PC 89 Franco’s Santiago
Hello! My name’s Franco and I work as a tour guide in Santiago, the city of my birth. Tuesday I agree with Alberto that he would take the Spanish-speaking tourists and I would do the tour in English. By the time I get to the meeting point in front of the cathedral in the Plaza des Armes, a German couple are already there; five minutes before the tour starts, an English-speaking couple arrive in a bit of a lather, having been dropped off by the taxi driver three blocks away at 0950. Five minutes after the tour is due to start three Brazilians saunter up, chatting on their phones, not realising they are late; well, what’s late to a Brazilian? Anyway, enough of moaning, I welcome them, explain it’s a ‘free’ tour but ask they show their appreciation at the end. Oh! And they can’t miss me in my red T shirt with ‘Free Tour’ emblazoned across the front.
For the next four hours I take this motley multinational group, some 30 people, around the central part of Santiago. I hope I’ve learned enough about the history of my city and country to make it interesting. I am no expert although I know if one says anything with enough conviction people will believe you! We move off across the Plaza to a statue in one corner and I start: “General Pedro da Valdiva, regarded as the founder of the city of Santiago, sits here on his horse, immortalised in bronze; you may notice that strangely the horse has no saddle or tackle! The year is 1541, the year the city was established by the Spanish. Valdiva took a fifteen year old Mapuche slave as his personal aide and over a few months taught him to ride. So good was the indigenous native he was put in charge of the general’s stables. But the smart chap escaped, with all the horses, returned to his tribe, taught them about Spanish tactics in warfare and successfully engaged the invader in numerous battles. As a result, Spanish rule didn’t extend south of Santiago for more than two hundred years.” Satisfied they all seem to understand, my English not being 100%, we set off to the opposite corner of the plaza for here is a lovely sculpture of a Mapuches native, although to add authenticity it’s cracked and off centre, as if damaged in an earthquake.
Back to the script: “These Indians remained a real headache for the Chilean government for over two hundred years until eventually the order went out to exterminate them. A severed head had a bounty on it; women were enslaved.” (Ed.
The European empire builders have a sorry record of treating the indigenous people cf The Aboriginals in Tasmania) “Chile eventually stretched south right down through Patagonia to the tip of South America and was granted independence from Spain in 1810.”
A rather plump lady asks why is it called Chile. “Well, actually in the Inca language the word for cold is ‘chile’!” Some laughter ripples around the group.
The tour takes in the obvious buildings a state capital must have, eg the Opera House, the Stock Exchange but I sense they are rather underwhelmed by these Baroque buildings. The centre of the city is, I know, a little uninspiring, block after block of close streets, of choking endless traffic ….. and waiting at pedestrian lights to see the little running green man! So much of the shopping takes place in little arcades hidden away from the hot sun. And it is hot today; 36C! After a while I notice the group is slightly smaller (either the hot sun taking its toll or the fact that my ‘free’ tour was coming to an end and it had been made clear a ‘donation’ was expected!!)
Of course I had to cover the political stories of the C20th as, although the names of Allende and Pinochet were probably well known, I needed to be sure they really grasped what happened. “On 1st September 1971 Salvador Allende, a left leaning politician, became president, elected on a platform of social reform, not through the use of violence but through social gatherings and discussion – ‘with wine not guns’. At this time the geopolitical world was often split into either extreme right wing or extreme left wing governments Eg Castro’s Cuba, Franco’s Spain, Soares’ Portugal, Mao’s China, Nixon’s USA. For two years the right wing, both in Chile and abroad, plotted to undermine Allende’s economic plans to create a more equal society. The USA were particularly concerned as they had invested heavily in Chile and were worried that the socialist government would nationalise foreign-owned companies. There was huge American CIA involvement and copies of letters from Richard Nixon, urging the right wing to act, lie in the State archives.
Two years after coming to power, in 1973, Allende’s economic strategy was in ruins and the people disgruntled. General Pinochet, as Head of the Army, gave Allende an ultimatum: “You have two hours to get out of the palace.” Tanks and snipers appeared around the building.
At this particular moment on my tour, we are standing in front of this presidential palace, Palacio La Moneda. I look at the group and they clearly are imagining the armoured vehicles and soldiers and feeling the sense of drama. “Allende gave one last TV address from his office and was either killed when the airforce bombed the building or committed suicide. “Placed in an historic transition,” he said, “I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life.” He was 63! Another pivotal ’11th of September’ as the coup d’ état ushered in a military dictatorship under General Pinochet.”
Pinochet’s rule ran for almost twenty years. According to Thor Halvorssen, President of the Human Rights Foundation:
“He shut down parliament, suffocated political life, banned trade unions, and made Chile his sultanate. His government disappeared 3,200 opponents, arrested 30,000 (torturing thousands of them) … Pinochet’s name will forever be linked to the Desaparecidos, the Caravan of Death, and the institutionalised torture that took place in the Villa Grimaldi complex.”
