July 2011

Republic of Chile

We have bone cold, freezing, mid-winter temperatures here in Santiago de Chile and the mountains surrounding the city are completely white. In recent years, the country has been relatively stable after decades of dark times and political trauma. On September 11, 1973, the US assisted (Nixon/Kissinger/CIA) military coup overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The question of Allende’s death by murder or suicide remains unresolved. The Pinochet regime soon established the Chilean led Operation Condor among six other South American dictatorships and a troubled era of human rights violations, including torture, political assassinations, concentration camps, kidnappings and thousands of “disappeared”. Jon Dinges’ account in The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, offers a much needed and major contribution to the historical record. The country is still in the process of coming to terms with this aspect of their past. In January 2010, then President Michelle Bachelet inaugurated a new Museum of Memory and Human Rights in downtown Santiago. Bachelet had spearheaded this project as a survivor who had been detained, tortured and driven into exile during the dictatorship. This museum now serves as “an invitation to reflect on attacks made on life an dignity from September 11,1973 until March 10,1990 in Chile”.
August of 2010 brought a storm of national and international media attention to Chile and the plight and dramatic rescue of 33 miners trapped 700 meters underground for nearly two months. Not surprisingly, their story is soon to become a Hollywood film. There was much local resentment, however, that the international media ignored the plight of 33 Mapuche hunger strikers imprisoned because they protested government incursions into their sacred lands. Thousands took to the street in Santiago in support of their cause, and eventually a compromise was achieved.

Chile’s long, narrow and greatly diverse landscape contains some of our planet’s most seismically active territory. Last February an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 caused considerable damage and social unrest in and around Santiago. Further south there was massive devastation in the capital city of Concepcion and along several stretches of coastline where entire communities were washed away by tsunami. These catastrophes shook local populations on a number of levels, including the psychological, with a resultant upsurge of previous and unresolved traumas. My arrival soon after was heartened by a greeting from the newly elected President’s wife who had been invited to my public lecture and subsequent workshop on earthquake trauma and recovery. Although she was too busy to attend, Ms. Pineda graciously sent a warm welcome and “big hug”.
Now in July 2011, the Puyehue volcano in the southern Andes, dormant since 1960, has exploded a massive, ash laden, mushroom cloud six miles high into the atmosphere. Thousands were evacuated from surrounding communities and a volcanic plume continues to disrupt air travel as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Strong winds have carried massive amounts of ash further across the cordillera range over into Argentina. Flights in and out of Buenos Aires are continuously interrupted. From the internet, friends down in Patagonia sent spectacular photos of their landscape in San Carlos de Bariloche. Several of these images brilliantly captured the shock and terrors of sudden thunder and daylight darkened skies streaked with blood red lightning on a scale and intensity never before seen. An ongoing rain of ash has covered their surroundings with several feet of what looks like pale grey snow….all in all, somewhat apocalyptic and definitely surreal. My workshop scheduled for next week in Neuquen is likely to be cancelled since all Patagonian airports are closed.

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