CHILE: A Rough Road Home

September 25, 2007

As I flew over the Andes mountains and into Santiago last July, I heard the high-pitched, excited voices of several young passengers. Behind me was a family of what I thought were Germans, and to my right a boy and girl were arguing in French as their mother gazed out the window at the snow-capped peaks. For an authoritative opinion on the subject under discussion, the girl turned to her mother and demanded in Spanish, “¿No es así, Mami?” (“Isn’t that right, Mom?”). This was a Chilean family, as was the family of “Germans” behind me. While it seemed amusing at the time, I soon learned that a mistaken identity is hardly funny for the children of exiles. In fact, many young people refer to their arrival in Chile as the beginning of their own exile.

The reintegration of returned exiles is one of many challenges Chileans face after the fall of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Like Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay before it, Chile must come to terms with the systematic violation of human rights in the recent past, a process that will test its political will and social fabric.

The Catholic Church reports that approximately one million Chileans, or close to one-tenth of the total population, left the country in the early years of the dictatorship. Of these, an estimated 200,000 were political exiles and their families, forbidden by military decree to return. Some went abroad after months of living in the cramped quarters of foreign embassies in Santiago, others after years of torture and despair in prison cells and concentration camps. Under the guise of tourism, thousands crossed the Andes to seek refuge in Argentina, where in 1976 they were to face renewed horror and the need to flee once again.

Today, there are Chileans living in over one hundred countries—with the largest concentrations in Argentina (860,000, of which an estimated 500,000 are undocumented), Venezuela (100,000), Brazil (250,000, of which an estimated 50,000 are undocumented), the United States (150,000), Canada (60,000), Sweden (23,000), and Australia (22,000). There are 700 Chilean families living in Angola and Mozambique and several dozen families in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, and Hungary.

In 1983, during the first massive protests against the dictatorship, several thousand exiles made their way back to the country. To ease international rebuke in the final years of the dictatorship, Pinochet also issued periodic lists of exiles permitted to return (many of whom were deceased or already in the country). In the wake of the March 1990 transfer of power, the number of returnees is thought to have tripled, Yet, according to groups close to the exiles, only 12,000, or 17% of those considered political exiles and their families, will return.

While job security and the ability to support self and family is the most obvious issue, exiles express greater concern about their children, for whom Chile is an abstract idea, an obsession of their parents with which they may sympathize but cannot comprehend. These young people, many of whom have had a parent or parents in hiding, imprisoned, or even killed, often view Chile as no more than a bad memory of chaos and pain, Chilean Psychologist Ana Vásquez and Uruguayan sociologist Ana María Araujo (both former exiles) say many children have created defense mechanisms to block images of Chile from their memories. They reject their parents’ constant talk of Chile, or refuse to speak Spanish in countries where it is not the native tongue. “¿Eres chileno?" one Chilean reporter recently asked a ten-year-old son of exiles living in Leipzig. "Nein, nein, soy alemán,” the boy answered emphatically in a curious but common mixture of German and Spanish.

In their struggles to adapt to a foreign society, pre-teens and teenagers often idealized Chile and the friends and family they left behind. But most eventually abandoned such idealization in order to redefine who they were and where they belonged. As adults today, often with bicultural families of their own, they cannot imagine more than a visit to their former home, despite the end of the dictatorship.

Those children who have returned to Chile with their parents, have experienced mixed reactions at best. The problem of language is often the most obvious; even those who arrive from other Spanish-speaking countries are singled out in a classroom or on a bus because of their non-Chilean accents. Children returning from advanced capitalist societies often must move in with relatives for extended periods and are shocked above all by Chile's poverty. "When we lived in Amsterdam," said one girl now living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Santiago, "all I heard was 'Chile, Chile.' I look around me now and ask, 'Why are we here?’”

