In the early 1990s, as the military began to loosen its grip on the daily life of the Chilean population, leftist groups increase their level of activity. As is the case in several countries around the globe, Americans were often targeted for violence or intimidation. Over the past decades, US foreign policy has met with firm international opposition as the USA is perhaps the most visible power engaged in foreign conflicts. Many believe the Americans should limit their external involvement and desist from engaging in armed conflicts. When such governments take a major international role fostering international friendships become an uphill battle. Leftist movements such as the Movimiento Juvenil Lautaro and the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez were active in Chile and well known in the local diplomatic circles for their ideologies. These groups had organized strategic hits on US Embassy personnel, American military officers, Chilean politicians and other elements viewed as pro-American or Pinochet. Chilean security forces and their ranks remained unchanged from the Pinochet regime providing a loyal conservative right-wing opposition to the communist guerrilla. Their priorities still included fighting subversives and insurgency in order to demonstrate that the police and army could still enforce order at any cost.
|The Chilean Carabineros|
Members of the expat community were aware of the potential dangers of the ongoing left right struggle. Everyone eventually heard the horror stories through the grapevine rather than through the evening news. The country’s media was effectively managed in order to avoid spreading panic to their viewers. We were by no means living in a state of civil war but we had to be aware there were potential dangers. Many of the national newspapers, television channels and radio stations had been cleansed of left-wing personalities and were controlled by the upper class elite. These wealthy business entrepreneurs had supported the military government and had no interest in a return to the pre-coup socialist chaos. On rare occasions, we could hear a blast going off near our home followed by a power outage, a chain of events we were easily able to connect as cause and effect. Somehow, no news coverage could be found following these events as to what caused the blast or power failure. Both the MJL and the FPMR would take credit for their successful hits but their statements seemed to be burried deep in the Ministry of Interior. This was a perfect example of controlled access to the media and minor tweaking to freedom of speech ensuring minimal social collateral damage. This reminds me of one of the greatest riddles that used to circulate among my friends: “If a tree falls in middle of nowhere without a single person around to witness it, does it still make any noise?” In other words, if an event does not get media coverage did it just never happen?
Much of the unpublished news my family was able to obtain seemed to originate from the expat circles. I also heard interesting stories when I was older about some of the attacks in Santiago and remember these events in a similar fashion to the Pulp Fiction movie: many stories told in a different order making sense once all of these have been revisited. Among these stories is one my Dad shared with me about an attack on US military personnel as they exited the Embassy grounds. A leftist rebel, armed with an anti-tank rocket launcher waited across the street for the Americans’ vehicle to be in plain sight. Once the freedom fighter had the target locked, he opened fire shooting a rocket that pierced the thick windshield. Inside the vehicle sat two officers looking at the rocket which stared right back at them from the windshield and failed to detonate on impact. My father explained that some armaments require a significant distance between the target and the shooter in order for the explosives on the rocket to arm. In this instance, the weapon would not arm due to the short distance from the target, therefore, no ensuing detonation. Our American neighbours were extremely lucky the terrorist had not calculated an appropriate distance to his target and lived to share the tale of the failed assassination attempt. Others were not blessed with a similar fortune and regardless of their national origin or political allegiance, left families with a difficult wound to heal.
The event that hit closest to home happened during a softball game. The Americans in Santiago used to organize events for their nationals and Canadians were sometimes extended an invitation. This included a weekend amateur softball league comprised of various expat teams, from US Marines to Mormon missionaries, and Canada fielded a team that season. Some of the players were Canadian Embassy staff, others were business people or players’ friends. During my own competitive experience with these types of tournaments, the emphasis for Canadians seemed to be on enjoyment and camaraderie rather than becoming champions. Other teams gauge their aspirations in accordance to their common mentality, as there are always people who prefer winning as a means for having fun. Our Canadians were in action on a weekly basis yet my family and I never went to watch the games. My father did not seem to enjoy playing organized sports at the time either. In a match played on a weekend of November 1990, my family was enjoying a quiet weekend together in our Las Condes home. In the afternoon, a phone call came in for my Dad, which seemed to strike everyone as odd. Generally, my father was free on weekends and emergencies were usually attended by consular officers. He rushed off having been asked to go to a hospital yet he was not quite sure why that was. He knew a colleague, Pierre Alarie was among the people in the hospital and thought everything was quite weird. Pierre had a good level of Spanish to be able to handle any crisis.
|Arial view of the American school of Santiago's grounds|
My Dad explained later on that a bomb had gone off during the Canadian’s softball game, killing one Canadian player and injuring several Canadians and Americans. Apparently, a bomb had been planted in one of the aluminum bats used at the game. The bomb was intended to detonate during the following game where the US marine team had a game scheduled, but the Team Canada game had gone into extra innings. It appeared that an umpire had made a bad call or something of the sort, and had the Canadians riled up. They all left the bench to argue, except for a Canadian who sat in the bench next to the loaded bat and an American who was on deck warming up. Otherwise, perhaps more people would have died or suffered injuries. Pierre Alarie was hit by debris on the back of the head, Frank Arsenault had his foot injured by shrapnel and an American lost an eye. The Canadian who died was a friend of Pierre who was only visiting Chile trying to find business opportunities and was never meant to be in the game. No terrorist group seemed to take credit for the attack, my Dad thinks because the Canadians were not the targets and as a result, the police never thoroughly investigated the event. I knew the two injured Canadians and I remember this event changed the way I would look at them forever. I remembered both fondly and ran into Pierre while working in Mexico in the early 2000s who praised my father for all his support with the bomb in Santiago. Frank had retired and worked on contract in Guatemala, which I found out also through work and sent him an e-mail. Although I had no political allegiance when I was 9 years-old, I understood human suffering, especially when they were people close to the family.