Kids are still fascinated by Chuqui and the adventure it can be.
The two years spent roaming the great piles of overburden from the mine, abandoned morgues, high walls, ancient mining sites, and back alleys of Chuquicamata, Chile before the 1958 elections allowed me an acceptance by the miners’ families denied many gringos. “Familiarity breeds contempt” according to my little tiny German Lutheran grandmother who had a saying for every occasion and seemed to possess the wisdom of the ages. In this case, familiarity bred a nice long stay in my room staring at the ceiling and wondering about adults.
The winter of 1955 was busy for our family. My father’s announcement that we were off to Chile during dinner one cold, snowy evening prompted a brief flurry of animated discussion followed by hasty packing. We lived, at that time, in a little log cabin with all the modern conveniences on the north shore of Lake Superior in Schroeder, Minnesota. Dad, an electrical superintendent on a taconite project, had been offered the same job with a considerable raise at the Anaconda mine in Chuquicamata, Chile. I was the eldest of their three children and my brother was just an infant, which means my Mom probably didn’t get much help with the overwhelming task of preparing to leave the U.S. The memory of the terrible series of immunizations we received and of losing my cat is still vivid in my mind as is boarding the train in Two Harbors, Minnesota for a trip to New Jersey. The stop at my Aunt and Uncle’s place in New Jersey was a short, high energy shopping trip. Mom bought and packed everything three rapidly growing children, two girls and a baby boy, would need for the three years Dad’s contract would run.
The smell of the New York Harbor was overwhelming and our ship, the SS Santa Maria, looked huge. She was a tramp steamer and one of her cargoes was a few passengers. We steamed passed the bright lights of Cuba, off loaded molasses in Panama, transited the canal, picked up bananas in Buenaventura, Columbia, and steamed on. Each time we stopped to off or on-load cargo, we went ashore. Each time the ritual was performed, my eyes and dreams of life’s wonder and adventure grew larger. My brother’s first birthday was celebrated as we lay anchored in Chile’s Antofagasta Harbor. Except for the backdrop, a nearly vertical rock wall looming into the sky, Antofagasta looked like most of the harbors we’d seen. The launch picked us up and, following several days of customs and other bureaucratic nightmares, the family boarded an old DC-3 to fly into Calama, a town not too far away from Chuqui. I thought it was great that we could see through the seams on the airplane but my mother wasn’t nearly as impressed and, for a moment, I thought the great adventure was over. Safely aboard we made the short flight from sea level to 10,000 feet. I learned about puna, altitude sickness, shortly after our arrival in Chile.
Puna is a very simple illness. The body grabs a breath of the air at 10,000 feet to do its thing, discovers the air is seriously lacking in oxygen and takes corrective measures. After several more samples of the air, corporal chaos theory kicks in. Headaches, stomach issues, and dizziness combine with whatever other horrors the autonomic nervous system can find to test the environment. A willful soul, choosing to ignore the warning signs, is simply rendered unconscious until the body’s brain can figure out what on earth is happening. Your body will simply take you out of the equation while it sorts itself out. Arriving back to a conscious state, I discovered the high, dry Atacama Desert in all of its glory. I loved Chuqui.
It is surprising that by 1958 I was not incarcerated permanently in my room. I assembled a chemistry lab in that room and pretty much contaminated the house with my experiments, which I took from library books. A group of us, we kids travelled in groups back then, entered an abandoned morgue through a boarded window. It was slated to be covered by tailings. I took a skull I found and stashed it in my closet in a shoebox. Our beloved Rosa found it and the resulting domestic hysteria went on for days. Chuqui was built on the side of a steep hill so all roads either went almost straight up and down or across on the level. I built a go cart out of roller skate wheels and scrap lumber. To obtain additional control of the vehicle, I needed weight it back end. My baby brother was the perfect weight so I strapped him on and we zoomed off on a wondrous, exhilarating ride down the hills at breakneck speed; competing with work trucks for road real estate. It wasn’t long before the reports started coming in and a hopping mad parental search party located us. I am truly thankful I was allowed to live long enough to go to the movies with friends that night in 1958.
