Reign of Repression Life in Chile under the Iron-Fisted Rule of Dictator Augusto Pinochet

By Mark Clayton. Mark Clayton is on the Monitor . | The Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 1991 | Go to article overview

Reign of Repression Life in Chile under the Iron-Fisted Rule of Dictator Augusto Pinochet


Mark Clayton. Mark Clayton is on the Monitor ., The Christian Science Monitor


IF the test of a good book is that it somehow makes us better able to understand ourselves, then the latest recounting of Chile's 16-year travail under the iron-fisted military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte is sure to be judged first-rate.

"A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet" is the story of how a country with a 150-year democratic tradition does a turnabout to welcome the violent military overthrow of its elected government. Reaching beyond a mere recounting of life under an all-powerful military, the book dissects the reasons why dictatorship appealed to so many Chileans - even in a society with strong democratic proclivities.

Boston Globe Latin America reporter Pamela Constable and Georgetown University Professor Arturo Valenzuela manage to layer - like a multilevel chess board - the actions and motives of the Army, the dictator, the secret police, and the technocrats, showing their impact on individuals, families, and children. Yet, the strength of the book is not so much its careful organization and documentation of a very complex scene, but its ability to expose the essentially mental nature of dictatorship with its roots in extreme societal fear and hatred.

The military coup that killed leftist President Salvadore Allende Gossens in Santiago on Sept. 11, 1973, ended quickly. The process of subduing a populace educated in the democratic tradition began immediately afterward.

"If you walked on the grass, they would blow whistles at you. But people didn't resist; they complained among themselves, but they obeyed. That's how it happens.... You accept things little by little, and finally you end up submitted to them."

That is how Josiane Bonnefoy, a Chilean student, described to Constable life on a college campus not long after General Pinochet's military began to assert control over every aspect of life in an effort to "purify" it of socialist or communist tendencies.

Civilians, as well as key players, explain their sense of how Chile became ensnared in a fascist system, imparting to readers why ordinary people - perhaps even readers - might under a certain climate of fear do things they would never otherwise consider.

Near the end of a chapter entitled "The Culture of Fear," the authors quote a villager who says simply that "Fear was a sickness we all caught." A page later, the authors reinforce how fear can be contagious in society and illustrate its frequently destructive effect on moral self-government.

"I worry more about the fascist within than the fascist without," says Marco Antonio de la Parra. An ordinary Chilean, Mr. de la Parra recounts his belief that it was evasion of moral choice that made dictatorship possible. "How many of us could become torturers? Pinochet could not have happened if the society were not already sick."

There are eerie parallels between Chile's experience and Nazi Germany's. One example is the Chilean Army, which was trained by Prussian advisers starting in 1885, laying the foundation for an elitism that disdained civilian authority. …

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