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Chile: Two Months of Protests and a Little-Known Story of International Solidarity

When I received my Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1970, I could not have envisaged that a few years later, I would become a political prisoner in my native Chile. Nor could I have imagined that Henry Kissinger would get my case into his hands as a result of UC’s intervention. 

On December 15, 1974 (forty-five years ago), I was abducted by Pinochet’s infamous DINA secret police. I was first taken to a torture house in south-east Santiago, Chile’s capital, known as “La Discothèque” or “Venda Sexy” (Sexy Blindfold). 

Later, I spent five months in three concentration camps in Santiago and the Valparaíso region: Cuatro Álamos, Puchuncaví, and Tres Álamos. My wife Nora Guillén, a ballet dancer, was also imprisoned for political reasons and followed a similar path. Neither she nor I was charged with any offense.

Thanks to the diligence of colleagues at the University of Chile, the news of my detention promptly reached my former Ph.D. supervisor at Berkeley, the late Professor Alan Portis, who convened UC authorities to discuss my case. 

In parallel, a group of over 100 European scientists wired Pinochet, demanding my release. The arts community also rallied, organizing a dance gala in Mexico City’s National Auditorium to raise awareness of my wife’s situation. 

The news of my detention hit Washington via UCLA’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Elwin Svenson, who at the time chaired a well-established scientific exchange program between the University of California and the University of Chile.

The following day, Los Angeles Times ran an article on UC’s decision to sever links with Chile, citing UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young’s concerns about my disappearance

A Kissinger cable dated January 8, 1975, shows that Professor Svenson notified the U.S. Department of State that the University of California would suspend all future activities of the Chile-California exchange program until it received positive information on my whereabouts. Mr. Kissinger advised the U.S. Embassy in Chile to alert the Chilean authorities of this development. 

The following day, Los Angeles Times ran an article on UC’s decision to sever links with Chile, citing UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young’s concerns about my disappearance, which he saw as a threat to the exchange program with Chile. A week later, the L.A. Times piece was read in full in a U.S. Congress speech by George E. Brown, Jr., California’s Member of the House of Representatives. Pointing to the fact that the passage of time diminishes emotional and intellectual reactions to events, Mr. Brown urged his fellow Representatives not to forget the Chilean people. 

Indeed, sixteen months had passed since Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973, and the continuous violations of human rights in my country were not receiving as much international attention as in the first months of the dictatorship. 

However, in my case and that of my wife, the combined efforts of UC and the scientific and arts communities succeeded in generating significant media attention, obtaining our release as well as refugee visas for us to temporarily move to the U.S. We were lucky to be rescued. Yet thousands were not, including the U.S. journalist Charles Horman, imprisoned in the National Stadium of Chile, whose murder was the subject of the 1982 film Missing by Costa Gavras.

Nowadays, information about the trampling of human rights publicly circulates in Chile, as opposed to the dictatorship years

Michael Lazzara, Professor of Spanish and Human Rights Studies at the University of California, Davis, comments that my case “speaks to the University of California’s longstanding track record of defending human rights in the face of tyranny, violence, and injustice. 

Now that we see human rights being violated again in Chile—in the context of ongoing massive protests against socioeconomic inequality—many UC faculty are discussing what’s happening with students and raising their voices in solidarity to defend the culture of human rights that average Chileans have fought tirelessly for decades to build.”

Nowadays, information about the trampling of human rights publicly circulates in Chile, as opposed to the dictatorship years, when it was forbidden. This is why it is widely known that in the last two months, twenty-three people have died and 3,449 have been injured, according to official figures. Alarmingly, hundreds of protesters have been shot in the eye by the police, making Chile the country with the world record number of eye injuries

No doubt that the Chilean people will continue to fight against abuse and the vast income gap that divides rich and poor people. Our strong wish is that the human toll of this struggle will not be even heavier than it has been so far. International pressure may play a decisive role to accomplish this wish.

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