Due to a clause in the 1980 constitution enacted under the military regime, children born abroad are not Chilean citizens and must reside in Chile for more than a year to become recognized as such. These children have been denied easy access to basic education, health care and other rights which require a Chilean birth certificate. They carry "temporary residency" visas, and must wade through a host of bureaucratic tangles.

Shattered Illusions

Returning young adults face a different set of problems. Having participated in solidarity movements in their adopted countries, many of them return to Chile to recover a missing part of their identities. "They come back extremely politicized, ready to struggle for democracy and human rights," said María Eugenia Rojas, of the Foundation for the Protection of Children Affected by the States of Emergency (PIDEE), which runs a support program for returnees.

Such was the tragic case of Rodrigo Rojas, a 17-year-old Chilean-born U.S. resident who returned to Chile in the final years of military rule only to be killed by soldiers a few months later. Rodrigo's mother, Verónica di Negri, was a political prisoner until 1976, when a Canadian Amnesty International group won her release. Rodrigo, his mother and his younger brother lived first in Canada and later in Washington, where Verónica worked as a social worker and became a spokesperson for Amnesty's human rights campaigns. Rodrigo was quiet and bright, a whiz at electronics and computers. He was also a talented photographer.

Adjustment to the United States was never smooth for Rodrigo. He had few friends his age, preferring the company of older people. Rodrigo hated school, and despite the pleas of his mother and friends, he left high school two months before graduation. Rodrigo identified more with Chile than with the United States, and in March 1986 he set out alone for Santiago. From all reports back to Washington, the final months of Rodrigo's life were his happiest.

On July 2, 1986, a day of protest against the military regime, Rodrigo Rojas and eighteen-year-old Santiago native Carmen Gloria Quintana were detained by Chilean soldiers, soaked with kerosene, and set on fire. In agony, Rodrigo died four days later; Carmen Gloria survived. Now a symbol of Chile's authoritarian legacy, she remains active in the campaign for justice for the thousands of victims of human rights abuse.

Other young recent returnees find that Chile does not live up to their romantic image of a people struggling together for the common good, an image born from years of listening to their parents' stories of Chile before the coup. Twenty-one-year-old Alex Escobar, who lived in Holland, the Soviet Union and Mozambique, discussed with Análisis reporter Gladys Díaz those aspects of Chile which most bothered him: "The lack of solidarity. The feeling that if I can hurt the next guy and get something out of it, I'll do it. You can understand where this comes from, it's something we inherited from the dictatorship, but it is still painful. There is an utter coldness, which is even more painful coming from outside..."

"Their heads are full of illusions of Chile which shatter in their first month here," María Eugenia Rojas says. At Casa de la Juventud "EI Encuentro,” until this year a center for young returnees and now a meeting place for all youth, there is a great deal of discussion of expectations versus reality and of the difficulty of fitting in with peers. "At school, I made the mistake of telling everyone I was a returnee," Díaz hears from twenty-year-old Piero Claro, who lived for eight years in Mozambique and four in Canada. Piero and his father returned to Arica, Chile's northernmost city. There Piero felt his peers showed neither compassion nor interest in his experiences. "I was totally rejected. I reacted by not wanting to have anything to do with anyone. For eight months all I did was watch TV…only now can I say I feel integrated."

"EI Encuentro" and PIDEE are havens for children and young adults as they adjust to their new surroundings. "What we have found," says María Eugenia Rojas of PIDEE, "is that adults and children go through opposite cycles in their reinsertion in Chile. Adults arrive here elated to be home, and after months of being here they become depressed and alienated. When children arrive, they hate it at first. With time and help, they find their niche."

In numerous discussions with returning Chilean adults, I heard echoes of the words of Uruguayan writer and former exile Mario Benedetti: "In so many ways, to ‘de-exile' is a process far harder than exile itself — after such a long wait, how do you integrate the ethical imperative of return with the reality of no jobs in your country, the problem that your children do not feel they are from your country, the inevitable loss of projects begun in your country of exile?"

