Two Young People in Pinochet’s Chile: Liliana Trevizan and Oscar Sarmiento
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Hello, this is Shailindar Singh at SUNY Potsdam and you are listening to the “Chile and the Cold War” podcast series. Today, will be looking at the social and emotional impact of the 1973 military coup and the brutal repression which followed, using the lens of two people who lived through it. Specifically, we will understand the events of the coup and the initial period which followed from the perspective of SUNY Potsdam Professors Liliana Trevizan and Oscar Sarmiento.
Imagine for a moment that you are a politically active high school or college student in a country which is engaged in a unique experiment. You consider yourself a member of the political left and your nation’s president speaks to you in a way that no other leader has. He talks of bringing real change to the country, through socialism. He wants to give land to the poor, jobs to everyone. He seeks social and economic equality. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with the changes he is implementing; your nation is full of unrest. You see the conflicts on the streets of your city. And then one day, the military steps in.
So it was in Chile on September 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet and other military leaders led a coup d’etat to rest control of the elected government from President Salvador Allende. After bombing the presidential palace, the military took control of the government and immediately began a brutal crackdown. On September 11th and in the days which followed, the political left was the primary target of Pinochet’s regime. Military and police forces detained thousands of people. Some were “disappeared”, never to be seen again. Others were tortured or sent to concentration camps. Many thousands fled Chile, going into exile in other countries. While some of these forms of repression would persist throughout the regime, other forms were more subtle. These included: censorship, widespread human rights abuses, and a regime-imposed atmosphere of fear.
Lily's story: from Punta Arenas to Santiago...
Liliana Trevizan was a 19-year old college student at the University of Santiago when the Allende government fell. Politically active even during high school, Trevizan was an outspoken college leader and she believed in Allende’s vision. In 1973, she was affiliated with the MAPU party, which had aligned with Allende’s Socialist Party and others to form his coalition government. On the day of the coup, she was at home in Punta Arenas, in Southern Chile. She watched on television as the presidential palace, La Moneda, was bombed by the Chilean military. In an interview conducted earlier this year, Dr. Trevizan remembers the grief she felt when she learned of the fall of the government.
“I remember…Punta Arenas in September- the weather is cold already. I went out without panty hose, I remember. Nobody goes out without leggings, at the time we used panty hose. I remember I put my shoes on…and saw the tanks. I remember crying, crying…just walking, crying. And then when they said that Allende was dead…and they show all of that on t.v. I cry…cry. I cry like crazy. And this friend of my mother said: ‘Oh, it’s good they killed him’ (sighs).”
A few days later, in Punta Arenas, three military police officers arrived in a jeep to collect the teenaged Trevizan for questioning. They drove her between multiple tanks until they arrived at a house where many others would also be taken, some never to be seen again. Although her mother was told that Trevizan would be gone only an hour or so, instead, Trevizan was held for 36 hours. While in custody, she was both interrogated and, as she describes it, “slapped around”. She was eventually released and though she remembers being afraid to go back to Punta Arenas, she also remembers that the experience grounded her with a resolute sense of who she was.
”I remember me being very, like never before, that sure of who I was and how I was not wrong and they were very wrong. That sense of this is so unfair...this is so unfair and they are doing something wrong.”
For the next few years, many Chilean citizens, especially those on the left would feel the weight of the repressive regime. At the University of Santiago, the ensuing semester was cancelled, meaning Trevizan lost the opportunity to continue her education for what would be the first of several semesters. Many of her professors had fled the country and some high-profile student government leaders, including her boyfriend, had been taken to the National Stadium in Santiago for interrogation and perhaps torture or worse.
In fact, Trevizan would never see her boyfriend again. In addition, the political science major was eliminated from the curriculum at the University of Santiago and those classes associated with the major simply disappeared from her transcript, causing her to lose half of her academic progress. The college itself was put under the control of a military rector and over time, she was forced to transfer to avoid expulsion for suspected political involvement.
