Pinochet's Shadow: No Politics, Please. We're Chilean.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:25

    Leaning over the row of swarming Japanese tourists, I catch a glimpse of the scorched brown crags that are the Andes at the start of a South American summer. Obscured by Yokohama BayStars baseball caps and unseasonal Gore-Tex, the bone-dry Andes are barely distinguishable from an enveloping brown haze. Record levels of air pollution descended on Santiago some two decades ago, the result of government hostility toward regulation of any kind. As in Mexico City, Chileans wear surgical masks during the days of heaviest pollution. Memories of diesel-guzzling buses belching black smoke return with acrid immediacy. My wife and I crane our necks larboard nevertheless.

    "They're huge," she says of the spiky peaks. Still awed, I agree. Beneath the airplane's shadow stretches the semi-arid shell of the valley I once lived in?green-patched, dun-colored hills descending in a mad rush into clusters of flat-topped bungalows, swirling traffic arteries and, near the metropolis' swelling middle region, glass and concrete structures that defy the country's shaky, earthquake-prone crust. Santiago is one crazy, mixed-up city. I should know, I tell myself. I'm Chilean. I was born here.

    Santiago, Chile's sharpest neoliberal profile of itself as an emerging economic power, is a city of marked, ugly contrasts. On the drive from Santiago's airport, stretches of plastic-covered wooden shacks give way to areas of gray, teeming administrative buildings, climbing eventually toward reserved districts of elegant oak and plane-tree canopies. In Santiago, one can both literally and figuratively clamber up and down the city's social ladder via paved road. The protective shell of an automobile, particularly an expensive one with a solid stereo system, provides perfect First World insulation. The more expensive the car the better.

    My cousin's five-year-old Volvo station wagon only partly does the trick. Leaving behind the utter misery of the shantytown areas, then the dusty, lower-middle class, mestizo-hued reality of Latin America, we arrive at the topmost, gracious enclaves of consumerism and privilege. A South American version of Western Europe appears like a mirage amidst the gleaming international banks and shopping centers, the well-tended parks and plazas, the green hedges securing the perimeters of old stucco mansions and buildings containing luxury apartments. Friendly doormen in light blue smocks salute well-dressed residents; maids in pink calico uniforms watch over little blonde children; clutches of counter girls roam the sidewalks, outfitted identically in color-coordinated skirts and blouses.

    Turning a corner brings back memories of Madrid in the springtime; vaunted gables a few streets ahead suggest a genteel lane in the south of England. Nearly everything here reminds you of somewhere else. Somewhere other than Santiago, Chile, deep in the southern hemisphere. It's as if everyone had been rounded up, had their hair lightened and been put in J. Crew and Zara clothing, with cellphones thrust into their pockets. It's Princeton in Spanish; Greenwich on the banks of the cholera-infested Mapocho.

    And watching over all this seeming perfection, from wheat-pasted posters and teepeed campaign signs, the chubby, smiling face of Joaquin Lavin stares out like a favorite, and generous, young uncle.

    Until recently, Lavin's major claim to fame was his successful mayoralty of the district we are driving through, the municipality of Las Condes. Here Lavin threw money from gushing property taxes into beautifying streets; helped establish community policing practices to fight rising crime rates; and attracted businesses by providing the appropriate incentives.

    From these successes, and the ineptitude of the traditional rightist parties in Chile, plus a record $40 million garnered from a staunchly conservative entrepreneurial base (and very possibly from foreign sources, as Chilean law is uniquely soft on campaign contributions), Lavin built a formidable political machine.

    After stalemating a twice-incumbent coalition of Socialists and center-right Christian Democrats in the Dec. 12 presidential elections, Lavin?a University of Chicago-trained economist and previous Pinochet aide?and his supporters were looking forward to a two-candidate runoff set for this past Sunday, Jan. 16. The Lavinistas, once the darkest of horses, staunchly put faith by an old Chilean country maxim: a caballo alcanzado caballo ganado, a horse caught up to is a horse well beaten. Giddy from the high of unexpected success, the Lavinistas put even more faith by their impossible dream?the dream that 15 million Chileans could, in the blink and stammer of empty presidential promises, emulate the lives of 200,000 rich people in Las Condes.

