Leif Beiley, Darien, A Novel
In the cold predawn hours, combat units of the Chilean Army assembled in the Plaza Bolivar, less than a mile from La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. Infantry soldiers nervously checked their weapons and waited for orders to move out. Their commander, General Arellano, his breath turning to fog in the cold morning air, waited impatiently for General Pinochet to give the signal to attack.
In the Palace, President Salvador Allende sat at his desk staring straight ahead as his security chief made his report.
“The coup is underway, Your Excellency,” the chief said. “Valparaiso is already in the hands of the Junta. The Navy and Air Force have gone over to their side, and General Pinochet is preparing to attack.”
The President glared at him. “We still have the people on our side,” he said, pounding the desk with his fist.
“Yes, but the traitors have Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA on theirs.”
“Nixon!” the President spat. “He speaks eloquently of liberty and justice, but for whom? Not for the people of Chile!” Allende removed his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes, then fixed his gaze on the security chief. “We must never surrender to Nixon, or to Pinochet and his thugs.” He spoke calmly, but with conviction.
“I understand, sir. We will defend the Palace to the last man.” The security chief left to organize his meager force of Presidential Guards.
Alone, Allende scribbled furiously on a pad. As he wrote, the sounds of confusion and panic echoed in the halls of the sprawling Palace.
His secretary entered the room. “Your Excellency, a message from General Pinochet.” He held out a slip of paper. “It is his last offer of safe passage out of Chile. You must surrender immediately or he will order a direct assault on the Palace.”
Allende paused before he spoke. “I was duly elected by the people. Therefore, I will not surrender.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
The President squared the pages on his desk. They were covered with his longhand scrawl, a hastily drafted speech. “Get Radio Magallanes on the phone. Tell them I want to address the people of Chile.”
Two hours later Allende gave his farewell speech. As he spoke, small arms fire clattered in the background. Overhead, jets from the Chilean Air Force blasted the Palace with well-aimed rockets. Allende closed his speech with stirring words as the building shook under the attack. He sent the few loyalists who remained with him out of his office. “There is nothing you can do now. You must go and surrender. Tell them I will join you in a few minutes.” After they left, he slipped into another room with his AK47, a personal gift from Fidel Castro. He sat in a chair and placed the butt of the weapon on the floor between his feet and rested his chin on the barrel. He thought of his wife and children, asked God’s forgiveness, then blew his brains out.
By late afternoon, all resistance at the Palace had collapsed. General Pinochet sent a coded message to his CIA contact: “Allende has been neutralized. Effective today, September 11th, 1973, the Military Junta is in control of the government of Chile.”
In the Oval Office, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger shared a moment of quiet satisfaction with President Nixon. The General had fulfilled his promise.
Five hundred kilometers south of Santiago lay the small farming village of Santa Lucia. Situated on the banks of the Biobío River, it was a quiet and peaceful place. To the west of the village, the land was flat and dotted with farms and pastures. To the east lay a vast labyrinth of deep, narrow valleys and the high, rugged Andes. The border with Argentina snaked along a line of Andean ridges fifty kilometers east of Santa Lucia. If he were hardy, or desperate, a hiker could reach that windswept border in two days.
In the residence above the lone medical clinic in the village, ten-year-old Lena Voss set the dinner table while her mother tended the stove. It was well after dark and her father, Dr. Gunther Voss had come upstairs and turned on the radio. As the three of them sat down to dinner, the announcer read a statement from General Pinochet in Santiago. “Peace reigns in the capitol,” he said. “Government troops are mopping up some resistance on the outskirts of the city, but tomorrow Chile will begin the long recovery from former President Allende’s disastrous policies.”
Dr. Voss snorted and switched off the radio.
“What does he mean, recovery from disastrous policies?” Lena’s mother asked.
“It means we are witnessing the death of democracy in Chile,” the Doctor replied bitterly.
Lena wasn’t sure who or what democracy was, but she knew the look on her father’s face. It was the same one he wore when a village boy fell into the river and drowned last spring. They brought him to the clinic but Dr. Voss could not revive him. It was a look that struck fear in her young heart.
“Will there be fighting?” Mrs. Voss asked, pulling her daughter near.
“I’m afraid so.” Dr. Voss shook his head sadly. “President Allende was a hero to millions of people. There are already rumors of fighting in Valparaiso, and even in Concepción.”
“What shall we do?” Mrs. Voss hugged Lena closer.
“Nothing. The blood will be spilled in the cities, not here in tiny Santa Lucia.”
“Will I go to school tomorrow?” Lena asked, hopefully.
“Of course, darling.” Her mother hugged her again. “Go and get your pajamas on and finish your schoolwork. Papa will come and read you a story before bedtime.”
The next morning, Lena went to school as usual. It was the same the following day, and the day after that. Nothing changed for her, except that her father seemed more preoccupied and her mother more nervous. After several months Lena hardly thought of Santiago, a city she had never visited and knew nothing about. Augusto Pinochet, the new President, was nothing more than a grainy black and white photo in the newspaper to her.
As her father predicted, Santa Lucia remained as peaceful as ever. A year passed before the first sign of trouble appeared. It came in the form of a man, a Peruvian who had been wounded in a gunfight with government troops.
“Antonio is his name,” the guerillas who delivered him to the clinic said. “He has lost a lot of blood.”
Dr. Voss asked no questions as he motioned them to bring the unconscious man into his surgery. The guerillas then slipped away into the night.
The bullet had fractured Antonio’s femur and it was two months before he was well enough to move on. During that time, a deep friendship sprang up between him and Dr. Voss.
“Tell me, how is the fighting going in Santiago?” the doctor asked when they were sitting alone in his library.
“Not good. The Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria, has the will to fight, but we lack everything. Not enough guns, ammunition, or supplies.” Antonio took a sip of Pisco Corriente, Chile’s distinctive brandy. “The secret police know who the leaders are. They are hunting them down one by one.”
“So, is there no hope at all?”
Antonio smiled grimly. “Hope is all we have.” He stayed at the clinic, hiding in a shed in the backyard by day, and having deep conversations with the doctor in the evenings until his leg healed.
Mrs. Voss became more and more nervous as the days passed. “What will become of us if the police find Antonio here?” she demanded of her husband.
The doctor didn’t answer. But Antonio saw the reproach in her eyes every time she looked at him. He prepared to leave the village as soon as he could walk without a limp again.
“Don’t go!” Lena said plaintively as he was packing. She had grown fond of the big man with the long hair and twinkling black eyes. Even Mrs. Voss, despite her fears, was sad to see him go. But late one night Dr. Voss walked with him out the back gate of the clinic and down the trail to the river.
“Make no mistake,” Antonio told him. “The government has MIR on the run. They will flee southward and into the mountains. You will see more men like me before this war is over.” He solemnly shook the doctor’s hand. “Adiós, my friend. We will meet again.”