When I arrived and lived in Chile at the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s the country was at the end of an 18 year right wing dictatorship. The dictator, General Augusto Pinochet had called a referendum to decide on the future of the government, and he’d lost by a narrow margin. It was a point of pride for Chile that they had ended the dictatorship with an election and not with a war.
The Dinner Party
I invited a group of Catholic nuns to my place for dinner. Through Embassy connections I’d met them and spent some time teaching English and generally hanging out with them in one of Santiago’s poorer neighbourhoods. My apartment was relatively luxurious and I invited them over for a bit of soft living.
Coincidentally a good friend dropped by and stayed for dinner. She was the daughter of a senior Chilean military officer and comes from a privileged background – not outrageously so, but comfortable.
By their DNA they were on opposing sides of the political fence. But in Chile at that time, the fence was probably more like a big wide and raging river that couldn’t be crossed.
Salvador Allende was the president of Chile from 1970 until 1973, and the first Marxist ever to be elected to the national presidency of a democracy. The Marxist government set about nationalising industry, causing economic turmoil. In 1973 half of the country were insisting that the army take control when the government under Allende wasn’t able provide economic stability.
A dictatorship was established under General Pinochet and in the (approx.) eighteen years that followed, thousands of people were killed because of their political convictions. Some terrible things had been done in the name of the government. But the government also provided economic stability.
Outside of Chile, the world had seen the atrocities committed by the army in the media. But the result of the referendum in 1988 when the country got to say whether or not the government under Pinochet should continue was approximately 45% in favour of Pinochet’s government and 55% against. The election showed that the situation was complex, but nonetheless the division was extreme.
At dinner we got to talking about the coup and Pinochet. The nuns viewed it as a time of extreme injustice and oppression, and had lived through it in the shanty towns. My friend viewed it as a justifiable civil war.
Aside from the politics, what I learnt at first hand is that people can be in exactly the same situation and see something completely different. Neither was completely wrong or completely right.
Through another embassy connection I met a group of people who were involved with rehabilitation of ex-political prisoners.
There was an older lady that I got talking with. It is a long story, but the short story is that her husband was not around – I don’t remember what happened to him. She had three adult children and the two oldest had been involved in anti-government activities and had been exiled. They were living in France, from memory. The third son, the youngest, was mentally disabled.
The police raided her house after the oldest children had left. Because of her children and because she had a mark on the wall that was the same size as an anti-government poster she was thrown into prison.
This women’s prison was in the centre of the city – I’ve driven past it many times. Because there was no one to look after him, the remaining son used to stand outside the prison walls every day and cry and she could hear him. Until one day he didn’t come and she knew that he had died because there was no one to look after him.
For me to hear this story as a young and fairly sheltered girl was devastating. It was just before I left Chile to go and live in Vietnam and it left me thinking about hope. And what if hope doesn’t exist. What if the hope that we feel every time anything goes wrong means nothing.
After I arrived I got into a discussion in Vietnam with a Vietnamese friend. I ended with ‘what if hope doesn’t exist?’. She reminded me about the Greek story of Pandora’s Box. After all the bad things flew out, the only thing left was hope, and I learnt another lesson. The question about hope has been around since Grecian times and therefore I must be quite clever to have thought of it as well.
… No, only kidding. As proven in the story of Pandora’s Box the Greeks concluded that hope is real. I have a Christian faith as well (momentarily forgotten in my young person’s anxiety), and the Christians also believe in hope. So yeah, its real.
As a middle class young Australian girl, these are things that I wouldn’t normally have to confront or even think about. As I said to the Chileans when we talked about politics – in in my experience in Australia the only thing people feel passionate about is about sport. So these were pretty good lessons to learn and i’m thankful that I only had to learn as an safely protected observer, after the fact.
The topic for this blog post – the Greatest Lessons Learnt through Travel is the from the Aug 2016 #travellinkup. To get back to twofeet-oneworld.com and Jessi’s post, click on this link.
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Emma @ Adventures of a London Kiwi says
Wow, now that is some dinner party you hosted!
Yes, amazing and coincidental. The nuns were great fun and I’m still friends with my girlfriend from all those years ago. Thanks for dropping by 🙂
Two fascinating lessons learnt there and such amazing memories to have.
Hi Stephanie, yes I was lucky to be in Chile at this time. Not only all this division, but they were also reinventing government and legislation. Plus it is Chile – great food, great wine and beautiful scenery 🙂
Most Aussies get annoyed about politics, but the fact that we let sports be our main passion says a lot about our political system, ie. that it’s doing its job in the background and we’re allowed to get on with our lives. It is an eye opener going to less stable countries, like your experience in Chile and seeing the first hand effects that political decisions have on the daily lives of ordinary people. In these circumstances politics will forever impact and shape their views and opinions – and probably means that they’ll never get to sit on the other side of the fence (or the torrential river).
Hi Nina, yes great comment. We do get frustrated by politics, but are so lucky with all freedoms that we have and we do forget that. I heard stories of families who were split down the middle because of politics, and now we have all the terrible stuff in Syria, Iraq.
Jessi (Two Feet, One World) says
Wow, what amazing stories to share! I love your lesson too 🙂 Thanks for linking up!
Hey – Just taking time out to read a little here, and this is the first article I ‘skimmed’. I gained a lot from it, thanks ‘Aggie B’. The idea of ‘hope’ is fascinating for me, as we were bought up without religion in our family. I read Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ and that left me wondering how some people keep going at all. This sheds a bit of light on our species being ‘hard-wired’ with optimism.
Hi Sue, very interesting article in Time about being hardwired for optimism. Thanks for sending the link. I’ll have to have another look at ‘A Fine Balance’ particlarly now that I’m spending more time in India.