I once had the chance to take down the dictator of Chile with my Swiss Army knife. In the heat of the moment, the idea was indeed tantalizing; I had visions of statues erected and plazas named in my honor.
But I didn't do it...obviously not, since Pinochet died just this past Sunday at the ripe old age of 91. I didn't act in part because I don't believe in violence. I also knew that it would likely end up being seen as just another instance of Yankee interference which solved nothing and actually made things worse. Plus there were all those soldiers with machine guns...
Please join me on the flip for the full story...
My encounter with General Augusto Pinochet took place in March of 1988, in the small town of Coihaique, in southern Chile. We were brought to our fateful rendevous by our common interest in a road.
Chile's geography is a bit unusual: a 2600 mile-long sliver wedged between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. There is really only room for one north-south road. Indeed, and old socialist tending a hotel in Temuco once complained to me: "Do you know why we can't have a guerrilla war against Pinochet? It's because there's only one road. Where would we hide?"
For most of Chile's history, even this single highway only reached as far south as Puerto Montt. The southernmost 1000 miles of the country were accessible only by boat or a few tortuous roads over the Andes from Argentina. As a result, only 3% of the population lived there, eking out an existence primarily in fishing and sheepherding.
The central government in Santiago had always viewed this region with a bit of suspicion, as if the inability to hail a cab to the capital was somehow a sign of treason. For a dictator like Pinochet, this inaccesibility was unacceptable, and so in 1976 he began work on an engineering marvel: the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway...and actually, the full name was the "Carretera Austral Longitudinal General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte"), a road pushed south through swamps and temperate rain forests, over raging rivers and mountain spurs, past glaciers and rockslide-prone slopes.
The road developed in a slow, piecemeal fashion over the next decade, until finally, in 1988, the sections were finally linked in a single, passable route as far as Coihaique, and even a bit beyond. In honor of the occasion, Pinochet planned a road trip south from Puerto Montt as the official inauguration of the highway.
Meanwhile, my then-girlfriend Sarah and I had just arrived in Coihaique by boat from the south, planning to hitchhike north on the highway. But with the dictator on the road, it was closed down to other traffic, and thus we had several days to kill, awaiting his arrival in Coihaique.
In ordinary times, being trapped in a placid town of 30,000 people might be a bit boring, but these were not ordinary times. Pinochet was in the beginning stages of the first genuinely contested political campaign since he had seized power 15 years earlier. A Yes/No vote on his remaining in power until 1997 was scheduled, and the dictator was anxious to legitimize his rule without having to resort anew to fraud or terror. The inauguration of the Carretera Austral was clearly an opportunity for political haymaking.
Several exhibitions had been set up to impress upon the townspeople the great benefits bestowed upon them by the dictatorship. Glowing photographs of new infrastructure and colorful graphs showing recent and projected economic growth painted a bright picture. But it took very little to get a very different picture from the locals. Most people felt most of the development money was going to wealthy cronies of the Pinochet regime rather than to the local economy. Pinochet's reversal of land reform had resulted in the area's largest cooperative ranch being auctioned off to an agribusiness corporation. The mining complex at El Toqui had been auctioned off to a Canadian company. Large tracts of land along the new highway were being bought up by outsiders. A fish hatchery outside of town flew the Japanese flag. Magnificent alerce forests, comparable in size, uniqueness and antiquity to California's Sequoia forests, were auctioned off for export lumber at cut-rate prices.
Most locals viewed the Carretera Austral as just a boondoggle for Pinochet's friends and as a means to increase political control. Since the highway was really only capable of handling cars and light trucks, heavy transport would continue to be by boat. What the local people truly esteemed were projects that had been carried out by pre-1973, democratically elected governments: the port and airport, gas plants, housing projects, TV transmission, fishery and meatpacking plants. Said the president of a regional development council: "If they had asked us which we prefer--the road or more investment in already-productive projects--we would have opted for the latter."
But the dictator was coming to town, and if there had been any visible traces of public disagreement, they were being well concealed. On the contrary, government crews were busy manufacturing the image of a prosperous community and appreciative population. Pro-Pinochet slogans were stenciled onto the asphalt of the road leading into town, banners of gratitude were hung from the lampposts and welcoming posters were placed in shop windows. A stage was erected near the monument to sheepherding at the entrance into town, and the sides of buildings facing the stage (not the entire buildings, understand--only the sides facing the stage)were given fresh coats of paint. The only visible sign of dissent was in the shop window of a courageous bookseller, who dared to display such titles as Dictatorship of the Colonels and Dr. Atkin's Revolutionary Diet.
On the day of Pinochet's arrival, the trucks of the clean-up crews circulated almost as frequently as the vans of the police and military. The air reverberated with the steady arrival of military transport planes bearing ever-increasing numbers of soldiers. By evening, soldiers lined the route into town, snipers were positioned on the rooftops, and helicopters criss-crossed the sky.
At 10 p.m., headlights finally flashed into view. Several cars of security agents shot past and their occupants leaped out. A van then pulled up, and out from the back stepped Pinochet himself, in an army uniform topped by an absurdly large braided cap. He stood for a moment, blinking in the lights and regaining his legs. Then he began striding the 50 yards to the stage. He passed just a few yards in front of us.
Caught up in the excitement, Sarah and I bounced our way along the crowd lining the sidewalk, keeping even with Pinochet. As he approached the stage, we managed to scramble up onto the grassy plot of the adjacent sheepherder monument and were directly alongside the stage to the dictator's right.
The stage itself was ringed by plainclothes security men who had purposefully kept in front of the surging crowd. You could tell they were security because they kept their backs to the stage, their hands poised inside their jackets, and their eyes fiercely scrutinizing every facial expression and body movement of the spectators.
The entire crowd was visible from our vantage point. We had been told that attendance was mandatory for anyone whose job was somehow connected to officialdom--government workers, teachers, bank employees. They were carefully arranged within the bright circle illuminated by the television lights in front of the stage, and they cheered and waved flags throughout the dictator's muddled speech about building a future for the children and remaining vigilent against subversion. But visible to us beyond this manic scene was a much larger crowd, silent and sullen in the shadows.
Pinochet finished his speech and to my great surprise descended the stage and waded into the crowd. The confident arrogance of this act astounded me. In the capital city of Santiago, he would never dare to mingle with the public like this, for fear of attack from some smoldering member of the suppressed society. But here in this small, isolated community, he seemed emboldened to risk uncontrolled exposure...
Or did he? As I watched Pinochet being jostled within the crowd of cheering, smiling faces, I felt sure this had to be intricately staged. Sheer arrogance of power could not possibly account for this...and yet, and yet...then how could I be right in the middle of it? He came closer and closer, and then was right in front of me. I could literally reach out and touch him! My mind went to the Swiss Army knife in my pocket...
But the moment was over in an instant. I suddenly felt myself lifted up from behind and deposited six feet further back in a movement so swift and smooth that I did not at first even realize it was happening. The security men closed in around Pinochet, and more burly men cleared a path back to his van.
In the end, it was not my pocket knife that brought down Pinochet, but rather the brave people of Chile. Pinochet lost the referendum vote to stay in power until 1997. The Coihaique region voted against him as well, though it was close: a margin of only 7 votes out of 38,483 cast. The following year, Pinochet lost the presidential election to Patricio Aylwin, leader of a coalition of dozens of opposition parties.
Pinochet continued to wield behind-the-scenes power for many years, but he ended his days hounded by courageous advocates to hold him accountable for his human rights abuses. I'm glad to see him gone for good