Andres Velasco – Ending Dictatorship and Building Democracy—With a Pencil

Andres Velasco – Ending Dictatorship and Building Democracy—With a Pencil


Good afternoon. My name is Andres Velasco. And I have a little secret to tell you. I was born in 1960, so my teenage years, my teenage decade, was the 1970s. In that decade my country, Chile, went first through hyper-inflation then through an economic crisis, then a collapse of democracy, a coup and then human rights violations, murder, torture, human disappearances. So I come from a generation of Chileans which is really shaped by two questions Question number one was: Why did that happen? Why did that happen in our country? Question number two: What do we do? What can we do to make sure it never happens again? When I was twelve, I remember standing in line to buy groceries. That was the period of the government of Salvador Allende which in Europe, most Europeans, most Americans think was an unusual socialist experiment. Most people in Chile, most middle class Chileans remember it as a time when inflation went up and you had to stand in line to get toilet paper, to get cooking oil, to get rice. Those were hard times for many people. And in the end, what happened, just like Ireland in that famous poem by Yeats the center did not hold, and things fell apart. When the coup came, it was not a surprise, but it had long been in the making. The country was split ideologically. People had one worldview, which is a closed system or a different world view, which is just as closed a system. People who didn’t think like you became not simply your competitor, they became your enemy. It was bound to end badly, and it ended with a collapse of democracy. But even though people might have expected, or foreseen what was about to happen the unspeakable violence of that coup was something that even for people who were involved in politics could not really anticipate or understand. I was 13 at the time of the coup, and I remember following my father to visit a neighbor on the morning of the coup. Very senior politician. And his name was being called over the airwaves, saying: come, turn yourself in at a military base. And this man, who knew a lot about politics, said: I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve done nothing wrong, so I will go turn myself in and will be back for lunch. Of course, he did turn himself in, but he was not back in for lunch. He was arrested, he was taken to a concentration camp, where he spent months and then released only into exile. And that was more or less what happened to a lot of people in that period of time. My father was a law professor, he was a lawyer. So when these horrific human rights violations became known he became the attorney to a lot of the victims, to a lot of the families. So, as a 12, 13, 14 year old boy, I began to know things I wasn’t supposed to know about. I remember, as a nosy kid, being in my father’s study and noticing an envelope, taking a peak and being shocked to find a picture of a woman, whose thigh had been burned with a hammer and sickle that had been burned with a hot iron by a military patrol. The same patrol that had taken her husband away in the middle of the night just a few days earlier. And these were things that were hard to convey. I was in a school that was only a mile or so from that place. That’s the place known to Chileans as Villa Grimaldi, a torture center where, in fact, Chile’s current President, Michelle Bachelet, was once held. And because of my family, because of what my father was doing I knew what went on there, and I tried telling people. My classmates, people in school. Frankly, they didn’t want to hear it. Maybe they couldn’t hear it. And that was the case for many people, because even under dictatorship even under very dire circumstances sometimes the truth is very disquieting. People just carry on. People fall in love, they marry, have kids, they worry about holding on to jobs they worry about their bills. Life goes on. And I think that in a sense, as much as naked and violent repression is what makes dictatorships lasting, what makes dictatorships have such lasting power. And things get mixed. I knew of a man who was held at a military base in Vina. Beautiful town in Chile’s central coast. He was tortured, and as he was dragged outside between the torture sessions he would sometimes be able to look down the hill, he would see the beach in the middle of the summer. People there lying on the sand, kids kicking a ball around. Talk about good and evil coexisting. I guess that’s what Hannah Arendt meant when she talked about the banality of evil in Nazi Germany. You know, torturers go home to their kids, other people who just lead normal lives go to the beach, while abuses are going on, just a few yards or a few miles away. My father, the man you see up there, was one of the many people many many people who were courageous and spoke up. And if you spoke up, you often paid for it. I was also playing football myself in school, when Friday afternoon, when a friend came in breathlessly saying: your father has been arrested, we have no idea where he is. And in fact we didn’t know where he was – for three days, until we suddenly get a phone call from my father, saying: I am in Argentina. But remember, this was 1976. This was the Argentina which has just had a coup, which was one of the darkest days of the dictatorship in Argentina, and Chileans got shipped to Argentina often to die in the streets of Buenos Aires. What saved my father was the intervention of the government of Venezuela. A Venezuela that was back then democratic. They, first of all, allowed him into the Venezuelan embassy, and then shipped him out into Caracas and he was safe. The government of Venezuela back then was a friend of many victims of dictatorship. In Chile, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Brazil. So many of us carry a very very big debt of gratitude to Venezuelan democracy then. And it is the debt of gratitude that we should remember and we should underline today when autocracy in Venezuela, when Chavista autocracy in Venezuela tramples upon democracy imprisons dissidents like Leopoldo Lopez, who spoke in this very same theatre a while ago and which has driven many thousands of Venezuelans out of the country. So, in 1976 my family and I were forced out of Chile. We went to the United States, where my father got a job teaching law, as he had done in Chile. And my parents had to live with the uncertainty the uncertainly of not knowing whether they would ever go back to their country. The parent’s generation was the unlucky generation. My sister and I, on the other hand after some difficult adjustment, went and had a privilege of being educated in some very good schools in the US. In