Chile and Palestine: remembering the 44th anniversary of Pinochet’s dictatorship

Basil Farraj on 
The long history of Arab immigration generally, and of Palestinian immigration in particular, to countries in Latin America is well known. Amongst numerous others, aspects of this immigration can be noticed through the various communities established by these immigrants; the Arab family names of many members of these communities; names of streets; and the political and social organizations present in these countries. 
The history and influence of these old waves of immigrations is also present in Latin American literature. Take for instance, Nacib’s character in Jorge Amado’s novel Gabriela, Cravo e Canela. Nacib, takes on a leading role in the development occurring in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. As other early immigrants to Latin America, Nacib is referred to throughout the novel as “el Turco” -or the “Turk”- by other characters. These early immigrants arrived with passports issued by the Ottoman Empire, and as such were referred to as “Turks.” Indeed, the wave of Arab immigration reached many countries and cities in Latin America including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Brazil and others.

This article is particularly concerned with the Palestinian diaspora in Chile. I am writing well aware that analogies similar to what I am discussing here can, and should, be drawn to other locations, and beyond the Palestinian experience. What follows is both a reflection on my time conducting research for my master dissertation in Chile, and an attempt to discuss the “other history and present” which I allude to in this article.
Similar to Amado’s novel and Nacib’s character, speaking about Palestine and Chile brings forward a history of old immigration from Palestine –which began during the Ottoman Empire’s rule– to cities and towns in Chile. It has, perhaps, become general knowledge amongst many circles that the Palestinian diaspora in Chile constitutes one of the largest Palestinian diaspora communities outside of the Arab world with an estimated number of 350,000 Chileans of Palestinian origin.
Discussed together, Palestine and Chile, bring to mind a number of well-established images and stories. Take for instance, the story of Club Deportivo Palestino, the soccer team named after Palestine and established by early immigrants. The club’s jersey with the map of Palestine printed on its back and sides have become a symbol of this connection between two geographical locations distant apart but sharing histories of long immigration and presence. On it’s back, the jersey has a statement written in Arabic which reads, “More than a team; it is a people in its entirety.” It definitely is not rare to see people wearing this jersey inside and outside of Palestine.
Who for one does not want to get one of those colorful jerseys? I have brought many of those as gifts to friends and relatives.
Santiago also hosts El Estadio Palestine, or Palestine’s Stadium, which is a large social club constructed in one of Santiago’s high-income neighborhoods where several lectures and events take place, and where people can attend social events, swim, work out, play sports, dance and have Arabic cuisine. Additionally, a walk in Santiago’s low-income neighborhood Patronato will also clearly point to the presence and influence of the Palestinian diaspora community. There, the visitor will find the Palestinian flag hanging from various locations; Arabic writings on walls and restaurant signs; and will be able to walk through the smell of shawarma, Arabic bread and falafel. Indeed, at times, this neighborhood appears similar to other commercial neighborhoods in Palestine – hearing Arabic spoken between people and seeing signs calling for a free Palestine, and the Boycott of the Israeli occupation reasserts that feeling. This is not restricted to Santiago, as it is possible to see similar influence in other cities and towns in Chile such as Temuco and San Felipe.
The Palestinian diaspora community in Chile is politically, socially and culturally influential. These stories, albeit briefly discussed, recount aspects of this influence; of the success of the Palestinian diaspora community in establishing its place in today’s Chile and in forging a name for itself. I do not wish to further elaborate on this notion of success and influence for this has long been done and is evidently visible in present-day Chile. Another story of the relationship between Palestine and Chile concerns me. It is one which is intimately linked to Palestine.
The protagonists of this story have–and many continue to–suffered from the pain of torture, arrest, expulsion, exile, forced disappearances, and violence in all its forms. Over 44 years ago, on September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet, along with other generals and members of the armed forces, overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende. On that day, Allende, whose election and government provided some hope for the marginalized sectors of Chilean society, was killed and Chile entered into eighteen years of violence. This violence was intended to completely eliminate, and erase, the political project of Salvador Allende and write over the bodies of tortured prisoners, the executed, and the disappeared, the norms of a re-structured and modified society, and of a counter-political project.
The testimonies recounting the horrors committed during the Pinochet regime as well as the available documentations of the violence point to thousands of victims who were executed, forcibly disappeared, tortured, imprisoned and forced to exile. The numbers of those affected by dictatorship violence are continuously debated, added to and contested. Indeed, the different numbers one can find reflect the extent at which violence was used by the military regime, but also, and importantly, reflect the continuously changing politics of memory in post-dictatorship Chile. Following the 1988 referendum, and the subsequent transition to democracy leading to the election of Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (la Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación) was formed in April 1990 with the mandate to acknowledge and document disappearances and deaths that took place during the dictatorship period. The commission’s report concluded that 2279 persons lost their lives during the dictatorship years. The later formed Valech Commission acknowledged over 40,000 prisoners who were subjected to torture. Nonetheless, and as mentioned, these official numbers are contested and some argue for a varying, and much higher accounting of the violence committed during Pinochet’s years in power. For instance, Steve Stern argues in his book Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile that the number of the dead and disappeared is between 3,500 – 4,000; the number of political prisoners between 150,000 – 200,000; and that of those tortured at 100,000, and places estimates of exile at 400,000 (see Steve J. Stern, Reckoning with Pinochet: the Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989- 2006. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
It became known, years following the political transition that the Pinochet regime had used 1132 centers of imprisonment and torture which were spread across the country. From these centers, orders to execute, torture and make disappear thousands of prisoners were made and carried out. It is from many of these centers where bodies of prisoners were ordered to be buried in Chile’s Atacama Desert or thrown from helicopters into the ocean’s water.
