“The Avocado Republic of Chile, Because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
by Walker Rowe
29 September 2014.
I am from the Deep South of the USA, where the Baptists are as devoted and dim witted as the Taliban. Growing up there, we all were taught that communists had horns growing out of their heads and ate their kids. We were force fed George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm,” books I am sure my teachers did not understand. I still read Orwell. I’ve read most of his books several times. It is true he was opposed to the Stalinists depicted in those novels, but Orwell remained a dedicated communist in the Leon Trotsky sense of the word, meaning there would be no dictator. But Trotsky would still strip the rich of their ill-gotten gains, what Marx called excess capital, and distribute that among every one else. That’s an idea that has a strong following in Latin America, where poverty was once much worse that today.
Chile has a long history of flirting with communism and socialism. This is ironic because the country is probably one of the most capitalistic countries on earth today, where businessmen own the highways and all the fish in the ocean are divided between 5 companies. But the pro-business government here has a progressive side too. They give the poor subsidized mortgages to buy homes, give free health care to the poor, and guarantee a minimum pension. Chile forced everyone owning more than 80 hectares to sell. The idea was to break up the giant haciendas (They are called latifundos in Chile.). Chile also nationalized the copper mines. Revenue from copper mining now pays most of Chile’s government expenses.
And then Chile took the ultimate step toward socialism and elected a communist president in 1971, Salvador Allende. The American government took notice. This was during the Cold War and the USA was not going to let any communist government come to power in the Western Hemisphere. The president of the American mining company IT&T phoned up Nixon to complain. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent in the CIA. The CIA handed out money to El Mercurio newspaper to print propaganda, the newspaper I read every day. The CIA helped sow the mayhem that created the chaos which gave the military the excuse to take over the government. General Augusto Pinochet rained bombs down on the presidential palace and circled the building with tanks. Trapped inside, President Allende committed suicide. Pinochet took over and remained in power for 19 long years. He was finally evicted from office when pressure made him agree to a plebiscite he had mentioned 10 years before. He lost. The country is still divided over that vote as many current politicians on the right wing, those mainly from the upper classes, voted, remarkably, to keep Pinochet in power.
It was dangerous to be a communist during the Pinochet government. The dictator tortured and killed 4,000 mainly young people. 30,000 fled into exile. My best friend in Chile, Rene, was one of those jailed. He was put into prison for 2 years where he says “they did not treat him well.” When he was released, he fled to San Francisco where he worked as an artist.
Rene is a short bald fellow with a quick whit. Lots of Chileans like Rene were put in jail by the dictator. But what makes Rene unique is he was made a political prisoner long before the dictator came to power. The Christian Democrats jailed Rene, because as a leader of the student movement, he suggested that Bolivia be given access to the Pacific Ocean. When Rene told me this, I laughed out loud. I called him Che Guevara. You have to live here to understand how brazen that was. This topic is definitely taboo in Chile. Bolivia lost its coastline in the War of the Pacific in 1883. It is still trying to get it back, now suing Chile in the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Rene is 73 years old. He is my skiing partner and president of the 100 year old Harley Davidson club of Valparaiso. He is such an expert skier that I have never seen him fall down, except the time I knocked him down. We were taking the T-bar lift that tows you to the top. Either he or I said something about “look at those rocks over there” and next thing you know we were both face down in the snow. Rene stood back up. I told him wait, I wanted to take a picture of him splayed out on the ground.
Rene says one reason he never falls down, is because if he did he could never get back up. There is a lot of truth to that. It is really difficult to stand back up when when you fall down.
Rene lives at the beach in Con Con right on the bay. There is no flat land there so his house is built vertically into the side of the hill. It’s a huge affair of heavy stone with wooden beams. Every terrace and corner is covered with potted cactus. What little soil there is planted with roses. He lived there with his mom, who must be about 100, but she moved in with another son recently when she complained that Rene was “not treating her well,” says Rene. Rene’s mom spent all day on the phone calling her other son running up the phone bill. Rene got so mad he got rid of the phone and even his cell phone. He still has no cell phone.
Rene’s wife Evelin comes from Santiago every weekend. We used to work together at a computer software firm and became friends, because we both shared a love of literature and culture. That was rare in a computer geek environment. Evelin’s cousin is Nicanor Parro, a 100 year old poet who won the Cervantes prize for literature. That’s like the Nobel prize for the Spanish speaking world. Rene and Evelin go to see him every month. Paparazzi hang outside his house. I am still waiting for my invitation.
When Rene moved to San Francisco, where he lived for 30 years, he taught art at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also designed the sets for different musicians including BB King and U2. Rene is still friends with Bono, who sends him gifts. He tells some funny stories about traveling with U2.
Women of course are genetically disposed to giviving themselves to rock stars. Rene and Bono were swimming in a hotel pool at 4 o’clock in the morning. Their wives were asleep upstairs. Suddenly 6 girls spotted Bono. They stripped off their clothes and jumped into the pool naked. With all the noise, Bono and Renee’s wives came out on the balcony. Of course there could be no orgie with their spouses looking one, so the men shrunk back to their rooms leaving the nymphs to splash about.
Rene’s house is filled with drawings and artwork. He has a collection of pornographic Chinese ivory figurines. Those things must be valuable, because they are ivory. As for pornography, I enjoy big tits as much as the next guy, but dislike pornography. In Chile you can buy a wooden dolls made in the Indian tradition. They are sold along the road up to the ski lift. You lift up the top of the doll and out pops a huge erect penis.
Because Rene’s house is all stone and the Pacific Ocean is freezing cold, his house is cold as well. It’s always about 17° C. (63° F). I like to visit, but I like it warm. You might not think that 17 ° is cold. But one thinks the beach should be warmer. Still it’s great to go there when it is 34° C (93° F) in the valleys. Remember that in Chile few people have heat and air conditioning. So living along the coast is definitely one way to get cool.
My wife Paola and I went to see Renee and Evelin for New Year’s Eve to watch the fireworks. The fireworks were launched from a barge that was anchored right in front of his house in the bay, so we had the best view possible.
The next day we went with Renee and Evelin to have lunch with some friends who lived in a nearby town. Michelle and Jose spent 10 years building up their modest home on their civil servant salaries. Now it looks like a hotel with art on the walls, winding corridors and pathways, and every inch planted with some kind of vine. There are not many flowering plants anymore, because there is not much sun. So it’s shady and cool in what would otherwise be blazing sunshine. Michelle and Jose have two grills built out of stone and a guest house and a wading pool.
Rene is like this, surrounded with cultured friends.
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