part of history.

I want to remember today only some of the people I met during that period and who remained in my memory forever, many times without even knowing their names. And also some miracles.

He said he was 78 years old when he filled out his personal data form before taking the respiratory functional test. Short, dry, with a face tanned by the desert and the years. He reported working in the mines since he was 8 years old, accompanying his father and grandfather. Now, officially retired, he was a “pirquinero” as they call those who enter the abandoned mines due to low yields but where, with a little luck, some days they can earn a day’s wages. His x-ray did not show anything abnormal and we thought that surely there was a mistake: 70 years of mining could not have passed without leaving traces. So we moved on to questions:

-Grandpa, do you feel fatigue at any time? What do you mean, short of breath?

-Ahhh… Yes, doctor. When I run the bus…

He worked as a traumatologist at the Potrerillos Hospital, where the Cobresal refinery was located, just a few kilometers away from the El Salvador mine. He was Bolivian and had participated in the guerrilla war led by Che Guevara in that country. He was bald, red-haired, wore a padlock beard and was always in a good mood. Sometimes we “foreigners” would get together socially, and invariably the time would come when everyone would ask him for “the homily”. He would do it very willingly, standing up, sometimes on a chair, interweaving the gospel with the popular picaresque. I did not know then that he had crossed the border into Chile with repression at his heels, disguised as a Catholic priest and without documents. His convincing “professional performance” as a priest among the border guards was his safe conduct. And he must have kept the cassock, because many years later someone told me that he used the same stratagem to flee the coup to Argentina.

Thank God!

At the El Salvador mine the consequences of the coup were tremendous. On the same day, a group of military officers invaded the town and arrested union leaders and the entire board of directors of the nationalized company. They “interrogated” them for several days and shot them shortly after. We began to understand that State terrorism was being installed as a system. Many more leaders and workers, local political and social leaders were taken in several batches to the city of Copiapó, the headquarters of the region. Dozens of them were summarily shot, all were tortured. Chile had dreamed of sovereignty and freedom, and the empire wanted to make it clear who the master was. A miracle awaited us.

In the town of Potrerillos there was a small military detachment under the command of a colonel who had a small daughter. One day the colonel arrived at the hospital with the little girl in his arms. She had suffered a terrible accident and was in serious condition. In the emergency room the doctors had given her up. A Uruguayan surgeon, an adult surgeon, was working at the Hospital. The only chance was to perform a very risky operation with a poor prognosis of survival, but the pediatric surgeon would not arrive until a few days later and the transfer was a certain death. The Uruguayan surgeon, in fact one of the most renowned in his country but persecuted by the repression in Uruguay, took the risk and operated on her. The operation was a success, the girl healed and was able to continue a normal life. Several days after the coup, the colonel summoned all of us Uruguayans to the detachment. There he informed us that he had been appointed Chief of the Plaza de Armas of Potrerillos and El Salvador, and that he had orders to arrest all of us and send us to Copiapó. Instead, he said that he would give each of us a safe-conduct together with a period of one week to leave the country.

-After that time I will no longer be able to vouch for your safety, he said.

We were not yet out of shock when the colonel, looking at the surgeon, added:

-I owe you my daughter’s life. The debt is settled.

He turned and left.

The itinerary of the escape passed through Antofagasta from where a train departs to the border post with Argentina, at the top of the Andes Mountains. From there an Argentine train completes the journey to the city of Salta. The Chilean narrow gauge train advanced a stretch climbing at a 45-degree angle, and then went back in a horizontal line to launch a new onslaught of the mountain tracing a perfect zigzag. I do not have a single memory of the surely wonderful scenery that I could have enjoyed if I could have taken my eyes off the carabineros armed with machine guns guarding both doors of the carriage. Already on the Argentine train we were joined by a Bolivian who was also fleeing. He was Captain Roca. He had participated in the Inti Peredo guerrilla in his country. Argentina was coming out of a dictatorship and there was a democratic government. Héctor Cámpora had resigned his brand new presidency, opening the process for early elections to be won by Juan Domingo Perón. There were moments of euphoria and hope. In Salta, we were received by the governor of the province who hosted us in his modest farm on the outskirts of the capital. Captain Roca was already one of the group, and had told us that he was a captain in the Bolivian navy. He immediately clarified that it was the river navy, probably to avoid the cargoes. After many days of filling it with a garden hose, the pool could finally be used. We all enjoyed the pool except the captain. Until one day we caught him and he ended up in the water. We had to rescue him quickly because… the captain couldn’t swim.

We did not know then that Argentina was walking towards a new darkness, that the governor of Salta would be one of the thousands of disappeared, the only disappeared with a similar position, nor that the Chief of Police who had been presented to us as “a policeman different from the ones you know”, and who treated us so well, would be shot dead in the middle of the city square. We, miraculously, would survive. In my case, to tell the tale.

Source: Rel UITA-Regional Latin American, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English