The situation, of course, varies from case to case. Several former exiles who were political party leaders during the 1970-1973 Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende today occupy top posts in the Chilean executive and legislature, as well as leadership positions in the political parties. Many of them have founded or were incorporated into private think-tanks which mushroomed in the dictatorship's final years and which continue to function today. These exiles returned with political resources as well as impressive international contacts.

The majority of the returnees have not been so fortunate. Reinsertion into Chilean society and culture has been slow and uncertain. According to head of the Christian Social Aid Foundation (FASIC), Claudio González, many former exiles "keep one foot in the door of the country they're coming from." While statistics are unavailable, it is clear based on several accounts that a fair number of former exiles who ventured home to Chile chose not to remain.

"The Golden Exile"

There is a certain lack of sympathy and even resentment for returnees, implied in such expressions as "el exilio dorado" ("golden exile"), or "la marrequeta debajo del brazo” ("loaf of bread under one arm," an old saying which now refers to those who return with financial support from abroad). No doubt many former exiles do bring personal savings, short-term grants, and other resources, particularly those who come from Western Europe and North America. Far greater, however, are the number of returnees from Eastern Europe and other countries of Latin America, who arrive with few possessions and must rely on family networks in Chile for assistance, placing an acute strain on many families.

In addition to tensions generated from the perception that former exiles are economically better off is the more profound question of "Who suffered more: those in exile or those who remained in Chile through the years of dictatorship?" While the question is admittedly absurd, it underlies much of the tension inherent in society's reckoning with the phenomenon of exile and return. On the one hand, former exiles tend to feel guilt for having “escaped” the day-to-day repression. On the other hand, political activists who remained often harbor anger, a sense of abandonment and betrayal toward those who left.

“After ten years in Stockholm I returned to Chile and began working with a local human rights committee," one former exile recounted. "For over a year I worked practically every day with the group, doing everything from stuffing envelopes to rallying against the dictatorship. Not one person ever asked me about my life in Sweden. I was completely silent about my experiences. Then one day in an organizing meeting I began to explain how our solidarity group in Stockholm carried out a particular task, and a woman shouted at me: ‘We've had it up to here with your talk of how everything is done in Sweden!”

Many laws currently discriminate against the vast majority of former exiles and their families. These include high tariffs on household possessions accumulated over the years in exile and brought back to Chile, refusal to recognize educational degrees and professional experience gained abroad, and denial of conventional access to education, housing and health care. Last August 14, the Chilean Senate established an Office of Returnees as part of the Ministry of Justice to oversee revision of these laws. Headed by human rights lawyer Jaime Esponda and assisted by a staff of 18, it will also attempt to mitigate legal headaches for foreign-born spouses and children. The Office of Returnees plans to coordinate job reinsertion programs, scholarships, and psychological counseling.

Esponda has sought guidance from the 15-member national coordinating body of institutions already engaged in assisting returning exiles, including the Committee for the Return of Exiles (established in 1979), the Chilean mission of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the national committee of World University Service, FASIC, PIDEE and others. They generally praise Esponda's efforts, but worry that while the will may be there, the money to implement needed programs is not: Since the fall of the dictatorship, the country's human rights groups have lost much of their funding, particularly from the European governments that formerly housed exiles.

Though the Aylwin administration has sought repatriation support from these same sources, Esponda and others recognize that aid for returnees does not rank high on the administration’s list of budgetary priorities. "Frankly,” says Claudio González of the Church-based FASIC, “given our limited resources, our work will focus on the problems of those who stayed in Chile, primarily the political prisoners.” Indeed, with the fate of the remaining prisoners and other human rights injustices still unresolved, Chileans have a great deal yet to reconcile. Sixteen years of dictatorship left a bitter legacy. The experience of returned exiles thus far suggests that rooting it out will not be easy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katherine Roberts Hite is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, specializing in Chile.

Sergio Baeza assisted with the research.

Tags: Chile, democratic transition, exiles, reintegration, human rights

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