I barely slept the first night I arrived in Chile in December 1976. The military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which had seized power 3 years before on September 11, 1973, following its violent, United States-backed overthrow of President Salvador Allende’s left-wing Popular Unity government, was at the height of its power.
Before traveling to Chile, I had been active in the United States solidarity movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, organizing to secure the release of the thousands of political prisoners in Chile. Unable to sleep, I tiptoed to the window and looked out on the deserted streets of the northern Chile town of Arica. Nothing and no one moved outside, except for the military convoys that periodically raced through the empty streets. I eventually fell asleep and woke up to my first day in Chile.
My sister and I had traveled through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru on our way to Santiago, Chile’s capital. Like so many people around the world, we abhorred the overthrow of the Popular Unity government, a coalition of left parties supporting economic and social justice for workers and peasants, and were outraged at the military’s imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of Chileans who had supported Allende. We thought that witnessing firsthand what life was like in Chile under the dictatorship would strengthen our ability to speak to people in the U.S. about why they, too, needed to oppose the dictatorship and support human rights in Chile.
From Arica, we traveled south to Santiago, where the families of political exiles I had worked with in San Francisco lived. Ramón Soto, the cousin of one former Chilean political prisoner and refugee I knew in the Bay Area, proposed to take us to La Penitencería, one of many prisons housing thousands of political prisoners in Chile during the military regime. Because of my U.S.-based organizing work, I was eager to visit the jail, meet the prisoners, and learn about their conditions. When we arrived at the jail, one of the guards told us we couldn’t go inside. Melinda, responding with a good deal of bravado, simply said, “Oh, but we always do.” The guard hesitated and then allowed us to pass. We then waited as other guards inspected our papers and those of the other family members and friends lined up to visit imprisoned loved ones.
Sitting on concrete slabs in a large, open room, we met political prisoners during specially designated visiting hours. Soto introduced me to his former cellmate, Luis Torres, a former member of the Chilean Air Force. He joined after his father died, to support his mother and brother and to get an education, and like a number of other enlisted men and officers, he supported Allende’s Popular Unity government. As a result, Pinochet’s armed forces arrested, tortured, and convicted him and 80 other Chilean Air Force members for treason. Torres and I hit it off, and for the next six months, I visited Torres at the prison two or three times a week.
Political prisoners in Chile were incarcerated in special blocks together to isolate them from the other prisoners. The military’s acknowledgement of their special status allowed political prisoners to maintain their identities, engage in ideological discussions and organize themselves behind bars. This arrangement had the unintended consequences of boosting the prisoners’ spirits, strengthening their sense of political commitment and encouraging resistance.
The range of organizations, parties and political tendencies that existed in Chile during the Popular Unity government largely reconstituted itself in the prison. The two main poles on the Chilean left were the majority of the Socialist Party, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and several smaller Christian parties on one side, and the Communist Party, smaller sectors of the Socialist Party, and the Radical Party on the other. The former promoted workers and peasants immediately taking control of factories and the land and organizing within the military against a coup. The other pole urged a gradual approach and sought to form an alliance with the Christian Democrats, a large, centrist party that ultimately backed the coup.
Political prisoners maintained contact with their comrades on the outside through conversations with visitors and written communications, which were shared with prisoners inside the cellblock and with party contacts on the outside. Many of the visitors entered and left the prison with messages, written in tiny script and carefully folded to be as small as possible, hidden in their clothes or bags.
Security remained an ongoing concern. For instance, after it became clear that Melinda and I would continue to visit prisoners and learn more about how the parties functioned inside, one of the leaders of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, the organization Torres and his cellmate were affiliated with, sent a message to the group’s leadership in the Bay Area to inquire about us. The organization originally advocated armed struggle to end capitalism in Chile, which is why it supported the Popular Unity government but remained outside the governing coalition.
Despite the political differences among the prisoners, they united to celebrate key holidays like International Workers’ Day. They organized another event for International Women’s Day, in which several prisoners stood on the concrete slab that ran the length of the room and, one at a time, spoke about the history of working-class women’s struggle and how important women visitors were to keeping their morale high. They thanked the women in the room and emphasized how they provided them with clean clothes, nutritious food, and other supplies they needed to get by. The prisoners then handed the women a red carnation as a symbol of their struggle.
Melinda and I also worked with various human rights groups in Chile. Most of them worked under the auspices of the Catholic Church, since it was the only institution that had some measure of protection from the military. Specifically, we met with women who were members of different human rights committees, such as The Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, which met in Santiago’s main cathedral. Two other church-sponsored organizations we worked with were the Ollas Comunes (Soup Kitchens) that people organized in poor neighborhoods across Santiago and the Bolsas de Cesantes (Unemployed Workers’ Groups).
