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Postscript : Chileans Can Go Home Again, but It's Not Easy : With democracy restored, exiles are returning. But despite government and private help, some find the adjustment difficult.

July 12, 1994|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTIAGO, Chile — When Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973 and imposed the harsh dictatorship that was to send more than 200,000 Chileans fleeing into exile, Roberto Carcamo was only a child. But when Carcamo grew up, he also fled.

His activities as a member of a Socialist youth organization had gotten him in trouble with the police. He spent nine years in Norway before returning to Chile in May.

Many Chilean exiles have put down permanent roots abroad after years in the diaspora. But thousands, like Carcamo, have yielded to the age-old tug of homeland.

"Our culture makes us return," said Carcamo, 33. "My roots, my language, my people."

The returning exiles are known as los retornados . While their homecoming may not be as wrenching and tumultuous as their exodus was, it is a mass migration filled with human drama, historical significance and metaphorical meaning.

If the exiles were living sparks thrown out into the world by Chile's political firestorms, the retornados are the harbingers of Chilean freedom and reconciliation, coming back like swallows in the spring as repression eased near the dictatorship's end. And they have kept flocking in during the four years since democracy's return. An estimated 80,000 exiles are back so far.

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Among the most prominent is Hortensia Bussi de Allende, widow of the Socialist president who died in the 1973 coup. Other retornados have become Cabinet ministers and members of Congress. And those who have achieved notable success in business include the president of the Chilean Telephone Co., one of the country's biggest corporations.

For many returnees, however, coming home is harder than they imagined. Finding work and housing are big problems. Many who lived in Europe or North America have trouble readjusting to life in a developing country. They often say they feel like strangers in their own land. Some have encountered discrimination. More than a few have decided to leave Chile again.

If they go, of course, they do not receive benefits that have been provided for Chilean refugees during the past two decades by numerous countries. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a formal recommendation in May that governments end refugee status for Chileans. That step may influence more Chilean exiles to come home.

The Chilean government, international agencies and non-governmental organizations have developed programs to assist the returnees. But now, some of those programs are being phased out. A special government bureau created for that purpose is preparing to shut down. Those who do not return by August, 1995, will receive no U.N. aid for the move.

With the consolidation of freedom and democracy in Chile, officials say, it is time to acknowledge that Chilean expatriates no longer deserve the special treatment offered to those who left because of political persecution.

Not all benefits for returnees will end, but because they are being cut back, officials fear a rush of new retornados seeking to receive the benefits while they last.

Retornados formed a line one recent afternoon in the waiting room of the National Return Office, the government agency that coordinates aid. They were there to ask for help--in getting official documents in order, getting their belongings through customs, finding work, and obtaining housing, legal aid and health care.

Carcamo and his wife were in the line. The onetime Socialist militant was seeking help to go into business, applying for technical aid and a low-interest loan to start a private home for the elderly.

"It isn't with the goal of becoming a capitalist and a big businessman," Carcamo said. "It's just to survive, to make a living."

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The National Return Office and other agencies have helped more than 1,000 returnees start small businesses. "There are shoemaking businesses, photo shops, many medical centers," said Carlos Espinoza, assistant director of the Return Office. "There are restaurants, stores, accounting services."

Luis Aravena, who was exiled in neighboring Argentina, joined forces with two retornados from Mexico to start a Mexican restaurant. Called Las Mananitas, the restaurant has become well known and fashionable since it opened in 1992.

"Thank God, here we are," said Aravena, 41. "I think we're doing pretty well."

Carlos Daville, 56, isn't doing so well. Daville returned from Brazil early this year with hopes of starting a metalworking shop. He has been offered a low-interest loan from the Chilean state bank, but he has been unable to find a co-signer.

"I'm a stranger here now--no one knows me," Daville said. "If no one knows you, who is going to give you an opportunity?"

Daville said he came back because "you miss many things, the culture, the customs, the food." But Chile has changed since he left in 1975, he said. "Now people are all materialistic. No one lends a hand."

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