In addition he changed the Constitution in 1980 so that he could remain influential if he stepped down. And step down he did, after enormous pressure from the international community, in 1990. The new Constitution allowed him to take up his old position of Commander-in-chief of the Army and he later become a state senator, eventually dying aged 92. (See note)”
“Why is there an Avenue de Bernado O’Higgins?” asks a tall gaunt chap with an umbrella to shield him from the sun. “Well, it’s named after a very successful ruler in the early decades of Chile.” “Not Irish then?” “No! Spanish.”
I get quite animated telling the story of coffee in Chile. “It may surprise you to know that coffee was not drunk in Chile until the 1970s when instant coffee first appeared. Then an enterprising woman opened a coffee shop but it was short lived because the coffee was not sweet enough. A different coffee shop developed, one run by woman and staffed by women, where you could have a coffee – but the attraction was not really the coffee, it was the fact that it was served by scantily clad girls, who would come and chat to you while you drank your coffee. These establishments have darkened windows so outsiders could not see what was going on inside.” We were walking through a shopping arcade at the time and I point out just such a coffee shop; some of the group sneak a peep when the door opened, sure enough ……! I assume they think sexism is rife throughout Chilean culture today, but then I tell them that Starbucks has recently opened outlets in the capital which is challenging this somewhat outdated enterprise.
I take them out into Parque Forestal, firstly to the German fountain and then the French one, both given to mark the centenary of the nation in 1910. Many statesmen came to Santiago but sadly the president, Pedro Montt, died on 16 August, four days before the celebrations …… so they went to his funeral ….. and that of his Vice President Fernandez Albano who died four days later! Subsequent gatherings were somewhat muted! (Ed Compare this with what happened in England. Queen Victoria died in 1901. The coronation of Edward VII was due to take place in London on 26 June 1901and the kings and queens, emperors and empresses, presidents and prime ministers from around the world converged on the capital city. Edward suddenly had to have an emergency appendix operation on 24th June and the whole thing was postponed for a month. Imagine the chaos!)
The Canadian couple from a cruise ship docked at Valparaiso (ed. some 120 kms away on the coast) ask how often I do the tour. “Every day apart from Sunday.”
Just to the east of Parque Forestal there’s a rather strange looking office building, the home of Movistar, a communications company. It dates from 1993, and was designed to look like a …. mobile telephone …….. and clearly is now very dated!!
We pass numerous street dogs and there is obvious concern; more for these unfortunate animals than for the street-living humans, of which there are many. Proudly I tell them that a neighbourhood would adopt the local dogs, raise money for vet’s bills, and build a shelter in the nearest park so they had somewhere to sleep when it was cold or wet. Lovely idea huh!
“What’s the mainstay of the Chilean economy?” asks the Englishman. “Copper” I say, “it’s mined out in the northern deserts.”
During the wander through the crowded streets I’ve pointed out the street stalls selling watermelon drinks, the stalls selling sweet pancakes …. and at about 1230 we stop by a restaurant in Barrio Lastarria for a 30 minute break (Well, I know the owner and he gives me a percentage; helps my bank balance!) I tell them we Chileans love sweet stuff. Ordinary beer is too bitter so we add Fanta! A real favourite dish is beef, French fries, fried eggs, fried onions, topped with corn purée with sugar on top and then placed under the grill. You have heard of Piscosour; here we take Peruvian Pisco, lemon sugar and ice and then, as that’s too sour, add Coca Cola.
Santiago does have a river, the Mapocho, but it is very fast flowing and muddy ……. a little like an open sewer and not attractive at all. We cross over it on our way to Barrio Bellavista. (Ed. Most capital cities of the world stand on a major river or on the coast of their countries. I say most, as I can immediately think of Canberra and Brazilia which don’t but they were artificially created, if I can use that expression)
Four hot and dusty hours later, we finish the tour at the home of the mistress of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. (Ed. Famous to those who love poetry, I guess) La Chascona ( meaning a woman with unruly red hair) was actually Matilde Umutia ….. but then you probably knew that as well? I thank them for their attention; well thank those who have lasted to the end, stress the ‘donations keep this business going’ aspect of the ‘Free Tour’ and hope I’ll see them again. Another group tomorrow!
Franco/Richard 3rd February 2017
Ed. Note: Those of my readers who live in the UK may remember when Pinochet was in London for some medical procedure in 1998 …… and was arrested on the orders of a Spanish judge on charges under international Human Rights laws ……. He was placed under ‘house arrest’ until the then Home Secretary, a chap called Jack Straw, under huge pressure to either release him or send him to Spain, after 16 months ordered him free to return to Chile on compassionate grounds. In 2004, four years after his return to Chile, he was arrested to stand trial for some 300 criminal charges; he died two years later.