A Question of Black and White

By Gott, Richard | New Statesman (1996), April 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Question of Black and White


Gott, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


On the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament, just along from the statue of George V, king-emperor, stand the Chilean exiles, their rhyming couplets at the ready:

"Law lords, people say:

Extradite Pinochet."

Across the busy road at Parliament square, a stone's throw from the statue of Winston Churchill, war leader and former colonial secretary, stand General Pinochet's Chilean supporters, jetted in from sunny Santiago. They, too, have a rhyming couplet:

"Mientras Chile exista, jamas sera Marxista."

Such sentiments have a rather period flavour today, for whatever may have happened in the 1970s, no futurologist would put much money on a Marxist regime in Chile in the next millennium. Yet if you were to replace the word "Marxist" with "Indian", you might get a better sense of what moves the Pinochet supporters.

The division between the two Chilean camps - both wave the white and red Chilean flag, both claim to represent "the people" - may be seen as a simple clash between fascists and anti-fascists. Spanish republicans exiled after 1939 were welcomed by the left in Latin America, and Pinochet, like most Latin American military men of his time, had a soft spot for General Franco, travelling to Madrid to attend his funeral. But though this analysis is not wrong, there is another, more significant and much older division between the two sides, which ought to be familiar to a former colonial power like Britain. Watch those demonstrations closely and you will see that one side actually looks different from the other.

The central enmity in Chile, as in many other Latin American countries, is between Indians and settlers. So the exiles, the opponents of Pinochet, are for the most part short and squat, with jet-black silky hair. They are poor. Were they actually dressed in the familiar costume, of the kind still worn in the Andes of Bolivia or Peru, you would recognise them at once as Latin American Indians, blood-brothers of those who play the Andean flute and the zampona in the street markets of Europe.

The Pinochet supporters are quite different: the men tall and fair, looking as though fresh from a polo match or a point-to-point; the women willowy and blonde, their complexions blooming from perennial good food and sunshine. They are rich, heirs to an established white settler tradition that has sought to destroy or ignore the Indians who, endlessly battered and transmogrified into mixed-race mestizos, have nevertheless refused to disappear.

It has never been fashionable to discuss the ethnic origins of Chileans. The settler elite that has dominated the country since the time of Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who arrived in the mid-16th century, has always claimed Chile as a "white" nation, even though the Mapuche Indians in the south remained undefeated by the Spaniards. The "whiteness" was reinforced by the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century. They were brought over to fill the spaces left by the Indians, reduced further in the undeclared wars of extermination that characterised post-independence Chile.

These non-Spanish European immigrants moved swiftly into commerce and the law, banking and the army, and politics. They came from many countries, including France (Pinochet), Germany (Matthei), Switzerland (Frei), and Yugoslavia (Zukovic). They brought with them the 19th-century belief in the inevitable disappearance of indigenous peoples, the adjunct to colonial white settlement in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America. They may have slaughtered more Indians than the Spanish did in all the previous centuries. The Indian survivors are still semi-affectionately referred to by the whites as los rotos - the broken ones, the smashed-up ones, the destroyed. It is only one step away from calling them "the disappeared". …

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