Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 24. 26th September 1973
Chile: Rampages, Breadlines & the Black Market
Chile: Rampages, Breadlines & the Black Market
On Tuesday September 11, the Chilean Armed Forces finally carried out the golpeblanco (white coup) that they had been constantly urged by rightest Chilean groups to do over the past few months.
In the following days the news media have been full of protest reports from all over the world; 12,000 parading in Rome; 20,000 led by the French Socialists Party in Paris; 5,000 marching in Berlin; 300,000 Pcronists in Buenos Aires; the Governments of Mexico, Venezuela and surprisingly Costa Rica (the last earthly paradise) declaring three days of mourning; the predictable outbursts from Castro and fashionable mouthings from lip service revolutionaries; band wagon jumping by Whitlam and even as I write this, protestors from predictable sources stand outside the Chilean Consul's office in Wellington.
Clearly there are a lot of people unhappy in the world at the turn of events in Chile but one can only wonder if their combined sorrow outweighs the joy that I confidently feel exists in Chile with the end of the Allende nightmare administration.
When I was in Chile a few weeks ago, I observed a situation of a ghastly misery, an atmosphere of dispirited, disorganised, hopelessness.
We had flown into Santiago at five in the morning from La Paz on a Lufthansa flight and found ourselves to be the only passengers in the front cabin. The German air hostess came and sat with me and enquired if I was staying long. A couple of weeks, I replied, and she promptly handed me some soap telling me there would be none available in the hotels. (She was right — there wasn't). When I expressed surprise, she went on to explain the numerous other shortages prevailing in Chile and showed me food parcels, for Christ's sake, that she was carrying in for Lufthansa ground staff.
Now I will not endeavour to make expert judgement on Allende's Chile, nor am I qualified to do so, but I will merely report observations of my stay and draw some obvious conclusions.
Arriving at Santiago's top hotel, the Sheraton, opposite the Presidential Palace in which I had been booked for two months (the hotel not the Palace) I found my room still unmade after the previous day's occupant. A complaint to the reception desk flushed forth a maid with fresh linen who proceeded to make the beds. The peculiar greyness of the sheets caught my attention and I touched them, to find that they were not merely damp, but literally wet through. I stormed downstairs to protest and encountered a nonchalant receptionist at the desk. The manager was produced. "Sir", he said with a sadness I was to encounter often over the subsequent days, "we just don't care anymore" These were sentiments I was to hear often.
The Chilean escudo one year ago had an exchange rate to the US dollar (a currency that has weakened badly itself over the past year) of 46 to one. Today it is nearly ten times that, but; from the first to the last minute of my Chilean stay I was constantly harrassed by touts offering me the equivalent often to fifteen times the official rate. They wanted the foreign exchange to purchase essentials such as soap, medicine etc. on the huge black market in foreign commodities that has developed in the Allende era. A colour Kodak film would ordinarily cost the equivalent of $(NZ)10. I paid in black market escudoes and it cost me 50 cents, cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Needless to say not too many Chileans are taking colour photographs.
Red meat was almost totally unavailable and at a later date, snowbound in a hotel in the deep south for three days, I am fairly certain we ate cat for each meal. In this same hotel we wore overcoats and gloves for breakfast, for high up in the Andes as we were it was bitterly cold and there was no heating fuel. An American sociology post-graduate student who was a prisoner in the hotel with me and who had come to admire the brave new world (he was more than a little disenchanted at this point) fortunately spoke Spanish and was able to advise the management that we would not be paying our bill unless heating was provided. Some fresh trees were chopped down and fires lit as a result.
I saw few tourists in Chile and I suspect that the group of a half dozen people who were snowbound with me in the hotel were typical of the foreign visitors. They were all young enthusiastic socialists who had come to sympathetically inspect the Allende experiment — a French school teacher, two Puerto Ricans, one a doctor and the other a lawyer, two US sociology post graduate students and others of similar ilk. We aged an international chess tournament with New Zealand sharing the honours with Chile in the final.
Santiago was a more impressive city than I had been led to believe with fine buildings in desperate need of maintenance set against the magnificent back-drop of the Andes. There was little new construction activity, unlike most South American cities (even La Paz and Asuncion arc enjoying a building boom) and the few new structures being erected were usually blocks of luxury fiats being built for army personnel, presumably indicative of Allende's diperate wooing of the military which reached fever pitch in the last fortnight of his Government.