Trevizan’s postsecondary education would continue in stops and starts, interrupted continuously as a biproduct of the actions the military regime and, at times, by her resistance to it. In early 1975, Trevizan was studying at The University of Chile, another campus under military authority. Fear and intimidation were a part of her experience there as well. Trevizan remembers one instance, just after she had transferred, in which she was accosted in the restroom by an older student who was covertly working with the regime.
“Very early, I remember somebody, another female student, called me out in the bathroom of the college and said to me: ‘You know, you be very careful because we know who you are. Don’t think because you are here in another place and it’s another major, another school (that) we don’t know who you are. We know very well who you are. You are from the MAPU. You have been an extremist all the time. They knew all my life and she told me that they knew all my life.”
The other student had been portraying herself as a leftist hippy of sorts. The regime had eyes and ears even among the student body, imbuing an ominous sense that the regime was watching and making it difficult to know who to trust.
Oscar's Story: A View from Santiago...
The coup and the Pinochet regime created social and emotional trauma for many others as well. For high school student Oscar Sarmiento, the coup was equally traumatic. The youngest of three children, he considered himself to be politically active in a highly politicized public school. And while he believed in Allende’s plans, his politics were further left than those of the socialist Allende. If anything, he felt impatient with the rate of change. Still, living as he did within a stable democracy, he remembers the years before the coup as being happy and including plenty of laughter, especially with a sister with whom he shared a special bond. All of that would change on a beautiful September day, when he was stunned by the events unfolding in his city.
“But that morning was shocking and traumatizing...precisely because of the disparity between the beauty of the day and the horrific sound of the bombs exploding."
Following this initial sense of shock, Sarmiento, who, like Trevizan had been politically active within his high school environment, had concerns about his safety while also having an impulse to defend the government.
“So, the 2nd reaction I had was ‘Am I safe here in this apartment’ so I was thinking already of leaving and going somewhere else. And that’s what I did…with friends affiliated with the same…political youth. We somehow got together and we went to a different location, trying to see if we could defend Allende and the government and looking for some kind of guidance in the situation.”
For Sarmiento, the initial period after the coup also meant military control of his educational environment. More significantly for him, on the second day after the coup, both his mother and one of his sisters were taken away. His sister, the one he was particularly close to, was shaken by the experience. No longer feeling safe in Chile, she left the country to continue her studies in Ecuador. Just like that, Sarmiento lost one of the people who meant the most to him. Understandably, he describes this as a painful time and he remembers becoming intentionally withdrawn, especially at school. Aside from the loss of his sister, the coup meant that music, poetry, and anything else related to political expression were banned. At Sarmiento’s high school, the presence of soldiers was ominous and repressive. He remembers a soldier entering his high school class and sitting down among them.
“But I do remember once, after the coup d’etat, a soldier came in, into my classroom. I mean, we were high school kids and here we have the soldiers checking us out like…’What is going on?’ but also: “We are here. Behave. And from then on, you have to behave, behave, behave, behave. That is to say, censor you and do not meet with more people. You know, keep to yourself somehow.”
Sarmiento felt understandably afraid to express himself or be in active in any way. He describes this period as one in which he felt terrorized, even socially and politically strangled. For young Oscar Sarmiento, Pinochet’s Chile was suffocating.
Eventually, Sarmiento and Trevizan would cross paths at the University of Chile. Although open opposition to the regime remained out of the question, by 1976, the two were among a group who would begin to subtly resist the repression of the regime and that resistance would grow, both in the couple’s efforts and in the efforts of many others. At the University of Chile, they were among a group of students who organized the first university strike against the military regime. Sarmiento also participated in a three-week hunger strike. And in the 80s, Trevizan would use government funding to start a charter school for poor children which surreptitiously trained union members at night. Trevizan served as vice-principal and Sarmiento taught at the school.
