By December 1989, our family had settled into our new home in Las Condes and we were enjoying everything the country had to offer. Brian and I had finished one of our shortest school years on record and focused on the important things such as our swimming pool, piano classes, encyclopedia games and major GI Joe battles. Spring and summer had finally arrived and transformed our backyard into the ultimate playground. With the tedium of homework out of the way, Brian and I had time to invest in Chilean television. We watched American cartoons dubbed in Spanish, a major Latin American trend, el Chavo del ocho and El Chapulin Colorado, some quality Mexican television widely exported to the Spanish-speaking world, and other favourites such as Thundercats. I also liked to watch a Chilean mid-day sitcom called Los Venegas, a show that introduced a new concept of compadre and comadre to my vocabulary. My Dad on the other hand was hard at work in the Embassy and when he came home, my brother and I enjoyed hanging around with him. We watched movies and the evening news with him.
|El Chavo del Ocho cast left to right: |
Sr. Barriga, Doña Florinda, El Chavo, Profesor Jirafales, la Chilindrina, Don Ramón and La Bruja del 71.
The quality time spent with my father, watching the news broadcasts and interaction with our neighbours and friends, I was feeding my desire for information and gained significant knowledge about the political world. I understood that the man in charge was a military general, Augusto Pinochet but never really understood at the time how he came to power. Most people were not comfortable talking about the subject. My parents mentioned to Brian and I that this was sensitive subject matter and as guests in Chile, we should avoid getting involved in local politics particularly with anyone outside our household. I understood this as a prudent restriction but was unaware of the consequences if I did not oblige. Therefore, I decided to follow my parents’ instructions and directed most of my questioning to my Dad. The rise to power of General Augusto Pinochet still remains a controversial topic and continues to create a strong divide between Chileans of different ideologies. Salvador Allende was president during the 1970s and as head of state had implemented policies forwarding land redistribution, promotion of workers’ rights, nationalization of financial institutions and copper mines. These wide-scale reforms alarmed the conservative elite - including the fact he had aligned himself with Castro and the USSR - and caused a major flight of capital which lead to an overall collapse of the national economy. The US government feared a domino effect - Cold War terminology postulating that if one country fell to communism, it would spread to neighbouring countries - in Latin America, a region it considered its sphere of influence. General strikes and civil disorder were spreading throughout the country, leading to an increasingly difficult socio-political environment for Allende to govern. As the turmoil and general discontent increased, the army stormed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, ousting Allende and installing Pinochet and his military junta.
Chile had undergone 16 years of military rule by the time we had arrived. The Pinochet regime, under both domestic and foreign pressure, engaged the population through a plebiscite in 1988 proposing another 8 years of military government. 56% of the population rejected the continuation of the military rule in favour of democratic elections. Pinochet and his government remained in control of the government for another year setting the stage for open elections for the end of 1989. This was where the Bickfords fit into the story. As a family, we were witnessing history in the making. It was evident that the citizens were overjoyed to see a return to a political world and possessing once again the ability to determine their political future. Even children had exercised their political voice, including my brother and I. The main candidates in this election were Hernán Büchi leader of the right-wing Democracy and Progress Party and Patricio Aylwin, head of the center left Christian Democrats. My brother supported El Pato and I had identified with Büchi. Of course Brian and I had no clue about their electoral platforms or campaign promises but this did not stand in the way of our newfound passion for this process. My parents noticed the interest we had developed for this event so they provided us with stickers, flags and banners for our parties to use freely in our home. They encouraged our longing for awareness and participation.
To my misfortune, my beloved candidate was not the winner. That honour was instead trusted to Patricio Aylwin and his Christian Democrat party. My father was a senior political officer in the Canadian Embassy during this posting and understood the importance of these results, the potential outcome for Chile and what could be expected for the country’s future. Brian and I did not have such an in-depth understanding. Nevertheless, our political appetite and curiosity was going to be further rewarded. The Embassy was temporarily without an Ambassador, so my father was Chargé d’Affaires and as such, his obligations included attending the usual engagements of an ambassador. This meant that he had to attend an important event and brought along his three closest companions: Maman, Brian and I. The four of us were now headed to see Aylwin in person as he was delivering his victory speech as the newly elected head of state in front of a selected audience of bureaucrats and foreign dignitaries – much like my introduction speech when I arrived to the Alliance. We had excellent front-row seats, so close to El Pato that we could perceive the facial expression that accompanied his every word. General Augusto Pinochet was present as well, which was quite an excitement after having seen him on television. After the speeches came to their conclusion, he graced the public with his presidential wave and proceeded to shake people’s hands, including mine. I felt so honoured!
|General Augusto Pinochet handing over government to Patricio Aylwin|
Patricio Aylwin was inaugurated as Chile 31st President on March 11, 1990. Although many Chileans at home and abroad celebrated this return to democracy, Pinochet made it clear he would remain as a defender of the country and its interests. General Augusto Pinochet was to continue his role as Commander of the Army and a Senator for life. As I approached the end of my 8th years and began my 9th, I developed an interest in politics as I realized the potential wide scale impact policies politics could have and how important a role governments and leaders could play. The Caracazo in Venezuela was still a fresh memory and now being a witness to the beginning of the end of the military era in Chile provided another. I noticed that there existed sensitive issues that sometimes people had to take a neutral stance. I understood that as a foreigner, I should not meddle in other people's affairs as it would reflect poorly on my country and my parents. Limiting my behaviour was extremely important as I was also in some shape or form representing my own country. I knew most kids my age did not have to adhere to such protocol and had not enjoyed the kind of exposure I did through my father’s devoted work for his own government.