    "We left the champagne in the refrigerator," my cousin tells me, referring to the celebratory bubbly she and her husband planned to uncork after the elections. "I hope we can take it out after January," she says. "You never know. It could stay there forever."

    My cousin, predictably, is the only member of my family to have voted for the other candidate, Ricardo Lagos. Lagos, the moderate Socialist whom everyone once tipped to become the next president of Chile, is an educated, progressive politician in the familiar global mold. Retooled in the efficient foundries of the late-20th-century European Social Democracy, Lagos spent his exile from Chile (during the Pinochet regime) and more than a decade since building odd consensuses of all stripes. First within his own party; then with the conservative Christian Democrats, to defeat Pinochet in a plebiscite and subsequent presidential elections; finally with Chile's more recalcitrant antidemocratic elements during his eight-year tenure as chief of various ministries. Through it all, Lagos has shuttled leftist ideology, bent his own ideals of social and moral justice, and was a bona fide if sometimes slightly unwilling upholder of Chile's fragile, heavily brokered pseudodemocracy.

    Smoothly electing to ballast rather than rock the boat, Lagos responded to the news of Pinochet's arrest a year ago by echoing the government line. Testing the waters with potential voters and the military, the candidate-to-be declared himself in favor of the aging dictator being sent home to face a wickedly compromised, conservatively stacked judicial branch unlikely, at the very least, to prosecute its old boss. At the risk of alienating several of his natural constituencies?those concerned with human rights and the underprivileged among them?Lagos faked left, then swiveled right in feints worthy of the nation's best footballer, Ivan Zamorano.

    The effect for many of his supporters was totally disconcerting. Here you had Chilean pseudodemocracy in a nutshell: humanist ideals seriously dislocated from convenient action; principle divorced, time and again, from realpolitik. When the smoke cleared from the pitch, a glaring fact was evident: When given half a chance, Ricardo Lagos played ball with the worst of them.

    Still, when given the choice between Lagos the nominal Socialist and proven pseudodemocrat and the populist Lavin, once a key strategist in Pinochet's 1989 bid to secure another authoritative decade in power, my family, together with nearly half of Chile's eight million registered voters, opted for the latter. A mere 30,000 votes, the slimmest margin in Chilean history, separated the two presidential candidates. (The Communist representative, Gladys Marin, who took home a lowly 3 percent of the vote, came in a distant third.)

    Chile, long a country firmly divided along traditional class lines, managed during its last decade to forge an administrative consensus between its legitimate political forces and factitious ones like the military, its senators-designate and their political allies (which include many of Lavin's most prominent supporters), all of which have repeatedly demonstrated ambivalence or outright hostility toward the notion of democracy. Yet the country's patient, tired population finds itself once again on the verge of yet another major schism. A schism between an ascendant demagogic populism with a youthful face, and a neutered, managerial-minded economic liberalism in Social Democratic clothing, which today is incapable of putting optimistic zip into even its most basic tenets.

    Chileans have long been characterized by a phrase presumably coined by a shortsighted, nationalistic Anglophile: "The English of South America." Absurd as the conceit that has residents of Buenos Aires declaring their city "the Paris of Latin America," Chile's identification with far-off Albion is repeatedly invoked to explain away oddities in the national character. Widely thought of as the continent's worst dancers, holders of a particularly jealous reserve, hard workers when the boss is around, and ever concerned with keeping up appearances, Chileans also emulate Britain in their national drink, and in a daily ritual practiced in homes across the social, political and economic spectrum: afternoon tea.

