Letter from Chile

Santiago, Chile

The Chilean election in March for all 150 members of the lower house and twenty-five of the fifty members of the Senate was preceded by even more threats, insults, and prophecies of triumph and doom than are usual here, and that is saying a lot. The highly partisan and uninhibited press, whether supporting the government or the opposition, was filled with political news and propaganda; campaign songs pushed ballads and soap operas off the radio, walls glistened with newly painted slogans. The end of Marxism and Allende, the victory of the masses, the reconstruction of the nation were all claimed as possible—and necessary. The rhetoric came close to reality, for if the electoral coalition of Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats and the right-wing Nationalists (in addition to three much smaller parties) had been able to win a two-thirds majority in the Congress, they might have rolled back the program of the Popular Unity government and perhaps even impeached President Allende. Even the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR) broke its longstanding rule against participating in the bourgeois electoral game and backed some candidates of the Socialist party.

The election took place on a Sunday, as they always do in Chile. From midnight Friday, the armed forces are traditionally in charge, but this time they paid more than their usual attention to detail. All public meetings and political activity were prohibited—you couldn’t wear a campaign button. After the weeks of noise and activity the quiet was spooky. In Concepción, the third city of the nation and traditional seat of labor and revolutionary movements, an army helicopter flew over the central streets. A jeep with a heavy caliber machine gun patrolled the same area. The older noncommissioned carabineros walked in pairs, carrying automatic rifles, watched by their taller and more elegant officers. The young army recruits, more awkward with their automatic weapons, were standing by the dozens inside and outside all polling places, helping people to find their booths, checking to see that no one carried political propaganda, aiding the elderly and the crippled up and down the steps.

For the public, voting is solemn, almost religious. No running down to vote at the neighborhood firehouse or school after work or between chores. It is Sunday, the day of national decision, there are real political parties, a great deal is at stake. People dress up. Voting is obligatory. The lame and the blind are up and about, and the latter use special braille ballots. Eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds and illiterates are voting for the first time. Since men and women vote separately, you find groups of children clustering around some of the polling places waiting for their mothers.

In spite of all the firepower—or perhaps because of it—the only casualty in Concepción was a nineteen-year-old recruit named Nelson Alvarado who was accidentally shot in the ear by his buddy when they were climbing into a jeep after a long day of poll guarding. By the time he got …

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