Caldera — for travellers — is a sleepy coastal town in Northern Chile. For the Chilean economy, it is an important port for the copper mining industry. In my memory now, however, it is the place that I met Carlos, who gave me a glimpse into the history of Chile and the spirit of its people.
Caldera is close to the beach town of Bahia Inglesa, a popular spot for both local and foreign tourists because of it’s clear beaches, white sands, moderate temperatures, good seafood and fresh ice-cream. People usually take the collectivo (shared taxi) to the Bahia Inglesa beach, but we decided to walk, which turned out to be a great decision.
The walk is through really small villages along the coast, and the terrain is empty, barren and somehow still friendly. There are no roads, there are just the sand covered plains with a few paths wide enough for cars (only four-wheel drives) scattered in them.
The beach has a really long stretch of sand. Just beyond this crowded stretch below is a much-less crowded and slightly more rocky beach. The people there are mostly locals camping out with their cars, and taking rides in ATVs
We spent a lot of time on that beach, just lazing around on the sand, climbing rocks, taking pictures, eating seafood, and watching people enjoying themselves in the ocean.
We also spent a lot of time, cooking and relaxing in our hostel. It had only a few rooms, so we spoke to all the occupants. I remember clearly a french father-daughter duo; the father a lawyer fighting for the rights of refugees in France, and the daughter, a self-professed hippie, just starting college in England. Both of them were extremely stylish and graceful, their voices low and commanding, their laughter melodious, and their eyes sincere.
While talking with them over beers and a fire, we befriended Carlos, a loud and friendly twenty-year local with curly hair. He wore oversized shirts and shorts, listened to hip-hop, and taught basketball to poor kids. “To save them from the streets, it’s good if they play sports”, he told us.
He was involved in many protest movements against the police and the government in Chile and showed us how to wrap a sweatshirt around your head so that you don’t breathe in tear gas.
“My dad was tortured by the Chilean government”, said Carlos one night.
I looked at David, to make sure I had heard correctly. “Did he say his dad was tortured?”
David nodded. “Under the Pinochet government.”
Carlos continued telling David his father’s story in rapid Spanish. “What’s he saying?”, I asked David.
“His dad had to flee the country”, David said, waving his hands to hush me so that Carlos could continue. “He could come back only when Pinochet was overthrown.”
I had already heard that the 1970s had been a turbulent time in Chilean politics and that it was still fresh in many Chileans’ minds. However, this was the first time someone was talking to me so freely about it.
Now, as I was writing this entry, I looked into it a little bit more, and what I found made me quite angry and sad.
Some Recent Chilean History
It is October 1970, and Salvador Allende is the president of Chile, despite active involvement by the CIA to prevent his ascendancy. They have directly funded political parties, they have actively plotted coups, and they have funded anti-Allende propaganda in the media, but the people have still voted for him.
The US is wary of him because he espouses Marxist and socialist ideas. It isn’t just that, however. He also aims to nationalise the copper mines (if you watch Motorcycle Diaries, the mine that Che Guevara stops at with the old, poor couple and fights for them the next day is one of the largest in Chile) that are a source of valuable profits to private American companies. Chilean telecommunications are almost wholly managed by ITT, an American corporation.
Moreover, all this is happening during the height of the cold war, and every country that isn’t following American ideals is a potential convert to the Russian side, even though Russia is now a little hesitant because their experiment in Cuba is costing them a lot (Pg 37 in Reference 1).
With this background, and against advice from his own state department, Nixon tells the CIA to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” (Reference 2).
And they do.
Chile’s economy, even with Allende’s attempts at diversification, is hugely dependent on the US, which accounts for about eighty percent of its foreign trade. An ITT memo from 1970 reads, “A more realistic hope among those who want to block Allende is that a swiftly deteriorating economy will touch off a wave of violence leading to a military coup.”
The US stops providing economical assistance to Chile. Imports of important replacement parts for basic infrastructures such as trucks, cars, and construction equipment comes to a halt. Truckers go on a very well-publicised strike (Reference 3), and they are curiously well-funded, even admitting to reporters that their money is coming from the CIA. Bus companies stop running, there are food shortages, inflation is now through the roof, and people are finally unhappy. The plan is working, and the CIA increases its propaganda in Chile, directly influencing and placing editorials and radio programmes every day, pointing to the Allende government as the cause of all this suffering to the people (Pg 40 in Reference 1).