    Equivocally called once, after the matinal English elevenses, Chilean teatime is not merely a tidy meal. It is a calm, defusing break in a day chock-full of social pressures. If high tea is taken outside the home, the practice can also act as a sort of starched self-advertisement. Dressed in their Sunday best, older ladies the country over venture out to their local tea parlors. In Santiago's Las Condes district, the Salon de Té Villarreal accommodates the elegant and slightly down at the heel. Successive phalanxes of the elderly and near-elderly stare across plates of cakes, crustless sandwiches and counterfeit scones, pegging this or that person in a phrase, formulating provenances and confirming affinities with simple nods and half gestures.

    That must be Pepito Walter, one gentleman will tell another, Lord has he changed. Like the early Spanish colonists before them, these fashion victims avant la lettre recognize each other as hidalgos, or hijos de algo?the sons and daughters of a Somebody. At least that's what they think.

    Chileans, and particularly Santiaguinos, as the residents of Santiago call themselves, live in a tight, self-contained bubble. Isolated from the world, stranded geographically by sheer distances, the Pacific Ocean and the sharp wall of the Andes, Santiaguinos have, over the centuries, developed their own, quite strict social orders. In imitation of, alternately, Spanish nobility, the Parisian Beau Monde, the lords and ladies of England and, not lastly, turn-of-the-last-century American robber barons, Chileans have created their own, far more modest versions of elusive (because imported) social ideals.

    Neighborhoods, last names and appearances matter very much in Santiago. At times, it seems, everyone who matters is related to everyone else in that high stratum. To this day, potentially innocent questions regarding place of residence or one's secondary school act as loaded carriers that identify people's status in the city's intricate, archaic social order.

    As in England, accents count, too. Not having the right one could easily cost you a job, a raise, or refuse you entry into a posh disco or social club.

    More Victorian than English in any modern sense, Chileans today espouse the sort of Janus-faced morality that animates the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Though divorce is illegal, and annulment difficult and financially costly, the nation does a smoking business in hourly-rate hotels. Though movies like 9-1/2 Weeks and films by Woody Allen, Pasolini, Fellini, Bertolucci and Godard cannot by law be screened in Chilean theaters, downtown cafes regularly feature plump, matronly waitresses stuffed like sausages into microminiskirts and G-strings.

    The fact that Costa-Gavras' film Missing has yet to be seen outside of videotapes smuggled into private homes seems to bother few people in Chile. It will appear, after all, every few years or so on cable channels like HBO and Cinemax. More alarmingly?and in clear echo of the Pinochet years the nation would prefer to leave behind?the journalist Alejandra Matus was recently forced to leave Chile for Miami after being threatened with arrest for publishing Black Book of Chilean Justice, an investigative account of judicial abuses committed by the country's Supreme Court from the days of the military regime to the present. Democracy, or the Chilean brand of pseudodemocracy anyway, takes shelter behind these repressive mores, peeking out timidly when coaxed. But it is still the thing not said, the secret not spoken, that causes the country intermittently to jolt itself out from the political apathy that has characterized its political life this decade.

    That secret has a first and last name: Augusto Pinochet.

    Augusto Pinochet, like a certain shark that once made it impossible for bathers to go back into the water, has returned, this time as an aged, purportedly senile Lear, creating havoc and causing conflict among already sharply dissenting parties in his own country. Close to freedom after a comfortable captivity of some 365 days in his suburban London beachhead of Virginia Water, Pinochet is seemingly set to return to Chile after a panel of four British doctors commanded by Home Secretary Jack Straw determined last week that the former dictator and self-appointed Senator-for-Life was medically unfit to stand trial in Spain.

    The surprise announcement came after more than a year of diplomatic dillydallying between Britain and Chile, and only four months after Chile's foreign minister, Juan Gabriel Valdes, and Britain's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, sat down in a tiny room inside the United Nations headquarters in New York, to share in two passions fervently held by their two sister nations: a cup of tea, and backroom dealing.

    Turning around months of government arguments that emphasized an infringement of Chilean sovereignty, Valdes reshuffled his cards and began making an appeal for Pinochet's liberation on humanitarian grounds. Promising to submit evidence of the general's ill health, Valdes calculatingly provided a way to get rid of the albatross toted around diplomatic circles by Tony Blair's Labor government since October of 1998.

