Overcoming Death in Chile

Women's resistance to Pinochet and their struggle for a return to democracy

In 1983 Chileans lost their fear of their military government and its coercive apparatus - the army, navy, police and air force. The majority of Chilean citizens have been living in a climate of tension and agonizing fear for over a decade. Now they are taking to the streets by the thousands, unarmed, to protest against military rule. Their cry for democracy is being met by bullets, tear gas and water cannons fired by the police.

1983 also marked the massive incorporation of women into the political arena to join others demanding participatory democracy. Chilean women are in the process of revising their roles. In the meantime they are using their mothering role as a powerful political instrument aimed both at destabilizing the military junta and at transforming the political structure of the nation from a dictatorial state into a democratic one.

The Roots of Chilean Patriarchy

Women in Latin America are recognized and valued only as mothers. Catholicism presents the Virgin Mother as a superior being who embodies simultaneously the ideal of nurturance/motherhood and chastity. Because Latin American women pattern their role after this sublime model they perceive themselves as morally and spiritually stronger than men. Herein lies their source of power which they readily wield at home as guardians of the moral order in family and society. Chilean women in particular have traditionally exercised this power to solve conflicts within the family.

Women in Chile have served different political interests during the last fourteen years of Chilean history. The ideological campaign escalated by the Chilean right to topple Allende's Popular Unity government counted heavily on the counterrevolutionary potential of thousands of Chilean women, recruited from the high and middle bourgeoisie as well as women from the working classes and petite bourgeoisie who joined the civil resistance movement.

Women's domestic role was expanded to the streets, where they banged empty pots with spoons and lids, producing a deafening noise that filled the cities at specific times during the day and night. They complained of poverty in the kitchen. These same women hoarded commodities in their pantries. Many of the wealthy women had an extra room built in their homes to stock it with foodstuffs. These women were directly responsible for producing food shortages in Chile - producing anxiety in the Chilean population that would put the blame of the Allende government - at the same time these women were organizing and supplying a very profitable black market.

Under Pinochet's military state, women related to men considered enemies of the military junta, and women with an identity of their own as ex-political leaders, workers and professionals, have been mercilessly punished through direct torture, the extrajudicial execution of family members, the disappearance (missing) of loved ones, the severing of their family ties through exile and poverty.

The profound impact that repression has had on thousands upon thousands of Chilean women is now boomeranging against the Pinochet regime. In stepping out of the family to play instrumental roles while their men have disappeared, are in exile or are being persecuted by the regime, many Chilean women are using their role as nurturers as a destabilizing force to help oust the dictatorial junta.

In the Chilean milieu, as well as in other Latin American countries, "mother power" is accepted as legitimate by both men and women. The legitimacy of "feminine" resources in the political arena explains the enormous and far reaching successes of some female politicians in Latin America. It is this "mother power" that Chilean women are consciously now using politically for a just cause.

Women and the Chilean Junta's Doctrine of National Security

In his fight, General Pinochet, like other dictators, has been waging both an international war against foreign Communism and a domestic war against indigenous subversion. The result has been the loss of civil liberties and the militarization of all levels of Chilean society. In the eyes of General Pinochet and the military junta, anyone who peacefully opposes the military's policies or who shares the ideology and traditions of the adversary subverts the true Chilean social and moral order.

Repression is meted out through the coercive apparatus of the state: the armed forces and civilians, sometimes hired by the military. Torture has been inflicted upon women in an effort to force confessions, elicit information and simply to punish them for being related to a man considered an "enemy." Or they have been tortured for having a political identity of their own, as has been the case of women with public roles - union leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists or politicians, etc.

Women have undergone imprisonment as hostages in this "internal" war waged against the civilian population. The majority of women political prisoners have experienced violent sexual attacks upon their body and psyche. Rape, physical battering, electric shocks and psychological torture have been explicitly designed by the military state.

In a demented witch-hunt, representatives of the State have invaded homes, killed, detained, tortured and imprisoned men and women. They have executed fathers in the presence of wife and children and have beaten and raped mothers in front of their children. They have pounded the bodies of teenagers, old people and even children. They have dragged suspects from their homes into the secret torture chambers of the CNI (Central Intelligence Services). Thousands of detainees have later been declared "missing." A considerable number of them have managed to escape alive into exile thanks to worldwide pressure placed on the junta by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

Chilean women have had to cope with the psychic trauma of not finding their "missing" dear ones, or of living in a sustained shock and a prolonged state of crisis during which the anguish and pain caused by the absence of a loved one continues indefinitely. Mothers, daughters, grandmothers or lovers have not been able to complete the mourning process they need for the sake of their own adjustment and mental health because the bodies of their extra-judicially executed relatives have not been returned for burial. Their corpses have been entombed in secret places or destroyed. In some cases women can prove their tragedy with a death certificate from the military authorities. Other women have identified corpses of relatives in morgues, open fields, ravines and deserted roads, a task doubly painful because of the unrecognizable features and body of the beloved one scarred and mutilated by torture. It is excruciating for grandmothers or other female relatives to care for children and see them grow up permanently suffering the psychological trauma of having witnessed the abduction and disappearance of one or both parents.

Thousands of women in their roles as mothers and grandmothers have suffered the disruption of family ties when their married offspring have been forced into exile. These women are afflicted daily by the memory of their loved ones, their lack of resources to travel aggravated by the draining emotional loss of never meeting their grandchildren, born in alien lands. Many mothers have not had the comforting presence of their son or daughter at their bedside and have died pleading with the military junta for their brief return to see them for the last time. Their voices have been silenced.