What struck me most forcibly about these various organizations was people’s ability to organize and work together under the most difficult of situations. People knew that the military could arrest, torture and imprison them at any time, as so many of their family members, comrades and friends had been. Nevertheless, they joined with others to form the ollas communes to alleviate the hunger they and others like them faced. In so doing, they not only provided food for others and themselves, they also affirmed their sense of personal dignity and their commitment to work collectively to get what they needed.
Two other closely tied qualities characterized these activists: They had a high degree of class consciousness, and they were very political. They knew that the military served the interests of the wealthy, and that the wealthy benefitted from their oppression. As a result, they looked to each other for support and solidarity. For example, one woman in the soup kitchen explained to us that to get food for the “common pot,” they went around asking people for it. At first, they went to the rich neighborhoods, but those people didn’t give them anything. So they concentrated their efforts in the poor neighborhoods and open air markets, where vendors would generally give them something.
One day a woman, Olga Sazo, approached us at one of the meetings of the Bolsa de Cesantes and told us she wanted to introduce us to members of the resistance. In Chile in 1977, “resistance” meant the armed, clandestine underground that was working against the Pinochet dictatorship. As I later found out, Sazo had been born on a landed estate in southern Chile, where her father was a landless tenant who worked for the landowner. She fled what would have been a forced marriage and a dead-end life on the estate to Santiago, where she supported herself as a seamstress and joined the Socialist Party.
After surprisingly little discussion, Melinda and I agreed. Sazo then took us to meet several members of a clandestine cell of the Socialist Party, which operated in what is now Cerro Navia, a poor neighborhood in the western part of Santiago. Over the next few months, we met with them and transported documents to different members of the Socialist Party, since, supposedly, it was less likely that the Chilean secret police would arrest us than they would a Chilean. For International Workers’ Day on May 1, the group decided to put out a leaflet condemning the dictatorship and calling on Chilean workers to organize to collectively oppose it.
One or two days before May 1, we went to Sazo’s house. She was waiting for us with the curtains drawn. She asked us to type up the leaflet they planned to distribute, since she knew we had worked as secretaries and typed better than she did. After a moment of consideration, we agreed. I did the typing since I had worked as a secretary longer. Nervous, I did my best to type the leaflet as quickly as possible. Sazo then asked us to help hand out the leaflets on May 1 after curfew, when only the military was allowed on the streets, which Melinda and I declined. We were taller and blonder than most Chileans, and would stick out like a sore thumb in a working-class neighborhood after curfew. I never saw the leaflet, but Sazo later told us that they did distribute them, and fortunately no one was arrested.
When I have spoken about these experiences, people often ask me if I was scared. The answer is that I was — especially after the Chilean secret police came to the house Melinda and I were staying at, looking for us. Luckily, we were away at the time and for whatever reason, they didn’t come back.
Two factors helped allay my fears somewhat: First, the Chileans I met who resisted Pinochet’s dictatorship were a nonstop source of inspiration for me. If they can do it while facing even greater risks, then so could I. Second, Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977, and I benefitted directly from his emphasis on integrating a bit more respect for human rights into U.S. foreign policy. While the Carter administration backed United Nations resolutions condemning Pinochet and greatly reduced military aid to Chile, his administration failed to cut all aid or denounce or withdraw support from Operation Condor, through which South American militaries worked together to repress and murder leftists throughout the region and internationally, thus complicating his human rights record.
Still, as part of Carter’s new policy, a new group of officials began to work in the U.S. embassy in Santiago. Melinda and I became friends with a newly appointed young consul in the embassy. Although he didn’t know the extent of our activities in Chile, he knew enough to be concerned about our safety. When we flew out of Chile, carrying taped conversations with what he thought were members of the Catholic church but in reality were members of the resistance, he met us at the airport and made sure we got on our flight.
Once Melinda and I were back in the U.S. we did all we could to share what we had learned with people here and to urge them to act in support of human rights in Chile. We spoke with members of the solidarity movement about our experiences and at political events in the Bay Area. We talked to everyone we could about the situation and what they could do to convince the U.S. government to pressure the Chilean military dictatorship to respect human rights. Melinda and I even drove to Washington, D.C. and met with elected officials and staffers from our home district in southwestern Pennsylvania, asking them to end all aid to the Pinochet dictatorship and demand the release of political prisoners.
My six months in Chile have had a lasting impact on me. I learned directly what it was like to live under a military dictatorship. I witnessed both the fury and the hatred that the wealthy feel for those who not only oppose their rule but attempt to build a more just and equal society, as well as the brutal measures they are willing to employ to suppress those efforts. But I also experienced the profound commitment of many Chileans, both inside and outside of prison, to work together to build a society in which exploitation and oppression do not exist.