(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

“The last Prussian army in the world” began to rule Chile in September, 1973, when a military coup deposed socialist president Salvador Allende. The army’s chief general, Augusto Pinochet, has ruled effectively and harshly. The armed forces direct every aspect of daily life and control political life. Thousands of leftist activists, intellectuals, and leading citizens have been arrested; some have been executed, and many others have simply disappeared. Pinochet claims that his country is now a “protected democracy,” safe from the threat of Communist subversion. Civilian politicians describe the Pinochet regime as fascist and self-aggrandizing. In 1989, Chile will hold its first presidential election in almost twenty years, and questions abound. Will Pinochet be the only candidate, or will he tolerate a rival? Will the election be a ceremony that crowns a king or a competition that shows a healthy democracy?

To assess the country’s chances of returning to civilian, democratic government, Jacobo Timerman visited Chile in early 1987. Long a political reporter in neighboring Argentina, and himself the victim of repression by a military regime in his native country (in April, 1977, Timerman was arrested and tortured for publicizing the disappearance of Argentine citizens), Timerman empathized with the plight of ordinary citizens as well as political leaders of the left and the center. Personal memories of two men who died in the coup also drew him to Chile: Allende, a good man but perhaps a politician out of his depth as president of a volatile country, and Augusto Olivares, an honest man and a journalist sharing Timerman’s hopes for Latin America’s democratic future.

Timerman found much to depress him about life in Chile. The army rules firmly and keeps the cities as well as the countryside outwardly serene. The “economic miracle” of the mid-1970’s (much praised by North American economists for its capitalist principles) has benefited military officers whose houses, cars, and vacations are symbols and rewards of loyalty to Pinochet. Even sergeants and corporals prosper, secure in the knowledge that suppressing Communists is good, steady work: It provides subsidized housing, free education for their children, and fringe benefits. These benefits include the profits to be made on street patrol: ignoring prostitution, winking at traffic violations, and authorizing street vendors—all for a fee.

Timerman had no trouble finding the torture and the terror which underpin the outward calm. He punctuates his political analyses with first-person accounts of arrests, beatings, and disappearances. Many chapters conclude with a Chilean’s “testimony” about the suffering which the soldiers inflict officially by arrest or in secret dungeons by interrogation. Timerman lets speak the actor terrorized by a rat thrust into his face or down his pants, the college student impregnated in a gang rape by policemen, the exiled intellectual witnessing fellow expatriates commit suicide. As appalled as he is by physical brutality, Timerman is most fascinated by the regime’s ability to force its victims to remain silent. For him, the archetypal incident is the massacre at Calama. Here, in 1973, a commando team visited several villages and killed political prisoners as well as apolitical farmers. The women and children of the victims subsequently pretended that their husbands and fathers were not dead. The massacre went long unremarked until one woman went into counseling and broke the silence as well as the illusion. The revelation prompted not mass protest, but group therapy to help the victims’ relatives accept the reality of their loss.

Timerman found General Pinochet as well entrenched in his office as his army is in the street. He delayed for seven years a plebiscite promised during the coup, then limited it to approving a constitutional provision for an unopposed election in nine years thence; this election will provide an eight-year term of office. Thus the modern dictator is to stay in power for twenty-four years. Pinochet has also proven a skillful manipulator of image. He meets foreign VIPs and domestic visitors early in the morning to show that he is physically fit and mentally alert. He ingratiates himself with the United States by proclaiming that his regime is a bulwark against Communism: His survival of an ambush by Marxist guerrillas is portrayed as a providential sign that he is succeeding. After many years in power, Pinochet ceased to make public appearances in full uniform, shedding the regalia of military discipline for civilian paternalism. Surrounding himself with reporters and cameramen from state-run media, Pinochet visits poor villages to bestow supplies and a few luxuries, projecting the image of a kindly grandfather or rich uncle. Timerman is convinced that Pinochet is too crafty to make the mistake which brought down the Argentine military dictatorship in 1981: military adventurism. Chile has no Falkland Islands to covet.

Yet Timerman believes that he detects signs of hope. True, many individuals appear as bland and listless as the patrolled streets of Santiago, but they are only “submarining.” Submerging their natural passion and curiosity, they...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)

Chile Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Chicago Tribune. December 13, 1987, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, December 1, 1987, p. 1621.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 76.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 20, 1987, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 10, 1988, p. 10.

The Washington Monthly. XIX, January, 1988, p. 58.