Chile is a modern, sophisticated country with a huge urban middle class and a contrasting illiterate, impoverished peasantry. Few would dispute that a need for agrarian reform existed but the hooliganism, looting and murdering on the land that followed the formation of the Allende coalition resulted in agricultural production virtually coming to a standstill. I heard numerous stories of large well developed ranches being occupied by the peasantry, of the former owners being booted out penniless and in some instances; murdered. Then the new 'landed gentry' would cease all work and commence a diet of meat, ceasing once all the livestock was gone.
In Santiago I saw many factories that had been nationalised, both large and small. They were always easily recognisable by the run down condition of their exterior maintenance, in striking contrast with those factories which remained under their original ownership and management. The Chilean flag flew from each nationalised factory.
I tried to ascertain the formula for deciding which industries were nationalised and was told that it largely depended on the mood of the extreme militant unionists who have vigorously supported Allende throughout. Obviously this excludes certain prime target foreign-owned activities that were part of the coalition government's formal nationalisation programme. But I noticed many tiny factories that were engaged in non-vital activities carrying the flag.
I was told that the militant unionists who when I was in Santiago were rampaging across the city at will, would hear a complaint against a 'boss' and launch literally a physical attack on the factory, seize the building, chuck the bosses out and declare the factory a workers' commune. In some cases the police would intervene and hand back possession — in other cases not.
I was told that inevitably such 'captured' industries broke down and came to a standstill under worker management. I was shown many factories that had once been thriving entities but had since withered and died.
I recollect one day in Santiago when a TV channel was stormed and seized by a group of students. The police recaptured the station in a gun-fire battle. This sort of thing was occurring daily and not being publicised outside of Chile.
All of the many Chileans I spoke to asked me about emigrating to Australia or New Zealand. All felt that Allende would endeavour to sence out his term despite the fact that the country was economically slowly grinding to a halt and civil war and chaos seemed inevitable. All the people I spoke to were hoping for a military intervention but few had faith in this occuring because of Chile's firmly established democratic institutions. The fact that there was a precedent for this in 1924 when economic chaos had threatened gave little faith to people that it would re-occur, for that was 50 years earlier. The army had staunchly maintained an independent role during Allende's reign.
Despite world criticism I am convinced that the military take-over was an action of great responsibility and patriotism by the armed forces who had remained admirably patient to that I am also convinced that it is action that has the support of the vast majority of Chileans.
I must be remembered that this was not the seizure of control by power-hungry Generals who had the might to back their will. It was an unselfish action by the only group in Chile which had the power to end a Government that had brought the nation to the brink of chaos and collapse. If power was their objective then they could have acted much earlier, and they have been under constant public urging to do so. Only they could have saved Chile and they have done so.
The armed forces and police have remained neutralist throughout and have carried out their normal duties. Despite any distaste for the Government that they may have had, their loyalty has been to the constitution. Some prominent military personnel have actually openly supported Allende and the way in which the armed forces have hounded the extreme right wing Fatherland and Freedom movement would give the lie to any suggestion that they were not impartial.
No doubt Allende will become a folk hero with students, left-wingers and the like outside Chile, but I doubt if he will be remembered fondly in his homeland. He was a man whose obsession with an ideology made him place communism first and Chile second. He was not big enough a man for the role he sought to play.
I find his inevitable deification in certain quarters preposterous and a bore. The suggestion that Allende be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is outrageous. Would it have been made if he lived? The fact that it came from a female Labour MP ( Ms Liv Aasen — a Norwegian parliamentarian) are three counts against it being taken seriously, but I shall await Idi Amin to a make the appropriate mocking of this proposal.
I shall be returning to Chile shortly to try its trout fishing and shall look with interest to see if the 500 yard long bread queues are still part of the daily scene. It's my bet they won't be and it's these things that count, not fairytale ideologies that should be ranked with belief in Father Christmas or Jesus in their merit.
One final irrelevant but cheerful note. Chilean women are undoubtedly the best looking in South America and present a serious challenge to the Thais and Costa Ricans for the honour of the most beautiful women in the world.