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Fear with Hope: the Nature of Politics & Society in Pinochet’s Chile


In Santiago’s Children, Steven Reifenberg narrates  his account of Chile in the 1980s while he is working in an orphanage in Santiago.  His story is compelling and gives a different view of the nature of Chilean society and politics during this time.  Reifenberg brilliantly gives a personal account of what he learned about life while at the orphanage, which is in some respects more valuable than any textbook or article.  Upon reading this book one can clearly grasp  the nature of Chilean society during the military regime.  Even though the Pinochet regime was brutal, Reifenberg’s account of the orphanage serves as a metaphor for the hope still living within the Chilean people.  “As long as there is one child remaining here, I will make this work,” is a quote from Olga, the lady who runs the orphanage (Reifenberg, 25).  Her determination represents the hope still present in Chile even though the future under Pinochet seems bleak.  As long as there is something to believe in, Reifenberg shows that the Chilean people will make it work.

After Pinochet and the military successfully orchestrated a coup that overthrew the Allende government, the nature of Chilean society and politics in the early 1980s became organized around fear.  The government undertook actions to instill fear in the population in order to prevent insurrection.  Fear dictated every action of the Chilean people.  Every facet of their lives was plagued by fear of death or punishment for them or their loved ones.  To further explore this argument it is crucial to explain the ways the Chilean government created a “politics of fear” and end by showing how this impacts Chilean society.  It is important to show the hidden resistance to this “politics of fear” evident in the lives of Olga and the children in the orphanage as portrayed by Reifenberg.  Ultimately, Chile’s transformation from a gem of democracy in Latin America into a fascist military regime shocked the world because it was the least expected country to fall into this type of horrendous brutality.

Through various avenues the Chilean government transformed the nature of the society, producing a political culture based on establishing fear instead of voters enacting their democratic rights.  The government created this “politics of fear” through the following ways:  by shutting down nearly all major institutions and orchestrating the disappearance of thousands of people while also targeting Leftist political organizations.  Because universities around the world have traditionally been a breeding ground for political activism, it is no surprise that the Pinochet regime began their deconstruction of society by shutting down this institution.  “The military leaders shut down whole departments of Chilean universities, especially sociology, political science, and theater, because these academic studies supposedly promoted subversive behavior” (7).  In reality, these “academic studies promoted” creativity and thinking not defined by the fascist government, therefore, this knowledge was seen as dangerous because it had the possibility of not aligning with what the Pinochet regime believed.

The military’s ultimate goal was to change the mindset of the Chilean people.  According to Augusto Pinochet, with the election of the socialist Salvador Allende government that preceded him, the Chilean people had proven their inability to democratically govern themselves, therefore, he believed that universities further perpetuated radical thinking that could lead to another socialist government.  Much to Pinochet’s dislike, universities were designed to empower one through free thinking, forcing students to make their own claims and arguments.  The government instilled fear in students in order to prevent them from thinking for themselves, a very strategic tactic since ignorance allows dictatorships to reign longer unattested.  Essentially, the Chilean people were “re-conquered” by their own government, although within Santiago’s Children, Reifenberg portrays the orphanage as representing a form of hidden resistance to the government’s repression.   Overall, the tactics used by the Pinochet regime to “re-conquer” the Chilean people were of no surprise because the first tactic any conqueror employs to completely break those they have conquered is to take away their education and their ability to think, which allows those in charge to “reshape” their minds with a new ideology.

Upon closing down the universities, college students, who had historically clung to the ideals of the Moderates or Leftists, were systematically hunted down and imprisoned.  Anyone suspected of falling into these categories was taken without any questions.  The targeting of specific groups of people by the government forced Chileans to disassociate with their belief systems in order to escape persecution.  Even the Christian Democrats who wanted Allende’s government to be overthrown were stunned at the degree of brutality and right-wing extremism that the military ensued upon the people.  The government successfully promoted fear of death or punishment as a way to force certain undesirable ways of thinking out.  People even began to lose trust in those surrounding them because the terror caused panic and anxiety about “who would be next.”  “Neighbors did not trust one another for fear that one might be a government spy” (7).  This way of thinking had a very radical effect upon this fearful society because Chilean society was traditionally organized around communal living and trust.  Olga displays this ideology by always referring to the orphanage as a family, representing what Chilean society once was.  Reifenberg says she “went from door to door, literally, looking for support” (25).  Her actions show her belief that the old Chile still resided within the now repressed society.  Unfortunately, because of the threat of violence, Chilean society became organized around a politics of fear; therefore, the Chilean people were willing to sacrifice communalism, a traditional aspect of their society, because they were so fearful of “disappearing.”

