Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Would Have Supported Pinochet, but Still Think There's Something Wrong with His Country

Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Would Have Supported Pinochet, but Still Think There's Something Wrong with His Country

Article excerpt

Santiago de Chile

The Plaza de Armas, Santiago's main square, is as pleasant a place to while away an afternoon as you can find in this strangely soulless city. A military band is playing in the bandstand, families are eating ice-cream, the palms barely tremble in the cool of a still, early spring afternoon and Santiago's besetting smog has thinned a little -- sufficient to afford a blurred, yellowed view of a colossal Andean ridge smothered in new snow, hanging high above us in the sky.

The view is an increasingly rare sight here. In many visits I have never seen the city's mountain backdrop from the city; but there is a reason for the diminished pollution today, Sunday 14 September. The weekend is the end of a national holiday which began on Thursday 11 September. Chileans know what the date means: the 24th anniversary of the violent overthrow and destruction of the Socialist Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, in 1973. Seventeen years later the General stepped back after losing a plebiscite on his presidency, but he remains head of the somewhat autonomous armed forces. He says he will retire next year, at 82.

I did not know the significance of the day when, with friends, I walked down into Chile from a Bolivian volcano on Thursday. We had managed the gruelling ascent of Jequises, an 8,000ft heap of sterile red rocks, with difficulty. From the top I looked back over a hundred miles of savagely beautiful peaks and lakes, to Bolivians, just the bottom left-hand corner of their huge country, empty of all but flamingos and wild llamas, hot springs, salt flats and fields of boiling mud. There are minerals here but the region is virtually cut off from Bolivia's inadequate infrastructure and more easily reached from Chile. If I were Bolivia's foreign minister I would propose swapping this region, which Chile could use, for a bit of Pacific coastline, whose loss in 1884 Bolivians still feel like a dagger to the heart. Beanstalk-shaped Chile has lots of coast but a shortage of hinterland. A bit of Bolivia would fatten her up nicely at the top. A bit of Pacific coast would make a hero of any Bolivian politician.

Such were my thoughts atop this volcano as I turned my gaze away from my beloved Bolivia to the west whither we were headed: Chile. I could just see the corrugated tin and oasis greenery of San Pedro de Atacama, 40 miles away.

We walked there. It was a hell of a trudge but downhill all the way. Hitting our first metalled road in a fortnight - a solitary Chilean painting a solitary white line on it - felt like rejoining Western civilisation, but to your urban Chilean in Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama, nearly 1,000 miles north and surrounded by nothingness, is the sticks. From our campsite there we surveyed Bolivia in the eastern sky: the very South American landscape to which Disraeli compared the front bench opposite him: 'a range of exhausted volcanoes'.

From our campsite, I said. We had no choice, the hotels being full. This was 11 September, even in the Atacama. That night -- under a sky so starry you would not call it darkness pinpricked by light, but rather silver, masked a little by a thin black gauze - I lay on the ground listening to the drums of a police band playing patriotic marching songs.

Then silence. Then another sound, the jeering whistles of counter-marchers who found nothing to celebrate. …

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