Not Since Pinochet, Chile's Army Back On The Streets

Soldiers are back on the streets of Chile for the first time since military rule ended two decades ago. President Michelle Bachelet was arrested and tortured under the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Her father died in prison. For Bachelet, it was a tough decision to call out the troops, but Chileans are welcoming the military's role in earthquake relief efforts.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Chile's earthquake has brought soldiers back onto the streets. Soldiers have kept a low profile since a military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s. Many Chileans have dark memories of those days. Journalist Annie Murphy reports on how the military is viewed today.

ANNIE MURPHY: The city of Concepcion is full of olive green trucks, buses and tanks. And the sky hums with planes and helicopters. All are carrying military personnel to help with relief efforts and keep order following last Saturday's devastating earthquake.

The city is the second largest in Chile and was one of the hardest hit by the quake. It's gradually coming back to life. Water and electricity are being restored. Food is getting handed out. The army has put an end to most looting, and soldiers have been widely welcomed. It wasn't always like that.

Many older Chileans, like Professor Concentia Gandi(ph), recall the Pinochet years, when soldiers were a constant presence and were responsible for widespread human rights abuses. Her father was a journalist and was imprisoned.

Professor CONCENTIA GANDI: You never trusted anyone. You learned to - not to talk to anyone. And well, the streets were always full of military, all the time, and there was curfew just like now. And the situation was very tense.

MURPHY: But when looting got out of control in the aftermath of the earthquake, Concentia was relieved to see soldiers in the streets.

The military is also taking part in relief efforts like distributing food and water. Though aid was slow to arrive, when it did most people were grateful to the soldiers who helped distribute it.

Ms. EDITSA NUASA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

Editsa Nuasa was one of the first people to get a relief package. Her adult daughter and grandchildren stayed at her house. And all they had left for food were some hotdogs a neighbor gave them.

Ms. NUASA: (Through translator) The army has done a good job, because we were in danger of being robbed and they guarded our neighborhood. This time they were there to protect us.

MURPHY: The decision to send soldiers to the earthquake zones was not an easy one for President Michelle Bachelet. In the mid-1970s, she was arrested and tortured by the military. After her release, she lived abroad for many years. And both her parents were also arrested and tortured.

Her father, who had been a high ranking military officer before Pinochet came into power, died in prison. According to reports, Bachelet was hesitant to send in soldiers after the earthquake but eventually did so. She's been criticized for not acting more swiftly and on a larger scale.

Bachelet's presidential term ends next week. She'll be replaced by one of the country's wealthiest men, Sebastian Pinera. He hasn't openly criticized Bachelet. But he has said that the state's most important priority is to restore order.

A small park in Concepcion is full of camping tents that have become temporary homes. A pair of black boots and some camouflage pants stick out of one. Soldier Francisco Belmonte(ph) is getting up from a nap. His home was damaged by the quake, so he's living outside with his family for now.

Mr. FRANCISCO BELMONTE (Solider): (Through translator) The chaos that we just went through changed how people think about soldiers. Before, we weren't liked because of what happened in the past. But now people feel calmer. Now we're responsible for their well-being. If we act poorly, imagine how that would affect people.

MURPHY: When he was growing up, 23-year-old Hernan Vidal(ph) heard stories about past military abuses. And he still has a negative opinion about the army.

Mr. HERNAN VIDAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Hernan says he believes the military abuses its power. I don't know what they exist for, he says. I guess to defend the country and to fight. But they're real dictators, and it's always their way, he says. They won't just let you be.

MURPHY: Hernan isn't happy to see soldiers in the streets. But he accepts that they're necessary to stop the looting and robberies.

At night, Concepcion is under a curfew and the empty streets are under the control of the military. For now, most residents seem willing to accept that.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Concepcion, Chile.

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Military Aid Efforts Provoke Dark Memories In Chile

Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims. i i

Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims Thursday in the coastal town of Pelluhue, Chile. Fernando Vergara/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Fernando Vergara/AP
Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims.

Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims Thursday in the coastal town of Pelluhue, Chile.

Fernando Vergara/AP

Chile's military began delivering food Thursday to areas ravaged by the massive earthquake and tsunami, as survivors cheered the arrival of convoys filled with plastic bags of oil, flour and canned beans.

Downed bridges and damaged roads have slowed the flow of aid to desperate survivors of Saturday's 8.8 magnitude temblor and subsequent tsunami. The official death toll stands at 802, according to ONEMI, Chile's emergency management agency.

While water and electricity service has resumed in much of the capital, Santiago, most people in Concepcion still lack basic services. Nationwide, as many as 500,000 homes have been destroyed.

President Michelle Bachelet said in a radio broadcast Thursday that it will take Chile three to four years to recover from its largest earthquake in half a century. She said the country will probably need to rely on international loans to finance the cost of reconstruction, which some estimates put at $30 billion.

Bachelet, who is set to leave office next week, said the rebuilding of schools, roads, hospitals and other public infrastructure will dominate the four-year term of her successor, Sebastian Pinera.

The disaster has brought the first significant presence of soldiers in the streets since Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s. The Chilean army general overthrew a democratically elected socialist government — with covert U.S. backing — in 1973, and human rights groups say tens of thousands of political opponents were tortured and thousands killed during his 17-year regime.

Bachelet's decision to deploy soldiers to quell widespread looting and deliver aid was reportedly a difficult one. She was arrested and tortured by the military in the mid-1970s and lived in exile for many years after her release. Bachelet's parents also were tortured, and her father — a high-ranking military officer before the Pinochet coup — died in prison.

