- 20 Dec 21
President Michael D. Higgins was both a Hot Press columnist and a Senator in 1988, when the Chilean people went to vote 'Yes' or 'No' to a continuation of the brutal regime of the dictator, General Pinochet. The article the future President wrote at the time makes a fascinating introduction to the victory on the weekend of the socialist candidate Gabriel Boric – making him the youngest President in modern history, when he takes office in three months time.
In October 1988, (then) Senator Michael D. Higgins travelled to Chile as Observer No.1, for the plebiscite that had been called in that historic South American country. The question being put to the people? Do you want to continue under the rule of the military dictator, General Pinochet. The campaign required a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ answer.
It was a vital historic moment, and the four-strong party of Irish parliamentarians, who were invited to travel as Election Observers were forced to fund the trip themselves when the Irish government – led by the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charlie Haughey – refused to make the delegation an official one.
In his role as observer, Senator Higgins – now the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins – opted to travel to the town of Lo Hermida, to watch the final days of the campaign and to observe the counting of the votes. It proved to be a happy hunting ground. The ‘No’ vote that all democrats wanted was carried in Lo Hermida, reflecting the overall will of the people, as they collectively rejected the dictatorship.
There had been a real fear, in the Presidential election in Chile, that we might see a return – if not to the dictatorial rule at least to the far right spirit – of the Pinochet era. In the first round of the election, the right wing candidate José Antonio Kast had a 2% lead over the 35 year-old left-wing candidate, and former student leader, Gabriel Boric. However, the final days of the campaign saw a significant swing towards the young contender, as he won the support of rural voters, to add to his strong Santiago base.
In the end, he took a remarkable 56% of the vote, leaving his opponent Kaast trailing on 44.2% – representing a gap of 20%. In many ways, this historic victory for a young, left-wing President can be seen as the finest expression to date of the values that were asserted in 1988.
President Higgins’ role as Observador Uno – Observer No.1 – was marked in a special ceremony, held at Trinity College, on 14 January 2016, when he received an award from Chile, presented by the Chilean Foreign Minister, Heraldo Muñoz, with the citation: “For his brave and generous humanitarian help that contributed to save thousands of lives of the Chilean people and also foreigners persecuted by the dictatorship."
In which light, it seems especially relevant to revisit what our future President had to say, as a Hot Press columnist, reporting from Chile at the moment when the butcher Pinochet was comprehensively rejected by the people of Chile. The hope that sprang into being in 1988 has been deepened and strengthened by the election of Gabriel Boric at this fresh, pivotal moment in global history. Long may it continue. Viva Chile Libre!
THE GENERAL'S ELECTION
Or rather ejection. Ever since the murder of the socialist leader, Salvador Allende in 1973, Captain General Agusto Pinochet has ruled Chile with "a rod of iron and a barrel of cold steel." However, after a long struggle and a considerable amount of external pressure, the people of that country were recently granted their first opportunity in fifteen years to vote in a democratic election. But would it be a fairly fought campaign? Michael D. Higgins visited Chile on the run up to polling day. Here is his exclusive report.
On Wednesday the 5th October, the Chilean people gave a decisive NO to the continuation in office, for a further eight-year period, of the dictator, General Pinochet.
Since his accession to power, following the murder of the socialist leader Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet had ruled with a rod of iron and a barrel of cold steel. In the intervening sixteen years, Chilean society has been totally militarised, with all the functions of civil society being moved to the realm of military.
While Pinochet himself appointed thousands of Mayors to towns and cities throughout the 2,400 kilometres-long strip between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean which constitutes Chile, without even the vaguest nod towards the concept of democracy or the wishes of the people, an apparently un-tramelled military engaged in ruthless acts of murder and violence against opponents of the regime.
The trade union movement in Chile had been effectively destroyed in the wake of Pinochet's coup. Many union leaders were among the victims in the immediate blood-letting the military used as a means of purging Chile of left-wing Allende sympathisers. Others were tortured and imprisoned, and many were forced to choose exile (among them Hugo Ramirez, who came to live in Galway, and returned to Chile just last year. I would spend much of my time here with him).
Yet in the run-up to the plebiscite, a remarkable rainbow coalition of opposition to the perpetuation of Pinochet's dictatorship emerged, with the unification of sixteen opposition parties under the No banner – from the Communist Party, through the proscribed Almeda Socialists (whose leader remains in prison) to the more conservative Christian Democrats.
All Going To Say 'No'
The campaign was unevenly fought, with State and big business control of the broadcast media ensuring far greater coverage for the dictator's message: that economic prosperity was possible under Pinochet, and so what if there was not full democracy? The radio stations anticipated the slogan of the ‘Si’ or ‘Yes’ Campaign, with the suggestion that Chile under Pinochet was "Our Compromise".
The opposition, in contrast, were allotted just fifteen minutes TV time a night, usually after 10.30pm. Pre-plebiscite polls, however, revealed that the public imagination had been captured by the clever, joyful ‘No’ campaign and that they were watching their televisions in surprisingly large numbers.
