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THE AUTUMN OF A DICTATOR : A Chilean Diary by Ariel Dorfman

May 13, 1990|Ariel Dorfman | Ariel Dorfman teaches literature at Duke University each spring. His latest book is "My House is on Fire" (Viking)

ARIEL DORFMAN, ONE OF Latin America's best-known writers, was exiled from his native Chile in December of 1973, a few months after a military coup ended democracy there. After he had wandered with his family from Paris to Amsterdam and then to Washington, D.C., the dictatorship allowed him to return in 1983. During the ensuing years, whenever he visited his country, he invariably approached the airport with a dread that turned out to be prophetic. Arriving one day in 1987, he was arrested and deported with his young son, a punishment for his human-rights campaign against the government. Although the deportation order was rescinded some weeks later, Dorfman could never be sure thereafter what fate might await him each time he went back. On March 10 of this year, he again returned to the airport from which he had been exiled. But this time, he was offered champagne, and his customs and immigration procedures were waived: He was coming home as a guest of Chile's democratic president-elect, Patricio Aylwin. This is the story of the days that followed, the story of a country that, after years of repression, surprisingly returned to democracy.

Sunday, March 11, 1990

GEN. AUGUSTO PINOCHET has just made the last mistake of his long dictatorship. On his way to hand the presidency of Chile over to opposition leader Patricio Aylwin, the general has, incredibly, decided to ride in an open car, in full uniform, for everyone to see, through the streets of his native Valparaiso. Perhaps he thought that the people of his country would cheer him for this peaceful transfer of power--not a habitual gesture, after all, in tyrants. But the thousands of Chileans who have filled the streets to celebrate the return to democracy are not in a magnanimous mood. " Asesino ! Asesino !" they chant, "Murderer! Murderer!"--a thunderous shout that the TV technicians transmitting the ceremonies cannot filter out, which not even the military band that begins to play the national anthem ahead of schedule manages to stifle. Nor would the censoring of sound do any good. Because now Pinochet's bodyguards are forced to hurriedly raise black umbrellas to stave off a downpour of tomatoes, eggs and sticks thrown by the irate crowd.

It is not only this trip, the general's last ride as dictator of the country he has ruled with an iron hand for 16 1/2 years, that is turning out differently from the way he had expected. In his worst nightmares, he could never have imagined that he would take this ride at all, that he would someday be forced to give up power.

When, exactly 10 years ago, on March 11, 1980, he rammed his constitution down the throats of a terrorized populace in a referendum that international organizations and the Roman Catholic Church called clearly fraudulent, he believed that he had created the mechanisms that would allow him to govern the nation for the rest of his life. A plebiscite, scheduled for faraway 1988, in which the people of Chile would be asked to say yes or no to his perpetuation as president, seemed a mere formality. He was sure that the citizens were too scared, the opposition parties too dispersed and fractious, his support in the armed forces and middle class too massive for a victory to be seriously denied to him. He was wrong. The people found courage, and in the intervening eight years, an economic crisis shattered his middle-class support, the opposition hammered out a difficult unity and important sectors of his own military told him that they intended to respect the outcome of the popular vote. On Oct. 5, 1988, almost 55% of the voters rejected his claim to remain as president, and on Dec. 14 of 1989, a larger majority elected Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, to be Chile's first constitutional president since Socialist Salvador Allende died in the bloody 1973 military coup.

So sure had the general been of his power that he had ordered an enormous hall built for his inauguration, the new Congress of the Republic whose steps he is now mounting in defeat. That building, which combines the pomp and grandiosity of a Cecil B. De Mille Roman set with the bad taste of a Mussolini architectural extravaganza, perversely expresses both the general's dreams of eternal power and, now that those dreams have proven false, his capacity to leave permanent scars on the face of this country. Worse than this monstrous edifice is the deeper damage to the people of our land: the millions ravaged by persecution, unemployment, detention, incessant fear; the thousands killed, tortured, exiled. All too many of us bear the psychological wounds that terror inflicts on both victim and abuser, the implacable consequences of years of authoritarianism and humiliations to the moral fiber of a nation.

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