Professor Constanza Gerding, who lives in Concepcion, recalled that soldiers were a constant and often brutal presence at the time. Her father, a journalist, was imprisoned.

"You learned not to trust anyone, not to talk to anyone," Gerding told NPR. "The streets were always full of military all the time, and there was a curfew just like now, and the situation was very tense."

Although many Chileans have dark memories of the Pinochet years, the past two decades have healed some of those wounds. When looting got out of control in Concepcion, some residents were relieved to see troops in the streets.

  • Chilean troops and firefighters unload relief supplies Wednesday from a military helicopter in the coastal town of Dichato, which was heavily damaged by tsunami waves produced by Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake.
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    Chilean troops and firefighters unload relief supplies Wednesday from a military helicopter in the coastal town of Dichato, which was heavily damaged by tsunami waves produced by Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake.
    Ricardo Mazalan/AP
  • A policeman stands near medicine and other items donated Wednesday for earthquake victims.
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    A policeman stands near medicine and other items donated Wednesday for earthquake victims.
    Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
  • A woman washes her hands at a makeshift shelter for displaced people in the seaside town of Constitucion on Tuesday.
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    A woman washes her hands at a makeshift shelter for displaced people in the seaside town of Constitucion on Tuesday.
    Fernando Vergara/AP
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet at the airport in the capital, Santiago, on Tuesday.
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    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet at the airport in the capital, Santiago, on Tuesday.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
  • Chilean army armored personnel carriers drive along a bridge Tuesday in Concepcion, the country's second-largest city. Bachelet said Chile has dispatched 14,000 to devestated areas.
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    Chilean army armored personnel carriers drive along a bridge Tuesday in Concepcion, the country's second-largest city. Bachelet said Chile has dispatched 14,000 to devestated areas.
    Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
  • People wait for supplies in front of a supermarket in Concepcion.
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    People wait for supplies in front of a supermarket in Concepcion.
    Aliosha Marquez/AP
  • Police arrest a woman who was carrying goods out of a supermarket in Concepcion.
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    Police arrest a woman who was carrying goods out of a supermarket in Concepcion.
    Mario Quilodran/El Mercurio/AP
  • Rescue workers help an injured woman in Concepcion.
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    Rescue workers help an injured woman in Concepcion.
    Francesco Desgasperi/AFP/Getty Images
  • A man holds a child outside a quake-damaged building in Concepcion early on Saturday.
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    A man holds a child outside a quake-damaged building in Concepcion early on Saturday.
    AP
  • A boat rests next to a building Monday after it was washed ashore by the tsunami in Talcahuano.
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    A boat rests next to a building Monday after it was washed ashore by the tsunami in Talcahuano.
    Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
  • Throughout central Chile, travelers faced obstacles. Here, a collapsed bridge across the Claro river, about 112 miles south of Santiago.
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    Throughout central Chile, travelers faced obstacles. Here, a collapsed bridge across the Claro river, about 112 miles south of Santiago.
    Aliosha Marquez/AP
  • Smoke from a burning building fills the sky on the outskirts of Santiago.
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    Smoke from a burning building fills the sky on the outskirts of Santiago.
    Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
  • Firemen search for survivors in a destroyed building in Concepcion on Sunday.
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    Firemen search for survivors in a destroyed building in Concepcion on Sunday.
    Natacha Pisarenko/AP
  • People in Concepcion stand outside guarding their homes on Monday.
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    People in Concepcion stand outside guarding their homes on Monday.
    Natacha Pisarenko/AP
  • A man holds a torn and soiled Chilean flag on Sunday in a flooded area of Pelluhue, about 200 miles southwest of Santiago.
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    A man holds a torn and soiled Chilean flag on Sunday in a flooded area of Pelluhue, about 200 miles southwest of Santiago.
    Roberto Candia/AP
  • Bejamira Neira Zapata sits in the doorway of her house Monday after the massive earthquake struck the village of Penco. The tsunami engulfed the normally placid Penco and neighboring villages.
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    Bejamira Neira Zapata sits in the doorway of her house Monday after the massive earthquake struck the village of Penco. The tsunami engulfed the normally placid Penco and neighboring villages.
    Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
  • Concepcion, about 70 miles from the epicenter, suffered some of the worst damage.
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    Concepcion, about 70 miles from the epicenter, suffered some of the worst damage.
    AP
  • Following one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, a woman stands in front of a destroyed home in Pelluhue.
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    Following one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, a woman stands in front of a destroyed home in Pelluhue.
    Roberto Candia/AP

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"Though aid was slow to arrive, when it did, most people were grateful to the soldiers who helped distribute it," Gerding said.

Edith Sanhuesa was one of the first people to get a relief package. Her adult daughter and grandchildren are staying at her house, and all they had left for food were some hot dogs that a neighbor gave them.

"The army has done a good job, because we were in danger of being robbed, and they guarded our neighborhood," Sanhuesa said. "This time, they were there to protect us."

Still, not everyone is reassured by the military presence. Hernan Vidal, 23, grew up hearing stories about past military abuses and still has a negative opinion of the army.

"I don't know what they exist for," he said. "I guess to defend the country and to fight. But they're real dictators, and it's always their way."

But even Vidal said he accepts that the soldiers are necessary to stop looting and other crimes.

A soldier named Francisco Belmonte whose own home was damaged by the quake was bivouacked in a small park in Concepcion. He said the disaster had helped change people's thinking about the military.

"Before, we weren't liked because of what happened in the past, but now people feel calmer. Now we're responsible for their well-being," Belmonte said. "If we act poorly, imagine how that would affect people."

From NPR's Scott Neuman and Jason Beaubien, with material from reporter Annie Murphy and The Associated Press

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