some sense, our generation was the lucky generation. And I should say, that exile always lasts much longer than you think. I remember many a meeting of people of my parent’s generation at our house in which they would argue, and then they would get up with a vow. The vow is “By Christmas the dictatorship will be over.” But that was 1979, and Pinochet would hold on to power ruthlessly for another ten years, before being removed. And, in the end, he was removed. And when the dictatorship went, it did not go with a bang. It went with a whimper. It went in a very Chilean way. It went like that: people took a pencil, drew a line on a piece of paper, in this case – a ballot and voted a dictator out of office. You know, we, Chileans, are very legalistic. We are probably the most legalistic of Latin Americans. We like our change to be institutional usually with a lot of paperwork involved. So that’s what we did, and the dictator was voted out of office. I am sure there are other cases in history, but, to be honest, I can’t think of any right now. It was a very unusual experience. And it was an experience, that, of course, took some courage. Because the opposition, to which by then I actively belonged, had to courageously contest that election which is held by the rules that the opposition itself has not written, and if you do that – you can be accused of legitimizing the rules. But in this case it was a right choice, because you could compete under rules you did not make, but change the situation, stretch those rules beyond what is imaginable. Put an end to dictatorship, bring in democracy. Now, has anyone here seen a movie called “No?” It was nominated for an Oscar last year. Almost got it. You saw it, you will know the movie was all about how this campaign was crafted. There is a lot of disagreement among people inside the opposition. Traditional politicians wanted to have a traditional campaign, in which you took the dictatorship to task for its many horrific human rights violations. Of course we had to do that. But also there was something else to be done. People, young people, many fresh from exile, understood that there were many other issues one of them that people were scared. People were scared not only of what might happen to them if they voted against the regime. They were also scared of the fact, you know, violence could return economic dislocation could return. So you had to run a campaign which was reassuring hence the symbol. Nothing gets more reassuring that that, right? Many colors, many ideas. And, in fact – that’s exactly what happened. Reassurance, the promise of a different, better future won. And people voted ‘No.’ And on the night of the triumph of the ‘No’, of the end of the dictatorship many people, I was among them, marched in downtown Santiago, and things happened that I will never forget. This is one of many pictures. A woman in fact gave a policeman a flower. There were women, men, people giving the policemen guarding the presidential palace flowers. Those were the pictures that made it to the press the next morning. Since then, many things have happened in Chile. I don’t want to give you a sense that it’s been easy. Right after those events I remember somebody saying, hearing a very senior analyst say Now comes a really hard part. And in many ways it has. Chile elected five democratic presidents, including the first woman ever to be elected president in Chile, in South America. The country has moved forward. The country today has three times the per capita income of what we had many years ago Indicators of human development by the UN have all moved up. But of course big challenges remain. One of those challenges is that Chile remains a very unequal country. Public services are not what they should be. Discrimination still mires the landscape of daily life in Chile. But I am confident that even today, when Chile is in a very difficult political situation when institutions are being questioned, when credibility of institutions is being questioned and when polarization is again a threat, I am confident that Chile will keep moving forward. We paid a very dear political price for that division We paid a very dear political price for that polarization, for that view of other Chileans as enemies. And I am confident that we will make changes, and we will not again go that way. And the reason I am confident of that not so much ideology, but simply the common sense The solid common sense of many Chilean citizens. I was campaigning, I ran in a primary two years ago in Chile and I had a conversation with a woman in a market like that one in which I asked: what do you think of candidates and politicians who say they have the answers to all of your problems and they will solve everything in 10 minutes. She said: Look, I am 70 years old, I was a single mother, I had three kids, I had to work all my life but I got ahead. Things were hard. And when somebody comes and tells me that life is easy I simply don’t believe that person, I simply don’t believe that politician. It is that common sense, that, I think, allowed Chile to use a pencil, to draw a line and to end the dictatorship. And it is that pencil, it is that spirit, that, I am sure will keep us moving, and we will strengthen our democracy in the future. Thank you very much.

4 Comments on "Andres Velasco – Ending Dictatorship and Building Democracy—With a Pencil"


  1. This man was an outstanding finance minister in my country, who tackled succesfully the economic crisis between 2006 and 2010 during the Bachelet´s goverment. However, it worths to say he lacks closeness and empathy towards people to become a good president, he just is a well prepared economist and scholar, and over all, a good technocrat!!.

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  2. The incredible thing of all is that the civilians of Pinochet continuing of the country control while the soldier who receive order from them went to jail, This group of murderers of the shadow dared to form a political party called UDI, and all lived an minister senators, deputies, with a backpack of the human right violations and dirty conscience without repentance …

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  3. There was not a sharp transition, but rather what Alwyn did was to only carry on all of the economic policies put forward and set by the Chicago boys. Let’s be honest to ourselves, Chile were able to go ahead mainly because of Pinochet or else we would nowadays be like Venezuela or Cuba.

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  4. 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏APPLAUSE FOR THIS GENTLEMAN. Speaks English perfectly,I applause prepared politicians of Chile,my land.

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