Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pinochet and Chile

Soccer on Chile's killing field
Watching a 1995 match at Chile's National Stadium, where in 1973 the Pinochet regime imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of dissidents.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States."

December 12, 2006

IN 1995, I went to Chile's National Stadium to watch a soccer match. Soccer was something I neither enjoyed nor understood, but the game was hardly on my mind; instead, it was the arena.

I was 20 years old and had come to Chile to study. I also hoped to meet some of the surviving allies of leftist President Salvador Allende, who had been toppled in the 1973 coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. I didn't care that the team Colo Colo was playing Universidad de Chile, a squad affiliated with the college until 1980. I didn't understand why security police were everywhere, or why someone threw a flaming brick at me as I walked to the cheering section for La U, as the Universidad team is also known.

All I could think of was: My God! This is National Stadium, where the bleachers were once filled with dissidents of every stripe after the coup, a mass waiting room for those about to be executed or tortured. This is where women were raped for the crime of wearing pants.

And it was at nearby Chile Stadium where the great Victor Jara — the Bob Dylan of Chile and a political activist (or was Dylan the Victor Jara of the U.S.?) — was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Jara's fingers were mutilated in front of thousands of other prisoners. He attempted to sing songs of resistance, his hands bloody stumps, only to be gunned down as people in the stands tried to join him in chorus.

I didn't want to be near these places any more than I would want to watch a baseball game at Auschwitz.

By 1995, Chile had existed uneasily as a nominal democracy for four years. Yet there had been no reconciliation and no reckoning for the victims of the Pinochet era. Pinochet's rule led to the deaths or disappearances of nearly 3,200 people and the torture of thousands more. Yet no one had answered for these crimes. The general, as a condition for stepping down from power, had been allowed to rewrite the constitution to make him and his cohorts immune from prosecution. And he was also still in charge of the army.

Now Pinochet is dead, never forced to take residence in the cage he so richly deserved. But as a Chilean friend e-mailed me after Pinochet's death: "In Chile, we have always known the truth about this evil man. It does my heart well that jail was his immediate future, and that he knew it." This is right. Any public humiliation Pinochet received at the end was the result of a movement of ordinary folks who never gave up. If the cheers for La U back in 1995 offered even a shard of support to those who felt their cause was just, then it was worth every last exquisite shout.

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