Reifenberg cites at the beginning of the book an incident where a British woman, serving as a doctor in Chile, was abducted by the military because she had treated the leader of the Leftist rebel forces.  “When the secret police discovered she had treated him, she was abducted from her home and taken to the notorious Villa Grimaldi, where she was tortured brutally with electric shocks to elicit the names of the people she knew…essentially her friends” (8).  This account is a blatant example of why Chileans believed no one could be trusted during this era.  The brutality of the torturing could cause anyone to give up the names of their friends and family members, thus paralyzing the society with fear.  Normalcy ceased to exist.  But despite this terrifying story about the British doctor, Reifenberg still wanted to see and experience Chile for himself.

Even though I found this story incredibly unsettling, I was also fascinated by all that I was learning about Chile and wanted to see the country for myself.  I was especially amazed, time and time again, by the accounts of the people who worked to support one another in the most oppressive, dangerous situations and the solidarity that developed when people united against injustice. (8)

It became evident to Reifenberg that the military had not destroyed all that was good within Chilean society.  A glimmer of hope still remained within the Chilean people despite the “politics of fear” indoctrinated by the Pinochet military regime.

Within Santiago’s Children, Reifenberg uses Olga and the children at the orphanage as a metaphor to show the hope still present within Chileans.  He describes throughout the book Olga’s diligent and selfless efforts to provide for the children despite Chile’s turbulent economy. When asking people to donate to the orphanage, Olga paints a picture of hope for the Chileans to believe in, that somehow, in helping out the children of the orphanage they can make a difference in society.  “The way I approach people when asking for help is to make them apart of a dream.  What is more compelling than creating a better world for a child who has been abandoned or abused?” (27).  Despite their brutal conditions, the Chilean people wanted to believe in something.  With the orphanage, Olga gave them something to believe in that had substance.  Sustaining the orphanage is a physical, tangible difference that can be achieved in a society where citizens are denied self-determination.

By describing her work as “a dream,” Olga symbolically represents the hope still present within Chilean society even after Pinochet worked so diligently to create a society based on fear.  Furthermore, the children represent the future generation, with Olga working to secure their future, thus, those in the community that are donating to the orphanage are engaging in two forms of hidden resistance.  First, they are rebuilding the future of Chile by helping these children.  It is not a blatant act of resistance but it is a way to fight back against the fear Pinochet’s regime worked so hard to perpetuate.  Second, the Chilean people are refusing to give up and accept an unhappy existence because of the military regime.

The children in the orphanage come from very meager and abusive backgrounds.  They are “children with incredible and tragic stories” (Reifenberg, 25).  Their “tragic stories” serve as a metaphor for the circumstances plaguing Chileans during the Pinochet regime, with the plight of the children representing the severity of the repression.  Reifenberg uses a young child named Veronica as a specific example of the children overcoming their circumstances.  She attends a school called “Trailblazers of the Future.”  The name of her school is a metaphor for the strong-willed Chilean spirit still present during this turbulent time.  The children in the orphanage are “trailblazers” because investing in them is a form of hidden resistance that will build a better Chile in the future.  Reifenberg is so proud when he attends little Veronica’s school awards ceremony because her success is emblematic of her triumphant spirit, a spirit Reifenberg sees in the Chilean people.  He states, “I didn’t doubt that I had made the right decision as I watched the end of the school year ceremonies a month after I had arrived in Santiago…Veronica was the top student in her second-grade class of forty-five students” (Reifenberg, 37).  He also states that he “felt like a proud parent.”  His language shows the connection he built with the children and his reverence for their ability to overcome their circumstances.  Olga’s kind spirit, the children’s ability to overcome their abusive pasts, and the willingness of the community to donate are all symbolic of the spirit of the people.  Reifenberg illustrates here that the spirit of the people had not been completely broken despite the transformation of the society into one organized around fear.

One of the most inspirational quotes Olga makes throughout the book is that “God will provide…the harder we work, the better He provides” (27).  This saying represents the will of the people, even after being beaten down by the military regime.  Although the nature of Chilean society and politics was organized around instilling fear, Chileans still managed to flourish.  Their belief in a better future allowed them to push forward, a prominent theme throughout the book.  Truly fear reigned supreme in the society throughout the 1980s, but the hope that accompanied it allowed Chileans to overcome this dark era and eventually move back into democracy.



2 thoughts on “Fear with Hope: the Nature of Politics & Society in Pinochet’s Chile

  1. I’m now not sure where you’re getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or understanding more. Thank you for fantastic information I was searching for this info for my mission.

    Posted by alu-felgi 19 | April 15, 2012, 2:08 am

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