In their writings and testimonies, numerous prisoners tell the various ways in which they were subjected to torture and violence in an attempt to crush their spirits and eliminate them physically and morally. One of the prisoners, Raimundo, recounts aspects of his time in Londres 38, one of the centers of torture and extermination (my own translation):
“I was tortured on daily basis in Londres 38, with the exception of Sunday which was an obligatory rest day […] The main method of torture was applying current to my body, through which they would get rid of my clothes; tie my arms and legs to the metal frame “or parrilla” and connect the electricity cables to my fingers, my feet and also to my penis, and/or my testicles. They would leave a cable hanging freely which they would connect to other parts of my body.”
In another testimony, a prisoner recounts how the interrogators made him dig his own grave, and later placed him in the hole and carried a mock execution in an attempt to force him to speak (from an anonymous testimony found in the Valech Commission’s report). And so on go the stories: various methods of torture and violence used on thousands of bodies in an attempt to create a new de-politicized reality and a newly formulated society.
Rajab, the protagonist of the Saudi Novelist Abdul-Rahman Munif’s novel Sharq al-Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean) recounts his experience of torture in an unspecified Araic country’s prison. He says (my own translation):
“They placed me on a table. I was completely naked and my face was facing the floor.My head shaking from the hits. I do not know how many cigarettes they turned off on my neck, inside my ears and between my testicles. They were laughing at first […] Thousands of hits with wires and shoes were dropping on me. They hit me with their shoes; one of them stepped on my back, and as my hands were tight behind my back, I felt my bones breaking apart and my neck falling apart like a rag.”
While a fictional character in Munif’s novel, Rajab’s story points to the thousands and thousands of other stories of torture and violence in Palestine and Chile, and beyond. It is here where aspects of the other history and present which I am alluding to reside.
During my time in Chile, I visited numerous ex-centers of torture and imprisonment which were used during the Pinochet regime’s years. One of those centers, Villa Grimaldi, was the location of the imprisonment and torture of nearly 4500 prisoners, and the location from which 22 prisoners were killed, and 214 are still counted amongst the disappeared. This center, which was turned into a place of memory, includes various objects and signs which point to the not so distant use of the site to torture and kill political prisoners. While most of the center’s material objects were destroyed by the Pinochet regime, some still stand as witness to what has happened while others have been reconstructed.
One of Villa Grimaldi’s new constructions is what is referred to as the “Wall of Names” where the names of those killed or made disappear following their entry as prisoners to Villa Grimaldi are written. During one of my visits, as I stood reading the names engraved on the wall, I noticed the name of Maria Teresa El-Tit, one of Villa Grimaldi’s disappeared prisoners. I paused. It was a Palestinian family name, and I was in front of a different story – a story I had found resonance of in other conversations and settings. I wondered: had some members of her family arrived from Palestine in the early 1900s as other immigrants had? I thought of the Palestinian martyrs’ bodies which Israel refuses to hand over to their families, and thus denying them the act of saying goodbye to their loved ones and living with the pain. I thought of Palestinian martyrs, of prisoners, and of those who were, and continue to be, tortured and subjected to multitude forms of violence.
The stories never end.
I went back another day and stood in front of this wall marking both absence, and the presence of continuous pain. Where are those persons? When will their families know what had happened to them? In which part of the streets, the ocean or the desert were their bodies thrown by a cruel and violent regime?
During my time in Chile, I met a number of members of the Palestinian community who were subjected to similar violence or know of others who were. They recounted, or silently alluded to, similar stories to those one can get walking around in Villa Grimaldi, Londres 38, Cuartel Borgoño or other sites of memory spread across Chile cities. This is where additional aspects of the other history and present I am alluding to reside. It is true; Palestine is connected to Chile by waves of immigration, and with a Palestinian community that is large, influential and well-established. But it is also true that some members of this community, as others in Chile, were part of a struggle against a bloody dictatorship whose violence continues to affect many onto this day.
I do not attempt to force this discourse nor make an argument that those belonging to the Palestinian diaspora community were all struggling against Pinochet’s regime: as many know this is rather not the case. It is an attempt at acknowledge that the history between Palestine and Chile brought by waves of immigration, and whose impact can evidently be seen in both Palestine and Chile (for instance, I recently saw a huge Bank of Palestine sign in Ramallah announcing the opening of an office in Chile to serve Palestinian diaspora members), is also one in which people living in both have suffered pain, loss and violence. This is not solely a story of some Palestinian-Chileans, but of a country whose past mirrors in many aspects our present (and past).
To talk about Chile and Palestine, one must not solely talk about Palestine and the occupation but what Chileans have lived through, and what some continue to live in a multitude of ways.
This story is also about the dream, and the fight, that one day Israeli prisons where currently 6198 Palestinian prisoners are being held (according to Addameer’s October 2017 statistics) would be free, and would decide on what to do with the locations of their past torture and imprisonment.