Looking in on Sunday night the 22nd September, I could see that its concentration on a simple message was effective. "You can vote for this man, or this man, or this man". The first pictures showed Pinochet in the uniform of Captain General, a rank revived by himself, for himself. The second showed a sun-glassed face, the sinister Pinochet of the Salvador Allende period. The third showed the avuncular white-haired elderly man of the ‘Si’ campaign, lifting little girls from the ground, being human.
Then came the message. No to dictatorship. Yes to La Alegria, the joy. And there was a song: 'Chile, La Alegria ya viene'...
"Chile, la Alegria ya viene...
Porque digan lo que digan
Yo soy libre de pensar
Porque siento que es la hora
de ganar la libertad
Hasta cuando ya de abusos
es el tiempo de cambiar
Porque basta de miserias
Voy a decir que No...”
And on it went. No to misery. No to abuses. No to the violence of the military. We are all going to say ‘No’.
The TV campaign was one thing, the popular feeling something else again. The opposition had to discover deep reservoirs of courage to defeat a regime desperately intent on retaining its power, by foul means if necessary.
During the run-up to the plebiscite, workers were supposed to be allowed free time between 9am and 12am to register to vote. Many employers, however, had refused to let them have time off, and some workers had lost their jobs as a result. In Punto Arenas, down in the tip of Chile near the South Pole, the local secretary of the Directorate of the ‘No’ Campaign had lost his job after 30 years with the National Petroleum Company. In some remote areas, the intimidation went as far as out and out threats, that workers would be sacked if they registered or voted No.
Then, again, you could not vote if you did not have your identification card. There were sudden delays in the revival of expired ones. There were raids on opposition sympathisers, in which others were confiscated. In the run-up to this most vital of votes, all the cards, it seemed, were stacked against the opposition to General Pinochet's continuing dictatorship.
I arrived in Santiago from Peru, where I had been visiting a friend who works in El Manton, a town of shanty dwellings which tries to forget the meaning of its title – the rubbish tip. Unsuccessfully. Rejoicing now in the title of The District of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, it is rife with tuberculosis, child poverty, military oppression and police violence. In Lima, as | left, the whiff of a "gulge" was in the air. Would Chile be any different?
I had been invited, along with other observers, by the Association of International Parliamentarians for Democracy in Chile. But the Irish government would not provide funds for our delegation of four: Senators Shane Ross and Joe O'Toole, Workers' Party T.D. Pat McCartan and myself. The obligation of getting to Santiago lay with us and with representatives of the Chilean Community in Ireland, who were very anxious that we should be there.
The role of the foreign observers in a plebiscite of this nature is crucial, covering every polling station in our allotted areas to check for fraud, intimidation or other electoral abuses. But all that will come later. For now the work of familiarisation begins, and as Observado Uno – the first foreign observer to arrive – I am scheduled to hold a press conference...
There is a huge attendance. Typically the Radio people bushwhack me in the corridor on the way in. Why are you here? Who is paying for your trip? Predictable. There is great interest in my name: Bernardo O'Higgins was Chile's first president, and the name is on Santiago's main thoroughfare. I get past that with a little judicious explanation. The conference seems to go smoothly, though later in the week El Mercurio, the unashamedly pro-Pinochet paper of the business sector, attacks the presence of Observers who will write "terrible things" about Chile on their return home.
The arrival of Yves Montand, meanwhile, creates a stir. He is expected to join the Marche de Alegria, a march of people from all parts of the country which will conclude with the final Rally Of The ‘No’ on Saturday. Today, he is expected to lay flowers on the grave of Salvador Allende.
By now Rosio, the fiancé of Luis Tricot, a Trinity graduate who has Irish-born children, has contacted me. Her husband is in prison, but the interest of Irish Observers might throw a new spotlight on his predicament. A request to see him is delivered to the authorities on behalf of the Irish delegation as a whole. The reply is blunt and unhelpful: such a request was not envisaged under Article 51 and the following sections of the Prison Regime. Herman Nova Carvajal's signature is a squiggle above his ornate title: Lawyer and National Director of the Gendarmerie of Chile. His reply leaves us empty-handed.
Here Comes The Tear Gas
At the entrance to the town of Lo Hermida is a little shrine to a fifteen-year-old boy whose
nickname was Pete. There had been a confrontation here on the day Pinochet was named by the military as their candidate, and Pete had been killed.
His mother, Rebecca, a small woman with striking brown eyes, sits in her neat house under a wall-hanging with Salvador Allende on it. Every second word she speaks is of oppression.
At the edge of the poblacion there is a circus of the North American variety. It is a Pinochet initiative directed against the 'subversion of native or popular culture’. Outside the tent, a bear is being fed, but most people are watching a Condor with a rope around its neck.
The Condor is the mystical black eagle of the Andes. An Andean ceremony involves the ritual tying of a Condor to a bull's back and when it has gorged itself on the hapless beast, the bird is released and soars to 4,000 metres. It is a horrific image, but I cannot get the parallel with the role of the military in Latin American Society out of my mind, an elite whose prestige and power has been sucked from the life blood of the people.
