Fred LaSor: Don’t cry for me Santiago

This is my last column from Chile, as the flight to Reno leaves in 48 hours. It has been a wonderful four weeks with my 2-year-old grandson and his parents. Time to share some parting thoughts:

Today we took the bus and subway to the center of Santiago to visit a Human Rights museum. I was struck by the fact everyone getting on the bus greeted the driver: “buenos días!” Similarly, they thanked him when they stepped down at the end of their ride: “grácias, señor!”

It felt like an abundance of politeness, hard to translate into life in the United States: would you ever hear passengers boarding a bus at home call out “good morning” to the driver? Or thank him as they got off? But my son-in-law explained it was easy for bus drivers to shut down public transportation by calling a strike if they felt like they were being disrespected. Now I get it!

Early fall has arrived in Chile, turning leaves red and gold. Snow paints the peaks of the Andes, visible from much of Santiago when the air pollution clears away. That’s a problem, though: the air over the city is stained brown much of the time from the many autos, buses and trucks driving here. Even with what is said to be the best subway in South America there’s a lot of vehicular traffic. Too much exhaust combines with the bowl effect of the surrounding mountains to make smog, as in the Los Angeles of my youth.

Parking is a nightmare in Santiago. The nightmare is made worse by the number of people who double park, put on their emergency flashers, and jump out for a quick errand. This of course blocks one or two cars in their parking space, plus the lane the car is double-parked in.

The Human Rights Museum was a bit cynical. Not that human rights abuses are petty — no organized inhumanity should go unremarked and unpunished. What was noteworthy about this museum, though, was its focus only on the violence committed by one side of the political spectrum here and elsewhere.

All three floors displayed artifacts of atrocities allegedly committed by the regime of Augusto Pinochet against Chileans. Numbers of political prisoner were listed for Europe, Africa and the USA, with no mention of political prisoners in Cuba, North Korea or Russia. Walls were covered with photos of the “disappeared” in Chile, but not from Cambodia’s killing fields or the millions who perished because of Mao’s policies.

My daughter has a friend whose family was touched by government violence during the Pinochet government, yet even that friend believes Pinochet’s excesses were a necessary response to a previous president (Salvador Allende) who was moving the country in the wrong direction politically, economically and in international relations. Compared to other South American countries, Chile now appears to have succeeded where others have not.

No country has a monopoly on human rights, but we have come further in the west, including the United States and Chile, than other parts of the world. Yet Pinochet gets a full propaganda blast in a Chilean museum, with no mention of the fact a larger percentage of Chileans are now prosperous than ever before. Seventeenth Century French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld tells us hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. This is abundantly evident on the walls of a large museum in downtown Santiago.

I shall miss Chile.

Fred LaSor is a retired Foreign Service Officer living in Minden.


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