Despite all of this, Allende’s party’s vote share increases in the 1973 parliamentary election, and the US is faced with the prospect of a continuing Allende presidency.
However, while it has been strangling the economy, the US has been increasing the funding to the Chilean military, both directly and through private groups. The CIA is actively involved in the planning of coups through multiple parties.
They later claim they were not directly involved in the coup that actually succeeded, even though they were aware of it in the months leading up to it. Though they also acknowledge that private companies that had CIA funding were actively involved (Reference 1). “The CIA was aware that links between these groups and the political parties made clear distinctions difficult.”
After one failed attempt, Allende is finally ousted on September 11, 1973. There are tanks outside the parliament, and Allende is surrounded. Instead of vacating his office and surrendering, he makes a speech to the Chilean people (Reference 4) on the radio and then shoots himself.
They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history. — Salvador Allende, Sept 11, 1973.
Allende is replaced by Pinochet, the army chief, who immediately dissolves congress, bans political activity, abolishes freedom of the press, arrests supporters of other parties, bans rock music, makes congregations illegal, and of course cancels all upcoming elections. More than 20,000 people are arrested, and the Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) in Santiago is converted to a prison and torture chamber.
A famous singer with communist leanings, Victor Jara, is tortured. He is mocked and told to play the guitar after his fingers are cut off. He is shot with more than forty bullets and his body is displayed publicly at the entrance of the stadium. The song linked to below talks about a girl Amanda, whose lover goes off to fight and never returns.
The US government, through Henry Kissinger, continues to support the Pinochet government, turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses that continue to pile up. More people, including Carlos’ dad, are imprisoned and tortured. Many, like my Airbnb hosts’ family in Valparaiso, flee into exile.
In 1975, the CIA acknowledges in their report (Reference 1) that, even with all their involvement, the prospects for a revival of democracy had declined rather than improved.
In 1980, a new constitution was put into place, and in 1988, Pinochet lost a referendum to continue as President, and Chile finally returned to Civilian rule (Reference 6).
Much later, in 2003, after the declassification of many documents related to US action in Chile, Colin Powell calls the period “not a part of American history that we’re proud of” (Reference 7).
I got in touch with Carlos again while writing this post.
He told me that Hector Rivera Osorio, his father, was arrested during the military regime for thinking along the lines of the singer Victor Jara, a communist singer who was arrested, tortured, and beaten to death in the Estadio Nacional (the national stadium) in Santiago.
Hector Rivera Osorio was also tortured on the pretext that he had been building a bomb with dynamite. Many of his friends were killed by the military, but he was eventually released. After his release, he fled to Ecuador to avoid recapture where he taught mathematics under the name Juan Pablo Perez Cotapo. He lived there till the dictatorship ended in 1988, when he returned to his homeland that he still loved.
More than forty years later, his son met an Indian traveller and told him this story, adding, “My father suffered because he believed there was a better future for me and my brothers in Chile.”
Carlos is now studying to be an engineer in Santiago, Chile and believes he is living in that future now.
Getting there: You can get to Caldera by bus from Santiago. It’s a long ride, and La Serena is a great place
Staying: There are only a few hostels in Caldera, but they are cheap. Bahia Inglesa has hotels and more hostels and things are closer to the beach, but it is more expensive.
Doing: Laze around on the beach, swim in the pleasant water, watch all the people and talk to the locals. You might meet someone like Carlos as well.
- Senate report CIA covert action in Chile between 1963 and 1973 (Big PDF that’s been scanned quite badly, but really well written)
- DemocracyNow report on Nixon’s involvement in the Chile coup and its aftermath
- An excerpt from the book Killing Hope by William Blum
- Salvador Allende’s last speech
- NYTimes article where some prisoners talk about their time in the Estadio Nacional
- Wikipedia article on the dictatorship period in Chile
- Colin Powell answers students’ questions in 2003