They are worse than vultures.
As the day of the plebiscite nears, there are more demonstrations. Near the Plaza de Armas, the mothers and wives of the tortured and disappeared – Madre Por Lavida – are placing posters on the wall. When the army arrive, they pull down the posters.
The women continue. Some are dragged away by the hair. The literature asks Me tortiraron, Me asesinaron, Me despaeciron? Me olvidastea? – should the tortured, the disappeared, the assassinated be forgotten? One of the women becomes involved in an argument with two female office workers – "Momias" – who talk of discipline. The television cameras are first to arrive at the scene, followed by the tank housing the water cannon, spraying contaminated water mixed with chemicals and acid. This is how Pinochet deals with the opposition.
At the Carcel Publica – the public prison – there is talk of a hunger strike. It is just past midday when the gas is released here, and we all run into the doorway of a block of flats. An old woman, her daughter and two young children are handing out salt and bits of lemon. The gas is being used indiscriminately, getting into everyone's eyes, even at a distance.
In the doorway, the photo press are coughing, except for those who have come prepared with World War Il-style gas masks. An old woman weeps softly: "For fifteen years it's the same." The water tank approaches, the soldiers alight from the truck and the children are almost trodden into the pavement. His mother grabs Jorge, and I carry Lionel up to the landing, and out of immediate danger.
The Final Rally
Later in the week, I revisit Lo Hermida to talk at greater length with Rebecca and to visit Olla Commones – the communal cooking places, like soup kitchens, from which the poorer families are fed. Last night I had heard Pinochet say, "I am middle class, Lucie (his wife) is middle class. The middle class is the biggest class." Where had I heard it before?
In Rebecca's case everybody is poor.
Rebecca talks of her son Pedro Mariquo known as "Pelluco". On the 1st May 1984 he went to Park O'Higgins, where a demonstration was taking place. He was in good spirits, she tells me. He came home and, after eating, was playing football. Some local youths had lit a fire. A police patrol car came. Four men got out. One fired three shots. The first bullet lodged in Pelluco's back, the second in his neck and the third grazed his head. By 10.30pm he was dead.
She relates the events, and her attempts to get justice, without emotion, and the subsequent harassment of her daughter Antoinetta and her son Jose Christian – but ends firmly with the statement: "They will never break me." She is wearing a ‘No’ badge and I leave her to her work.
I am not long in the Olla Commone, one of thirteen such kitchens in the area, which feeds eighteen families, serving 123 portions per day, when trouble begins to brew. Word comes that we must leave – our presence has been reported. We take a circuitous route out and breathe freely when we arrive at a place where we can board a taxi.
The final Rally For The ‘No’ takes place on the Saturday before the vote and 1.2 million people fill the streets of the district of Santiago allocated for the rally. La Alegria is coming close.
On Sunday, the ‘Si’ have their final rally – more a cavalcade of cars. The rich, and the aspirants to be rich, are on the side of Pinochet. Against them are the poor and those who value democracy.
The Count Is On!
On Tuesday morning, I leave at 7am for my station at Punto Arenas, where I will be accompanied by two French parliamentarians. In this town, one in four of those who are employed are part of the military; it is here that a policeman was killed by his own bomb, as he tried to blow up the church. The Bishop of the area, Tomas Gonzalez, is an outspoken supporter of the interests of the poor...
I stay in the house of Roberto Lara and his wife Liliana Sougarret Romer. The local doctor and others are co-ordinating the ‘No’ Campaign. I visit the ‘Si’ Headquarters where they ask me to write the truth. I promise to do more than that.
It is a long day on the eve of the poll when no political activity can take place, but the preparations are elaborate. Each box of 350 votes will be counted and personal computers will be used to draw the local and national results together.
At 7am on October 5th, we leave for the Polling Stations. By 8am the queues are up to a mile long, but the people are not discouraged by delays that seem almost stage-managed. When the polls close after nine hours, the calculations commence. It will be close. The government radio gives out the marginal boxes. Radio Co-operativea is more reliable.
At 3am, the Minister for the Interior concedes defeat to the ‘No’, though in Punto Arenas we are making slower progress. At 6.50am the count is ‘Si’ 2,389 votes; ‘No’ 3,033. By 7.20am it's ‘Si’ 3,879, ‘No’ 4,892.
It is done...
Long Live Free Chile
As the day rushes in, I fly back to Santiago and make my way to the hotel. Already the crowds are gathering and there is confrontation outside the Symbolic Moneda Palace, where Salvador Allende made his last stand. La Alegia is here, at last.
A significant historic victory has been won, securing for the Chilean people the space in which democracy may flourish in the future. In so many different ways, however, their problems are only beginning. General Pinochet still holds the reins of power and until these have been handed over, in a country where repression has been the norm, anything is possible. The agent provocateurs may be at work even now.
For the moment however, the dictator has been rocked from his foundation. Viva Chile Libre!
• Photo of Michael D.Higgins from the 1980s, taken by Colm Henry for Hot Press