France's exiled Chileans remember 1973 coup
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France welcomed thousands of Chilean exiles in the wake of the 1973 military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Forty years on, FRANCE 24 asked some of them to share their memories from the tragic day and its aftermath.
Gonzalo Fuenzalida remembers September 11, 1973 – the day the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet – like it was yesterday. A 17-year-old student at the time, Fuenzalida left his high school when teachers said the military coup was imminent and was only 50 metres from La Moneda presidential palace when soldiers overran the capital of Santiago. “I never ran so fast in my life,” he recalled.
Fuenzalida is among the thousands of Chileans who were forced to flee their country in the wake of Allende’s overthrow and death, and who eventually settled in France. They are commemorating the 40th anniversary of the coup this year from their adopted home with a mixture of longing and sorrow.
“On the way home I saw soldiers hit women and shove children with a violence I was unfamiliar with. I could feel the fascist fear spreading across the city,” Fuenzalida recalled. The horror eventually reached his own family: his father, an Allende supporter who lived in northern coastal town of Iquique, was arrested and summarily tried. He was executed on October 30, 1973. “That’s the date the dictatorship started for me,” Fuenzalida said.
He remained in Chile for a few years after the coup. Sometimes he defied the military curfew to paint political slogans in the streets, but he felt powerless in the face of Pinochet’s military might. “We were trying to fight with buckets of paint against machine guns,” he lamented.
Fearing for his life, he left for France in June 1979, and worked for years as a tourism professional. In 1999, he opened “Tierra del Fuego”, a restaurant in the Paris 10th district that serves traditional Chilean dishes. “I don’t know if I did the right thing. But that’s the way things went,” he said.
Forty years on, Fuenzalida holds a bitter grudge against the US government that meticulously plotted Allende’s overthrew and is far from satisfied at the current political order in his native land.
“If the dictatorship ended [in 1990], it’s because the United States wanted it to get rid of Pinochet,” he said. “Chile’s so-called democracy still honours a constitution that was written by a handful of generals. There has been no justice for victims. Forty years later we are still asking for our dead to be returned to us.”
Edicto Garay was 36 years old when Allende’s bloody ouster rocked Chile and the world. A member of the Communist Party and a union leader in the southern city of Punta Arenas, he knew he would be targeted by the military and went into hiding that same day.
Fearing for his family’s safety, Garay resurfaced after a month but was almost immediately arrested. He remembers being stripped naked, beaten with rifles and bitten repeatedly by police dogs until he was an “unrecognizable blue mass”. After days of increasingly worse humiliations, he was shipped off to the notorious Dawson Island concentration camp, where he spent three years.
“It was an inhuman place but I latched onto life. My fellow inmates supported each other and a spirit of survival emerged. We called it the ‘spirit of Dawson’. Our goal was to stay alive,” Garay told FRANCE 24.
As part of an effort to clean up the regime’s international image, Pinochet allowed some political prisoners to leave Chile if they could find a country that would welcome them. Garay arrived in France in November 1976.
“We were plants that had been uprooted from one land and put in another. We did not know if the plants would survive, or if they would ever give flowers,” he said of his arrival in the strange, new country. In Garay’s case, his life blossomed. He found a job as a metal worker in Paris and eventually brought his family to France. “We always thought our stay would be a short one, but our children grew up here, we built a life here, and we stayed.”
Garay lamented that the role of women in resisting Chile’s dictatorship has been sadly overlooked as people remember the 40th anniversary of Allende’s overthrow. “The women saved so many of our comrades and risked their lives to denounce atrocities. They found themselves alone but persevered to raise our families despite the circumstances,” he said.
Gladys Ledezma was recovering from health problems at her parents’ home in the coastal city of Coquimbo on September 11, 1973. As a member of the far-left Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), she was advised by friends to forgo her chemistry studies in the University of Concepción. Instead, she went to Santiago and enrolled in a different university.
“They came to get me during one my classes,” Ledezma told FRANCE 24. “So that everyone would know I was being kidnapped, I screamed across the entire campus as they carried me off. All the screaming later earned me lots of pummelling [from police].”
She endured one month of torture in the infamous Villa Grimaldi, the Chilean secret police’s main interrogation complex, and several more months of detention in two different prisoner camps. She was released in September 1976, after Pinochet agreed to free a certain number of jailed women and children, but was ordered to leave the country.
Ledezma remembers her arrival in France as a mixed-bag of emotions: “I was angry that I was told to leave my country, but happy to be free, relieved to not have to worry for my safety all the time. There are no words to express exactly how I felt.”
She struggled to learn French but found work as a maid, then as a caregiver in a retirement home. Eventually she found training and a job as a nurse – a career she said she cherished for 29 years – until her recent retirement.
“For a long time I refused to ‘fully unpack’ my bags, but it was a state of limbo. I finally decided I needed to accept that I was staying in France, to do something useful in my life and prove to the dictatorship that they couldn’t ruin me,” she said.
Ledezma hopes Chile will truly turn a page of its history by holding a constituent assembly to craft a new constitution, a step, she said, toward building a more just society. “The causes we fought for are still right today. We were defeated, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t in the right. And we’re still here to tell that to the world.”
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