Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp
Sergio Bitar, translated by Erin Goodman
2017, University of Wisconsin Press
157 pages, plates, hardback
SOMEONE should send a copy of Sergio Bitar’s Prisoner of Pinochet to Marco Rubio, the far-right US Republican senator who has recently encouraged Venezuela’s military to stage a coup against the country’s leftwing government.
Bitar knows only too well the human cost of such reckless attitudes among meddlesome US politicians such as Rubio in fragile Latin American democracies trying to find sovereign ways to improve the lives of their citizens.
As a political prisoner sent to Chile’s gulag by the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Bitar understands the high price his country paid when democracy was ended abruptly at the barrel of a tank in 1973 after the general seized power.
The coup upended the long, constitutionalist tradition of the Chilean armed forces – with the active participation of the US and the support of Republicans just like Rubio. Bitar experienced first hand what putting jackboots in the presidency means in practice: summary justice, executions, concentration camps, exile, corruption, and endless abuses of human rights.
Despite what the right would lead us to believe in the US (and, indeed Britain, where Pinochet was feted by Margaret Thatcher), most Chileans never warmed to Pinochet: they were subjugated and roundly rejected him when given their first real chance in the plebiscite of 1988.
Pinochet, a nefarious despot who resorted to brute force whenever he was failed by his own intellectual limitations or his own side, has come to epitomise the long, dark era of military rule in Latin America under the tutelage of Washington from the 1960s to the 1980s.
While Prisoner of Pinochet is a very personal account of what happened in Chile, it stands also as an important testimony of the consequences of US hegemony, as Latin Americans once again come under pressure from Washington to employ anti-democratic methods against legitimately elected leftwing governments.
As if to underline the threat the US now poses to peace and democracy, only a fortnight ago the secretary of state Rex Tillerson spoke out in favour of the discredited Monroe Doctrine and made a spurious claim to restore a monopoly of influence in the Americas.
It is as if they have learned nothing, which makes the translation of Bitar’s book timely and welcome. As he writes: “My generation was born and lived in democracy, and we believed it would last forever. But negative forces exist in all societies, those of egotism and destruction, capable of inhuman acts.” [p. xv]
The author was a Harvard-educated economist when he joined the Christian Left in 1971 in support of President Salvador Allende’s democratic road to socialism. By 1972 he had become one of Allende’s most senior economic advisers and by 1973 was the influential minister of mines.
Bitar was lucky to escape execution following the coup, but was sent instead along with other members of Allende’s cabinet to the gulag – concentration camps on Pinochet’s peri-Antarctic Dawson Island – as a prisoner with the identity “Isla 10”. A year later, he was kicked out of Chile, writing his memoir in exile in the US before eventually returning to help lead the transition back to democracy and resume a successful political and ministerial career.
This book, recounting his experiences, has been reproduced in 13 Spanish-language editions and translated into many other languages, as well as forming the basis of a docudrama.
Bitar provides a gripping account both of events during and immediately following the coup, and then of the harsh conditions he and others endured in the labour camp where they were interned. The book also reproduces amazing contemporaneous photographs and drawings of inmates in the camps.
Some of this imprisoned cohort were the most senior officials in Allende’s Unidad Popular government: they included the ministers of external affairs, education, economy, health, housing, justice and the interior; defence minister Orlando Letelier – later assassinated in Washington by Pinochet’s secret police; Carlos Matus, president of the central bank; Jaime Concha, the mayor of Santiago; and Alfredo Joignant, head of the country’s equivalent of the FBI. Indeed, perhaps never before has such a senior cohort of cabinet ministers been rounded up and jailed in one fell swoop anywhere in the world.
The author recounts how the “prisoners of war”, as they were termed, were forced to live in freezing rudimentary conditions from the outset at a camp at Compingim, but thereafter at different and even harsher sites, eventually being transferred to the Punchuncaví and Ritoque camps north-west of Santiago.
Surviving in constant fear, they were subject to routine searches, simulated executions, interrogations and forced labour, albeit mostly avoiding the torture and beatings that other, lesser figures had endured. Reading material was scarce, and owning a pencil and having paper to write on was a privilege. Depression and sickness were frequent problems among the inmates, some of whom were elderly and middle-aged. More inmates arrived, many of them younger, as the Pinochet purges began to reach ever deeper into Chilean society. Some were destined to spend years incarcerated on Dawson Island as the dictatorship dragged on.
Bitar is a sensitive observer of the quirks and characteristics of his fellow inmates, and notes the different attitudes among the military personnel towards the prisoners, initially at least. Lower down the ranks, soldiers sometimes treated them with more compassion, but as time wore on, says Bitar, they were inculcated with more hatred as an official form of indoctrination began to take hold.
In his final chapter, Bitar recounts a reunion on Dawson Island with his fellow inmates in 2003, then as minister of education in the centre-left Concertación administration under President Ricardo Lagos. He writes: “On the way back to Punta Arenas, I was filled with the same sensation that had rooted itself in me years ago: indignation in the face of unnecessary suffering.” [p. 152]
One would hope that malicious external parties such as Rubio – whose obnoxious tweet of 9 February reads: “The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator” – take note, and are never again allowed to generate such indignation from the comfort of their imperial seat in Washington.