The movie theater disgorged us about 9:00 P.M., that fall high-desert 1958 night and, while we were awaiting pick-up by the parental limousine, I noticed a ‘party’ going on close by. Being of short attention span, I wandered over to check it out and discovered it was two parties. At one, people were holding torches and listening to a speaker and, close by, was another with a band and people waving white napkins while dancing the Cueca. The Cueca is the national dance in Chile. Its genesis is clouded but I like the version that it originated in the early 19th century bordellos of South America, as a pas de deux facilitating partner finding. I was, of course, located and, once again, was counting the spots on my bedroom ceiling. The next morning at the breakfast lecture, I learned that I had witnessed a union campaign rally for the Chilean presidential election. I also learned that the baby sister of a friend of mine in the workers’ camp had been killed during the ruckus that followed. The direction was for me to keep my nose completely out of this business and my body at home. I was devastated and my parents finally agreed to take me to the child’s wake so I could see Graciela, my friend. What I learned frightened me.
Salvador Allende was among the candidates in 1958. His Marxist party had brought in agitators from Bolivia. Graciela’s parents and all their friends were terrified. People who dissented were disappearing and having accidents. The union, always their uneasy ally, was now adamant that the membership comply with its political position. As we joined the others mourning the little child sitting in her chair, her life interrupted by adult insanity, my heart broke. I listened to the whispers of what had happened and smelled the fear. I complied with my parents’ wishes and stayed away from the gatherings and defied them by maintaining my friendships. I heard that people judged not to be supportive, even if it were as simple as not shouting as loudly as they should at a rally, were marked. A person would nudge against them leaving a white mark of flour on their back. Many vanished without a trace. Some of the bodies were found and others suffered mining accidents that left them unable to work. The rage I felt was impotent and I didn’t understand. My friends from the workers’ families withdrew from me and blamed the United Sates. As fall yielded to winter on the Atacama Desert, it was very cold. The wonderful world I knew changed forever.
Salvador Allende lost the 1958 election to Jorge Alessandri but not by much. He lost again in 1964 to Eduardo Frei. In 1970, Salvador Allende won the Presidency and, since then, the country has elected socialists. In the purges that followed Allende’s election, several of my Chilean friends and their families sought asylum in the U.S., went to school in the U.S. and have, subsequently, repatriated. Other friends stayed to fight for their country and died in camps. There was, of course, the little matter of Pinochet, an extreme right wing dictator. In both cases, left and right, the path chosen was violent and devastating to a beautiful country with more than its fair share of brilliant, hard-working, creative individuals and entrepreneurs. Pinochet brought in the Chicago Boys; “University of Chicago-trained or affiliated economists, including Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, who recommended and implemented the liberalization and stabilization policies of the military government.” Finally, the markets began to open and the people could breathe just a bit.
While I did not understand at the time why my friends blamed and, later, hated the United States. It is clearer today. What happened to Chile was Cold War (1947-1991) Policy. In 2008, Harvard’s Richard N. Cooper published Economic Aspects of the Cold War, 1962-1975 in which he wrote, “The principal instruments for preventing the spread of communism by non-military means involved building an international economic system conducive to economic prosperity; engaging in persuasion, providing incentives, and occasionally imposing economic sanctions; and, not least, promoting a robust US economy that could serve as a stimulant to others and as a beacon for the benefits of a free, enterprise-based, market-oriented economy.” The U.S. had its big nose in Chile in 1958 and kept it there through the 1980s.
While Cooper covers the period between 1962 through 1975, the policy dates back to Roosevelt and the Marshall Plan aid to Europe. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was supposed to free the marketplace. Truman’s “Point Four,” provided the basis for aid to developing countries. According to Cooper, “The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, created in 1946, were also important features of the international economic architecture. The United States, with the sometimes reluctant cooperation of others, tried also to penalize countries within or too close to the Soviet orbit.”
The U.S. spent over $130 million in 1958 to help the little known Jorge Alessandri win the election and much more than that in 1964. Maybe it worked. Chile became very dependent on the U.S. as the successful U.S. backed candidates changed the tariff laws. The CIA effectively overthrew the government to bring Pinochet to power. Chile went from a normally developing country to social disaster and has, once again, climbed out and found its own soul and stalls in the global marketplace.
I have read and listened to how horrid the Pinochet government was; read of the atrocities and paid attention to the communist lawsuits. No doubt, it was a terrible time politically. What happened, though, is the Communist pot calling the capitalist kettle black. The purges under Allende killed countless thousands of dissenters, closed the schools, and leveled the economy so that everyone starved equally. Few rail about that period and those of us who lost friends to this regime mourn in private. The idea of the individual was lost for a while and it all happened very fast and furiously. I was thrilled when the Chicago Boys gave gold and silver mining back to hard working individuals. I am thrilled to see the rise of hope, education, and the individual in a country with such potential.
The Cueca of ideas with its flying white napkins, clubs and guns rocked my world. The dance was intense and so were the times.