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Forgetting Is So Long

[whitespace] Remembering Chile's tortured past

By Shepherd Bliss

SHORTLY AFTER Gen. Augusto Pinochet's violent l973 coup in Chile, my good friend Frank Teruggi's family invited me to Frank's funeral in Chicago. They wanted me to be a pallbearer, perhaps even to say a few words. I did not want to go. But when a plane ticket arrived from his girlfriend, I knew I had to go.

They would not open the coffin to allow us to view his tortured body.

We were all shut down and stiff from grief.

Frank was a small, feisty young man who loved street theater, making jokes, and having fun. I recruited him from Berkeley to work with me in Chile. Frank was wonderfully creative, but lacked discipline. On the other hand, I was raised in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and had been an officer in the U.S. Army, so I helped him bring order to his good work for people. Frank lifted my spirits with his impish humor and antics.

Chile may seem a long way from my quiet, peaceful farm near Sebastopol, where I now tend berries and chickens. But having served as a Methodist minister there during the administration of President Salvador Allende, the first freely elected Socialist leader in history, Chile remains in my heart and close to home. As international efforts heighten to bring the brutal dictator Pinochet to justice, I painfully revisit Chile nearly every day. His recent arrest in England on charges of genocide brings back painful memories locked away long ago.

I need to tell my story, though some details still remain cloudy. As ecology writer Barry Lopez asserts, "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive."

I ARRIVED in Chile in l971, in my 20s, fresh from the seminary and newly ordained. Chile reminded me of a southern version of my home state. Both are good wine country, verdant and varied with deserts, rugged coasts, rolling hills, and high mountains. Before Pinochet's regime, Chile was the most democratic nation in South America, never having experienced a coup.

Chile during the Allende administration was a happy place, except for the presence of a few wealthy aristocratic families and the repressive military. Allende, a physician, brought health care, education, employment, and nutrition to millions of impoverished people. He deepened his country's democratic processes.

Driving by our dairies here in Sonoma County, I recall Allende bringing milk programs to many children who had been deprived of it.

I remember people often celebrating in the streets, chanting, singing, and eating.

In a recent Nation article, Marc Cooper recalls "a nation taking control of its destiny, breaking from dependence, reclaiming its natural resources, empowering and transferring wealth to the poor."

Friendships grew quickly during that exciting time. I met a young woman from Ecuador, Mercedes Roman, a devout Catholic. Her long, black hair, olive skin, and compassionate caring were etched into my heart. I fell deeply in love for the first time in my adult life. I courted her in the old-fashioned way, won over some family members, and wanted to marry her.

But on my 29th birthday, Sept. 4, l973, the third anniversary of Allende's election, a half million Chileans gathered in the square, pleading for weapons to defend themselves from the impending military coup. Allende erred tragically.

He was naive.

As the military and other right-wingers armed to topple his government, he innocently believed that his country's long democratic tradition would prevail. People were defenseless when the waves of terror swept through the streets, into homes, and across the country.

The violent militaristic pursuit reached beyond Chile's borders into other Latin American nations, taking lives even in the United States.

Mercedes and I kept in touch for a few years after the brutal coup a week later. I returned to the States, accepting a position at Harvard. I chose safety and security. She continued working for the church, though many activist Christians were rounded up and some were tortured and killed. Mercedes was beaten by the police, but she continued her humanitarian work.

Because of U.S. complicity with the Pinochet regime and its support by Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA, Mercedes was not too happy with America. She did finally get a visa to come here, and I looked forward to seeing her. But when she got to the airport in New York, she was not allowed to enter.

She could be seen through the wire fences, breaking down from interrogation by immigration officials, in fear of being tortured again.

I never saw Mercedes again. As I think about her now, a line from Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda comes to mind, "Love is so short, forgetting is so long."

AFTER THE COUP, National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, where I once heard Neruda read his poetry, became a killing field where the military crushed the hands of popular guitarist Victor Jara so that he could not play. Neruda was among the victims of the coup. The military destroyed his manuscripts and his home in Isla Negra; he died broken-hearted later that month.

An invitation he had written after the Spanish Civil War in his poem "I'm Explaining a Few Things" rises in my mind as a description of what happened again in Chile that year: "Come and see the blood in the streets/ Come and see/ the blood in the streets/ Come and see the blood/ in the streets."

But for 25 years I did not want to come. I did not want to feel the blood frozen in my heart. Our dreams went down in ashes as La Moneda Presidential Palace burned, rocketed by Hawker Hunter jets. The dreams of a more humane society that led Frank, Mercedes, myself, and others to Chile during the Allende administration were brutally shattered.

I am 54 now and live comfortably on a sweet farm in the west county. I have a good life. But I cannot forget. I still do not drink Chilean wine or eat its imported fruit. All this is tainted by the U.S.-supported coup and the "blood in the streets."

I am not yet ready to forgive. I do not hear remorse from the torturers, nor the admission of guilt by the executioners, nor the assumption of responsibility.

I had never thought of returning to Chile, until this year. With Pinochet arrested, I have considered a visit. I have unfinished business in Chile. As I look at my residency papers from Chile's Immigration Department, a name stares up at me--Pinochet. Not the general, but a relative of his.

The name stabs at me.

So a distant Chile and California are connected, at least to this native son. With the growing global economy, it becomes more apparent how everything is connected. Human rights violations can protect U.S. economic interests. As U.S. citizens we need to understand our government's interventions and how they affect people throughout the world and here. Only after truth can there be reconciliation. Justice, or even the possibility of justice (since we may not get it for Pinochet), can open a heart that has been broken and closed. Justice can free those imprisoned by terror.

As the movement to bring Pinochet to trial continues, part of me that has been cold all these years starts to unfreeze.

Sustained international attention on Pinochet's crimes forces dictators to listen, including those in power and those retired to comfortable villas in Europe and elsewhere with blood on their hands and money in the bank. I want potential dictators, of whatever political persuasion, to consider the consequences of brutal actions for which they may be held accountable elsewhere in the world by international law.

Chile may seem a long way away, but in the hearts and minds of some of us, it is so very close to home.


Sebastopol organic farmer and writer Shepherd Bliss last contributed the January 1998 article "Liquid Gold: One Man's View on the Corporatization of the Wine Industry."

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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