    Pressured at home by an increasingly shrewish Margaret Thatcher and a host of other political antiquarians (including Taki), tugged at abroad by Chilean and Spanish interests, assailed constantly by the real threat of Pinochet expiring on English soil (thus becoming a right-wing martyr), and exhausted by a contradictory, precedent-setting legal wrangle, the government, represented by the Home Secretary, finally found the perfect way to have its cake and eat it, too. Having made right-thinking lefties everywhere joyful by tossing Pinochet into a yearlong velvet lockup, Labor could now also adjudicate to itself credit for being humane on the only grounds their crypto-authoritarian Tory opponents ever understand: with one of their bosom own.

    But how did this affect Chile on the eve of its third consecutive presidential elections since Pinochet stepped down? In a phrase, like one of the nation's trademark earthquakes. "Pinochet never seems to leave us alone," a Chilean political analyst told a Washington Post reporter last week. "With this last minute decision in London, they've turned our elections into something as dramatic as any opera. I don't think there's any question that Pinochet will now become a key, deciding issue on Sunday."

    The immediate benefits and losses for both candidates, though, were initially very much up in the air. Although considered a diplomatic victory for Ricardo Lagos' governing coalition, it was speculated that the general's imminent return might backfire in the form of blank ballots or abstentions turned in by the swing vote represented by Communist Party adherents.

    Lavin, since visiting Pinochet last year in Virginia Water (in a move his advisers called the worst decision of his campaign), has distanced himself from the ailing general with all the alacrity of a fancy suit brushing off a beggar. But he tripped late last week when asked whether he would support putting Pinochet on trial in Chile. With former Pinochet ministers in key campaign positions and the presidency of Chile well within his greedy grasp, Lavin could hardly have felt comfortable when a second reporter asked him if he planned to be on hand to greet the Senator-for-life as he stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac of Santiago's Arturo Merino Benitez's airport.

    This sudden, surprising reminder of Joaquin Lavin's political past might indeed have been what turned the tide against the conservative candidate in Sunday's presidential elections. In a race in which both candidates manipulatively ignored the simmering issues of murder, torture and impunity in Chile, recent developments in London raised the ugly specter of the Pinochet years in the eyes of a timid populace. Encouraged by its political leaders from the right, center and now the left to consign unsolved and untreated cases of state-sponsored human rights abuses to the most profound oblivion, Chile's wayward, rudderless electorate may have, just this once, seen through the expensive window dressing.

    But window dressing was what the spin doctors, both in Chile and abroad, unanimously preferred to trumpet. The phlegmatic Clifford Krauss, dispatching regularly for The New York Times from Santiago, spoke of a campaign "in which both left and right appeared to overcome Chile's polarized past," emphasizing Lavin's stage-managed gesture of traveling to Ricardo Lagos' headquarters to embrace Chile's president-elect. "I will always be with Ricardo Lagos and with Chile," Lavin told the crowd amassed to celebrate the Social Democrat's victory. "I am at his disposal to help unify Chile." Moments later, a pocket of party supporters interrupted Ricardo Lagos with chants of, "Put Pinochet on trial!"

    "We're sick and tired of the extreme colors," a tongue-twisted independent pollster in Santiago told Krauss, "Now we want a gray, modern country."

    A gray, modern country, indeed, is what Chileans are likely to get, though perhaps under Lagos' mandate it will be tinged with a rosy, pseudo-Socialist hue. Lied to continually by a political class willing to trade starry World Bank ratings for social and economic justice; duped by a globalist recipe for conspicuous consumerism that is absurdly exclusionary in practice; and tricked into believing that their country can rise into the vaunted preserve of developed nations on the strength of exports like copper, fruit and wood pulp, Chileans have moved in three brutal, bloody decades from being informed voters with a high sense of civitas to an increasingly lonely crowd deathly afraid to face its past.

    And there are, indeed, many things Chileans would prefer not to remember. Condemned to repeat it, Chile's past, in the person of ghoulish Augusto Pinochet, is now coming home to remind them.