Law and Order
By Erhard Kraus

 

Chile has come out of a dictatorship and is still struggling with its legacy. Argentina's people are trying to come to grips with its period of political "disappearances" that has not even come to a defined end yet. How are you as a traveler affected by these facts? First, you are probably cautious not to get into any trouble with the authorities and second, as a tourist, you enjoy a  fool's liberty. Good for you. Then, from under this protective blanket, you can peek to get a glimpse to discern aspects of the truth.

As a general picture in Chile, I was told that "The government is OK, even the police. But you have to watch out for the military...." To be practical,I am not sure how a bike rider watches out for the military (except to respect the obvious superiority of their vehicles) but I  tried to heed the advice. Maybe that's what the powers want you to do: Let no one think they could ignore them - let them be anxious!....

patag_carabin.jpg (9814 bytes)The first thing I noticed were the frequent police checkpoints beside the road. Many were not manned, but you have to realize that they omnipresent, at every fork of major country roads, at the entrance to villages and towns. The typical one in Chile looks something like this: A distance before there's a sign cautioning you about the upcoming carabineros checkpoint, it's green and has two crossed rifles. Then, as you approach the kiosk-looking building beside the road, drivers slow down and  wave at the cop. Buses will stop completely and exchange a few words before driving on. The whole process is benign but you cannot help but reflect on the potential of such a system that, within a few hours, could clamp its vise on the liberties of movement across the whole country. As a cyclist, I was never challenged. Maybe it's part of the friendliness that  all people extended towards me, or it could be that no one with self-respect will bother with an old guy on a bike.
In Santiago, I noticed things about the police and the military that I found disturbing: an armoured vehicle with a water cannon mounted, no name tags on uniforms nor license plates on vehicles (that makes it difficult to lay charges against authorities abusing their power, doesn't it?), and military buses with all windows covered by strong wire mesh to deflect rocks.

At the borders, I generally got away easier than people with cars. There were usually line-ups and people had to fill out forms that want to know not only your name but also marital status and profession. It's really not worse than passing the scrutiny of a US border inspector. Only once did I have a zealous cop (there are three arms of the government that you will have to stand up to at the border: immigration, customs and the police) try to give me grief: first he incorrectly challenged me because of an allegedly missing exit stamp from a previous visit to the country (the stamp was there but he did not see it) and then he tried to send me back to repeat a customs inspection, to save his face. Well, I talked my way out of this one...

Can the public speak up? Both countries' TV networks have programs that criticize the government and the press doesn't hold back either.
I witnessed expressions of public protest in Argentina: on March 26, there was protest march through downtown, with about 15,000 participants, according to next day's press, and that number seemed to have been accurate. There was police there, e.g. about 100 in front of the Congreso (Parliament) building, most of them no heavier equipped than necessary for directing traffic. The marchers were not molested as far as I could tell before, during and after the march. The atmosphere was not strained: the shops stayed open, and even the bank machines beside the protest's route were accessible. What kind of people were protesting? Lots of young folks, many seemed students, but there was a good representation of middle age folks as well, in my estimate about 25%. Some of them were people whose relatives "went missing" some years back, and the government needs to be encouraged to apply its judicial process to its own past. The general tone of the demonstration was "Left", with many hammers, sickles and red banners waving over the crowd. I even heard the "Internationale", an anthem that I thought had been relegated to the museum by now. A touching sign of the horrible history is an arc of chalk images on the pavement outside the Casa Rosa, the government house in Buenos Aires: each image  is the outline of a missing person, with date and name, maybe a sampler of 50 victims or so.


In Chile, the debate was on the eligibility for the senate of Pinochet:

president and dictator of Chile (1973–90). An army general who served as chief of staff (1972–73) and commander of the army (1973), he led the coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende (Sept., 1973). As head of a four-man military junta, he then resorted to mass arrests and was responsible for more than 2000 political assassinations. He returned many nationalized businesses and farms to private owners in an effort to undermine socialism. Though condemned for its brutality, his regime is credited with stimulating steady economic growth.  He remained as commander of the army in the new government. From :
The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus Copyright 1996 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition Copyright 1994, 1995 Columbia University Press.


I asked people what they thought of him: among the reactions were disgust as well as admiration.
Some point out that he ended a chaos where they feared for their business and created an environment where "if you wanted to work you could work". They are proud of their successful economy that has weathered the recent depression in the Far East better than any other country. Others point at the evils of the dictatorship.
One man I met had a friend that had had some contact with former East Germany. At five in the morning, he was picked up from his home, and a few days later dropped off at a hospital with bayonet wounds in the abdomen. He died within two weeks.


Osorno1.jpg (57849 bytes)In the Plaza des Armas in Osorno, a group of young people held a straw vote on whether Pinochet  should be allowed into the senate. They asked passers-by to write YES or NO on a slip of paper, fold it and drop it into the box. When I came upon them, they were counting the votes and the outcome was a resounding NO, about  7 to 1. I thought the real value of this exercise was that these folks were not afraid to hold this vote, they would let me take a picture of their little station and they were sincere in their answers when I asked details.  They gave the number of people killed  as 2000.  When I asked a sympathizer of Pinochet that same question, it was 1000. I believe that these numbers are not that far apart and thus the two sides can have a meaningful dialogue to sort things out in the future. Still, I  have blotted out their identity in the above photo: I will not jeopardize them by supplying "evidence" to a possible future crackdown.

Someone asked me whether the honesty of the people there could be attributed to the threat of being caught by an unforgiving police. There is a connection, but I think that other factors are at play as well, factors that maybe are more significant. As example, in Santiago, which is not known for a more relaxed police rule, I was cautioned to look after my possessions while in the south I enjoyed a respect for my property. Maybe the honesty that I experienced is typical for small communities where each one knows the other and acceptance by the community is a powerful motivator.

Was I ever scared of the police? Yes, I was, not of the institution but of an individual who was a member and thus had access to their power. I was sitting in a restaurant in Puerto Montt, studying a map, and group of men asked to look, as they were all from the same village near the border. I like this sort of interaction and they came over and pointed and we chatted. The guys were police in civil garb and just having a good time. Eventually they drifted back to their own table, but one guy stuck with me and wouldn't leave. He had had some contact in Canada, someone who had written him a post card once, and he thought I should be his future contact. He had  ideas and offered to go into business with me - not sure what he meant - but I was getting uncomfortable, and so I declined. As I  tried  to steer the conversation to more benign topics, he wouldn't let go and when he realized that I wasn't interested, he offered me protection. Yes, protection, in a place where I felt safe and respected by everyone that I had met so far. I could picture myself owing favors to this cop and accepting offers that I might not be able to refuse, from a guy with a gun and the power to harass me and throw me into jail under some pretext. Bleah! I finished my meal and beat a retreat to the exit. Everything had changed: I walked home, taking a circuitous route and looking behind me to make sure no on followed. I was scared.

Back to Trip Overview