Lights Out in Los Dominicos

 

It’s September 1988.  Augusto Pinochet, the self appointed president of Chile, has freed his grip on the press and released hundreds of political prisoners. His stable of young economists has worked an international trade and technology miracle. The middle class is thriving. People in the trades and agriculture are employed, building new homes, and sending their children to university as never before. Expatriate Chileans, former communist activists, or sympathizers, are welcomed “home” from Europe and the Americas. With all these changes, General Pinochet expects the upside of his dictatorship to produce “yes” on the plebiscite vote in October granting him an elected presidency.

 

People remember how Salvador Allende nationalized industry and installed incompetent crony management.  People remember hours standing in breadlines and Christmas gifts of necessities like a roll of toilet paper or tube of toothpaste. People remember demonstrating in the streets, challenging the Carabinaros (the police) to do something about the crashing economy. And people remember what they got in 1973: an iron fisted Military Coup. The Chilean people have not forgotten or forgiven General Pinochet for the purge and restricted freedoms that followed.  Two Thousand citizens disappeared, most of them into unmarked graves.  Some were shoved alive from helicopters hovering offshore above the Pacific Ocean.

 

With the vote a month off, Santiago is restive. Recently relaxed restrictions unearth buried memories. Families tell stories of 1970’s repression to children who have no memory of it.  Resentment and the desire to expose Pinochet’s sins bring peaceful demonstrations as well as crime and violence. Nationalism is on the rise. Outsiders, the taller pale skinned Gringo, can be a target for harassment or worse.

 

This evening, the smog is thick enough to lodge a metallic taste in Nancy’s throat.  In spite of the frenzied, weaving traffic she is thankful she took the car instead of the metro to work this morning. She’s tired and it’s late.  As Nancy rounds the corner at El Algaroble into her neighborhood, it’s black.  Her first thought is damn; the Communists have got to the electric power station again. She and Doug have discussed it time and again. Do the communists who claim responsibility for these acts really believe this strategy is going to make their party attractive to the voting public?

 

Nancy bristles. The house will be cold. Sonia, the housekeeper, will be gone and no dinner started. The kids will be home alone in the unheated dark.  Sweat dampens her armpits as she pulls into the driveway.  Everyone in the neighborhood has spiked topped metal fences. The economy is great but the poor are still poor. A sweater left in the car will be gone in a nanosecond even if a window has to be broken to get at it.

 

With relief, Nancy notices candles glowing in the den window.  Because the power is out, she blinks the headlights and toots the horn so her teenagers will come out and open the gate manually. Sally, 14, is out in a flash, opening the gate.  She is wide eyed scared, trying not to show it.   Her tears leak out, ‘I’m alone. It’s cold. The furnace is off. The phone isn’t working.’ ‘Where’s Theo?’ Nancy asks ‘At Mario’s I think.’ Sally answers.  ‘Where’s your Dad?’  ‘I don’t know. Sonia left as soon as I got off the school bus’ she says. Sonia fears for her own three kids in this tense political era. If the lights are out in her barrio, there will be vandalism and violence. There are no high protective fences in the poblationes. ‘How was school?’ Nancy asks.  ‘O.K. But on the way home, people were heaving vegetables at our bus as we passed through Lo Barenchea neighborhood. We are only kids. We don’t do anything to them. Why do they hate us?’

 

The plebiscite is two weeks away.  Every morning the family reviews their safety plan. Mind your business.  Keep a low profile.  Agitators like to pitch nail-spiked boards into the street puncturing tires and causing chaos. Get away from any demonstration into a store or down an alley. Don’t go out alone downtown. Watch how people watch you. Political enthusiasm can get violent. The usual police solution is “The Guanaco”, the armored vehicle with a high-pressure water cannon. Stay away from that.

 

Wood fireplace use is forbidden because of the toxic smog. Nancy and Sally share a cold candlelight dinner of yesterday’s chicken and rice.   Swaddled in blankets against the cold evening, they tell jokes and gossip about the neighbors to pass the time.  By ten o’clock the family is reunited. Theo got a ride through the dark streets from Mario’s father. Doug shares a taxi with four others, and walks a mile because the metro is closed due to the power outage.  In the wee hours of the morning, the lights come on.  They wake grateful and make a warm breakfast.  Their emotional alert remains though.  It’s the new normal until election season is over.

 

First published in FAUSA Newsletter 2010