frontline issue 3

Bullet-holes and watering-holes

Simon Whittle recently spent some time in Chile. So we asked him to give us his impressions of Santiago.

My first impressions of Santiago de Chilé were formed in the back of a taxi, hurtling down a bumpy road near the airport at breakneck speed towards the city centre. I could just make out the painted murals lining the walls that separate the freeway from the suburbs it cuts through. Beside the heroic looking images are messages of hope for the poor. Who are these heroes? Allende? Victor Jara? Lenin? (Oh, nearly.) John Lennon and Bob Marley, actually. 'Imagine no religion' and 'Stand up for your rights' are among the slogans that (unofficially) welcome you to Chilé.

Salvador Allende is the big man when it comes to Chiléan heroes, though. His statue proudly stands in the left hand corner of the square outside the recently rebuilt façade of the Moneda Palace. There are plans to erect a statue of Pinochet in the right hand corner when he dies. The majority oppose these plans. The dictator is already commemorated in the bullet holes that remain in the walls of the buildings surrounding the Moneda.

The National Historical Museum, on the Plaza de Armas, has a section that details the country's political history throughout the 20th century. It charts Allende's place in history in becoming the world's first democratically elected Marxist president in 1970, and the violent military coup that overthrew him. Also on display are the remains of Allende's spectacles - half a pair with a cracked lens - a poignant artefact recovered from the ruins of the Moneda Palace in September 1973.

While I was over, President Lagos of the 'Socialist' Party was busy buying warplanes from George W Bush in Washington DC. While he was away we had a riot. One day, I woke up to the sound of riot police jogging down a road in formation. I switched on the TV to see pictures of school kids in slums declaring a strike and demonstrations in protest at bus-pass prices rocketing beyond affordability. I caught up with the peaceful demo as it marched into the city centre. As thousands of students aged 13-16 were about to head in the direction of the Moneda Palace the air became heavy with tear-gas and guanacos (literally 'llamas' - armoured water cannon vehicles, named after Chilé's spitting mammal) began circling the protestors.

Panic ensued. I attempted to follow dozens of kids into a nearby shop, darting through six lanes of heavy, speeding traffic, only to see the shutters slamming down once it was full. So about 50 of us 'hid' behind a bus shelter to avoid the jets of the guanacos. (The water was treated with raw sewage and acid - as my bleached clothes will testify.) Taxi drivers showed support for the schoolchildren by sounding their horns and some blocked off the water cannons whenever they could while kids threw stones at the police vehicles. The 'manifestacion' lasted about half an hour, with dozens of arrests before the police tear-gassed the area so heavily that the crowds dispersed. The student strike lasted three weeks. A crisis meeting of education and transport ministers later decided that bus-pass prices would not increase until November 2002.

Demos aside, Santiago is one laid-back city - and there are plenty of watering holes to lie back in. The national tipple is 'pisco' - a spirit distilled from grapes - which (at 40-45 percent proof) is usually served by the half-tumbler full with either cola (to make 'piscola') or with lemon juice and salt (to make 'pisco sour').The Piojera (or 'Nithouse') is the place to go if you want a bit of diversity. Musicians, businessmen, tramps, tourists and politicians (even the President) drink there. When they're not talking art, football or politics, they're playing guitars and harps, singing, or just clapping or banging the tables along to the songs of Victor Jara or Violeta Parra. If good-natured mayhem isn't your scene, then a quieter option might be one of the hundreds of café/bars in town. I found a nice little one called San Remo, which is open 24 hours a day. There the staff shoo away stray dogs (there are thousands of them in Santiago - if you feed them, they'll be your pal all day) and welcome tramps in for a plate of food.

There's no unemployment benefit in Chilé. One girl told me that up to a dozen people a week take their lives by throwing themselves under the Santiago subway trains. The Communist Party is presently trying to get benefit legislation through the parliament. The minimum wage is around £125 per month, but many people survive on a lot less - shining shoes, selling bootleg CDs and tapes, begging...

There are a huge number of men and boys who spend all day jumping from bus to bus selling chocolate, chewing gum, ice cream and even coat hangers. Musicians also busk on buses.

And so to football. Chilé has its own Old Firm-style rivalry in the shape of Colo Colo and Universidad de Chilé. Local teams up and down the country lose support to the oligopoly of Colo and 'U', although Catolica, Spanish Union and Palestino (formed by Palestinian immigrants) are doing okay. Bizarrely, I noticed a few Chiléans in Rangers shirts, due to Sebastian Rosentahl's stay at Ibrox. Some friends asked me to go to see Chilé play Uruguay in a World Cup qualifier. But when I found out it was being played in the national stadium, I had to decline for political reasons. Having met people who had been prisoners there, I would have felt uncomfortable, maybe even angry, that people were cheering on the very terraces where so many decent socialists were murdered in cold blood.