Thirty percent of Chile's able-bodied population is unemployed in 1984. Women with dead, "missing," incarcerated or jobless husbands and male relatives have become the official family breadwinners working at low wages. When jobs become unavailable, shanty-town mothers look for food in garbage cans. Impoverished mothers from the petit bourgeoisie, unemployed schoolteachers and other civil servants sit on public benches with their children waving signs that read: "Please help me feed my children." Malnutrition, child prostitution, absenteeism from school, drug addiction, alcoholism and neurosis are destroying the physical and mental health of the younger generation of Chile's shanty-town dwellers.

Chilean women have had to find quick solutions to family conflicts and tragedies brought about by the imposition of the military junta's new social order and policies on their daily lives.

Women have been stepping out of the private patriarchal domain of the home to find sanctuary for their persecuted relatives at embassies. They have hidden fugitives in their homes. They have flocked to lawyers' offices and human rights organizations. They have pleaded with the Cardinal and other high-ranking members of the Catholic Church to protect or help find their missing relatives. Many women have courageously gone to the United Nations and to international organizations to denounce the crimes of the repressive junta.

These newly politicized women are not all from the middle classes. Many come from working class neighborhoods and have never before travelled abroad.

Chilean women in 1984 are feverishly involved in consolidating and expanding their political gain by working tirelessly in grass-roots organizations at their workplace - though unionizing has been banned - and protesting peacefully on the streets. Shanty town mothers organize soup kitchens for the jobless and their families, guarding the communal pot from the fierce attack of the police who appear in massive numbers and destroy their makeshift kitchens. Women also organize and protect land where their families have built flimsy dwellings.

Proletarian women express their rejection of the oppressive government by sewing and embroidering rectangular pieces of burlap in bright colors which depict scenes portraying the callousness of the regime. They also embroider their hopes for a return to justice and freedom.

Both professional and non-professional women are at the head or fully participating in The Chilean Association of Relatives of Disappeared Prisoners, in the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners, and in different human rights groups - the Human Rights Commission, the National Commission Against Torture and in the group for the Protection of Helpless Children Under States of Emergency. Women lawyers risk their lives defending the victims of the dictatorial regime. They do so within the boundaries of the Vicariate of Solidarity under the aegis of the Catholic Church.

Women psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers form part of the medical psychiatric team under the organization of The Foundation of Christian Churches for Social Aid. Here they treat and counsel victims of torture and relatives of the missing and executed.

Women journalists are constantly writing against the military state. Many have been clubbed, bruised and incarcerated, but they come out of prison with renewed anti-dictatorial fervor. Teachers, union leaders, homemakers and women from different social classes and occupations, as well as the unemployed, are organizing themselves through women's groups and feminist organizations.

The Mudechi (Women of Chile) serves as a national umbrella organization coordinating all the women's groups in the country.

Chilean Women's Emergence into the Political Arena

On December 29, 1983, 8,000 Chilean women converged at the Caupolican, the largest indoor theatre in Santiago to join Liberty Has a Woman's Name. The collective called for Chilean women to start fighting for LIFE as opposed to DEATH represented by the military government and to urgently start building a democratic order TODAY and not TOMORROW. The meeting was an attempt to show the fragmented male political opposition that women could teach them a lesson.

The organizers belong to political parties of the center, left and independent groups, as well as feminist organizations. A deliberate effort was made to prevent class divisions and hierarchical stratifying of the women in the audience. Proletarian women sat side-by-side with upper class women, unskilled workers beside professionals, and great numbers of shanty town dwellers sat in orchestra seats while their financially privileged sisters accommodated themselves in the gallery. Students of all ages and octogenarian women were there as well. There were no privileged spaces for outstanding political figures because it was said, "Here we are all equal, there is grief and courage in the first and last rows".

During this massive demonstration Chilean women were fully aware that they were enacting an historical role and saying that cooperation, nurturance and peace efforts are all mutually supportive, legitimate and strategic in ousting a dictatorial social order.

On March 8, 1984, in order to celebrate International Women's Day and protest against the military government, thousands of Chilean women took to the streets. The police waged a relentless war against them. Repressive members of the armed forces in civilian clothes, nicknamed "gurkas," beat the women mercilessly and dragged hundreds of them to prison. Once in prison there were attempts to rape some of them. In Valparaiso, the main Chilean port, four thousand women got together at the Fortin Prat (Fort Prat, a historical landmark) to denounce the passing of the antiterrorist law authorizing the Chilean repressive forces to gun down anybody suspected of terrorism. Many of these women were clubbed by armed civilians and dispersed with water cannons.

Chilean women have become the builders of a humane, compassionate society built on cooperation, trust and respect for human values. In the process they have joined other societal forces in an effort to topple the ten-year dictatorial junta but in so doing are critically questioning other patriarchal structures that have been oppressing them.

In stepping out of their homes to find solutions for life-threatening situations afflicting members of their families, or themselves directly, they have bridged the gap between the privatized limited sphere of their activities and the public arena. They have expanded the limited decision power they had in their families to join a collective women's movement. The movement is still in an embryonic stage, but now there is no turning back. Chilean women have embraced a transformative struggle. This struggle is stated in the declaration made at the end of 1983.

Let it be known that we find ourselves in a permanent state of (political) mobilization. Without truce, without rest. Through our joint action we are overcoming the paralyzing fear that immobilized us for so long...Through joint action we are vanquishing sectarianism. We have to fight for this just cause in every barrio, in every shanty town, in every village, in every city and in every organization. Our determined voice, our responsible action will attract many other voices and strengthen our decision to put an end to the black night of dictatorship. If we are here today we should tomorrow be millions on the streets. Because we are many more. This is our commitment to history, to the present and to the future. This is the commitment we all endorse, the commitment to build a full and real democracy - where human right will be respected!"

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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