The news is in -- Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile, finally died.
For me and my Chile-lovin' friends, this is a big deal. For a lot of Chileans, I imagine this brings a wave of relief, joy, and perhaps redemption after years of watching Pinochet evade punishment for wreaking such havoc on their nation and people. Then again, by dying as a 91 year old man in a hospital, after years of living cushily above the law, Pinochet never really was subjected to the type of punishment he deserved for killing 3,000 of his own people.
Many Chileans, however, including ones I know, are mourning Pinochet's death today. My Chilean host mother, Margarita, was actually a distant cousin of Pinochet (they share a surname), and the night before the September 11, 1973 coup, she was flown out of Santiago for a "ski trip" with Pinochet's daughter, so they'd be away from the chaos and carnage that unfolded in the capital. When she came back, the country had been transformed and Pinochet had begun his 17-year reign. Today, in her bedroom, Margarita still displays a picture of Pinochet and herself at a party; he is wearing his military uniform, she is blonde and beaming.
Margarita explained to me over and over how Pinochet saved Chile for the middle class, that her family had suffered under Allende. "I had to wait in line every day for bread and milk," she said, telling me about how in the darkest final days of Allende's administration, she and her brothers used to get up before dawn to wait for basic goods at the store, taking turns to relieve each other of standing in the long line. Waiting in line for staples was unthinkable for someone from Margarita's background -- her family is "one hundred percent Spanish," as she proudly explained -- no Indian blood -- they were well-to-do, her father had been a career Navy officer. To Margarita, it was shocking and disgraceful to live under a socialist regime where supplies ran so short that people of her family's status were forced to jostle in line to enter understocked grocery stores.
My friends' host families, too, supported Pinochet wholeheartedly. Below is a picture of some of us in Kit's host mom's kitchen, in front of the completely un-self-conscious "PINOCHET" magnet on the fridge. I love this picture.
It was hard not to be shocked by our Chilean families' love and support for Pinochet. It was particularly baffling because these people were not rich -- not even upper middle class -- not famous, not particularly well-connected, and yet they maintained their devotion to Pinochet through all the ups and downs. When we delicately asked them what they thought about the charges of human rights abuses committed by Pinochet and his government, they firmly denied that any of that had happened. All lies, all made up by opposing politicians, all a misunderstanding. I guess at some point, people shut their minds to the truth to maintain their beliefs, right or wrong. It seems doubtful that Margarita or our other Chilean friends will ever accept that Pinochet was a murderer or deserving of scorn or punishment. In any case, his death marks the end of a very important chapter in Chile's history, and impacts that entire country, supporters and opposers of the man alike.
Bueno... para Chile, la alegria finalmente vino.