Near the end of the dictatorship, the couple would leave Chile. When asked about his reasons for leaving, Sarmiento described a sense of exhaustion and a desire to pursue his doctorate. Trevizan described feeling that as the regime was losing power, her duty to resist had passed. As with her husband, she also wanted to earn her doctorate. But even then, fear was part of her motivation. After one of her colleagues was gruesomely murdered, Trevizan and Sarmiento made the decision to leave Chile and begin a new chapter of their lives in the United States. Ultimately, they made Potsdam their home- their long ordeal under Pinochet now in the past and somewhat obscured from view.
Thank you for listening to this edition of the Chile and the Cold War Series. This is Shailindar Singh signing off.
The quotes in this podcast are drawn from two oral history interviews conducted in 2018.
- Sarmiento, Oscar. “Sarmiento Interview.” Interview by Mary J. Heisey and Tamara Feinstein.Potsdam, New York: August 17, 2018.
- Trevizan, Liliana. “Trevizan Interview.” Interview by Mary J. Heisey and Tamara Feinstein. Potsdam, New York: August 17, 2018.
[Note: I would also like to acknowledge the recording and technical help from the Potsdam Public Library and sound editor Doug Chase.]
Bibliography for Further Reading:
Bianchi, Soledad. “Where to Begin to Grasp This Land? (Reflections on Culture and Authoritarianism in Chile: 1973-1986).” In Chile: Dictatorship and the Struggle for
Democracy, edited by Grinor Rojo & John J. Hassett, 53-73. Gaithersburg, Maryland:Ediciones Hispamerica, 1988.
Chavkin, Samuel. The Murder of Chile. New York, Everest House, 1982.
Hudson, Rex A., Editor. “Chile: A Country Study.” Washington, D.C., Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1994.
Ignacio Leiva, Fernando & Petras, James. “Chile’s Poor in the Struggle for Democracy.” In Chile: Dictatorship and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Grinor Rojo & John J. Hassett, 75-97. Gaithersburg, Maryland: Ediciones Hispamerica, 1988.
Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York, The New Press, 2004.
Loveman, Brian. “Military Dictatorship and Political Opposition in Chile 1973-1986.” In Chile: Dictatorship and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Grinor Rojo & John J. Hassett, 17-52. Gaithersburg, Maryland: Ediciones Hispamerica, 1988.
Reuque, Rosa P. When a Flower is Born: The Life and Times of a Mapuche Feminist. Durham, Duke University Press, 2002.
Roberts, Kenneth. Deepening Democracy? The Modern Left and Social Movements in Chile andPeru. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988.
Spooner, Mary Helen. “Soldiers In A Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile.” Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994.
Stern, Steve J. Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006.
U.S. Department of State. “Alleged Atrocities in Chile.” Unclassified Memo. June 30, 1976, in the U.S. Department of State Virtual Reading Room.
https://foia.state.gov/Search/results.aspx?searchText=DINA&beginDate=19760630&endDate=19760630&publishedBeginDate=&publishedEndDate=&caseNumber= , (accessed October 17, 2018), 7 pages.
U.S. Department of State. “DINA Operations.” Unclassified Memo. January 30, 1975 in January 30, 1975 in the U.S. Department of State Virtual Reading Room.
https://foia.state.gov/Search/results.aspx?searchText=DINA&beginDate=19750130&endDate=19750130&publishedBeginDate=&publishedEndDate=&caseNumber= , (accessed October 17, 2018), 2 pages.
Valdes, Teresa. “Women Under Chile’s Military Dictatorship.” In Chile: Dictatorship and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Grinor Rojo & John J. Hassett, 99-108. Gaithersburg, Maryland: Ediciones Hispamerica, 1988.
Verdugo, Patricia. Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death. Coral Gables, Florida: North-South Center Press, 2001.
Wright, Thomas C. & Onate, Rody. Flight From Chile: Voices in Exile. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.