Viviana’s silence

At 14, Viviana Fernandez was imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile. For three decades she did not touch the topic, not wanting to aggravate her family’s discrimination and isolation. Many of the 1000 children, that were imprisoned under Pinochet, are traumatized until now. Today Viviana helps other former child prisoners to improve their self-esteem and to be recognized for their political resistance.

published on Peace Boat’s website on February 14, 2013 Peace Boat el 21 febrero 2013 >> and in Spanish >>

Valparaiso is stunningly beautiful – that makes it even more difficult to imagine its dark past during the Pinochet years

When looking over the beautiful city of Valparaiso with its many hills, Viviana Fernández’ glance inevitably stops at Artillería Hill and she shivers slightly. The sun illuminates a large building complex surrounded by rampant green – what seems to be an idyllic place for tourists is a nightmare for her. When she was 14 years old, agents of dictator Augusto Pinochet invaded her neighbourhood on Florida Hill and abducted her together with her sister to the infamous prison on Artillería Hill, Silva Palma. “They came at night” she recalls during a meeting with Peace Boat participants. “They took us with them without giving any explanation to our parents.” At the time, the teenage Viviana was distributing newspapers for a communist youth group, which had supported Salvador Allende before the military overthrew his government in the 1973 coup d’état. “They interrogated and tortured me for one week, day and night. Food came irregularly, like a favour. And I was constantly afraid of being raped.” She was released after one week, but the military did its best to exclude her from her former peer groups. “I was prohibited from returning to high school and had to regularly confirm my presence in a police station for one year. Our neighbours and relatives treated me with mistrust; they stopped visiting and inviting us” she remembers. Fortunately the director of her school also sympathized with Allende’s supporters and secretly gave her lessons in his office for one year, which allowed her to finish high school. “Given the level of discrimination and isolation we were facing, my parents asked me to silence this topic” Viviana Fernández says, running her hand over her lips as if to close a zipper. “For thirty years, we never touched it again.”

  Viviana Fernández shared her testimony with Peace Boat participants. She was only 14 years old, when she was imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile. Today she coordinates a group of former child prisoners (“Agrupación de Ex-menores Víctimas de Prisión Política y Tortura”)

Valparaiso is among the ports that Peace Boat visits most frequently. In the last four years alone, the organisation has been to Pablo Neruda’s beautiful home town twelve times. In 2010 the big Chilean earthquake happened just two days before the scheduled arrival and made it impossible for the 68th Voyage to land. Instead passengers collected clothes and money which were delivered via the UPA program in a small boat to the population in need. During the 78th Voyage a group of participants learnt about the consequences of the Pinochet dictatorship which shook Chile more than any earthquake ever could. From 1973 until the referendum, which made Augusto Pinochet step off in 1990, thousands of Chileans were imprisoned and tortured for political reasons. “They abducted children, women and men – everyone could be an Allendista. They didn’t spare anybody” emphasized Nelson Cabrera, founder of Peace Boat’s partner organisation Cine Forum during a lunch at his organisation. “I lived in a capsule for thirty years” Viviana Fernández continued. “Nobody knew what I have gone through.” But when Chile opened its first National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture in 2003, her hopes flew high. For the first time she met with her sister and her mother to talk about what had happened. But as many victims she found the results of the two so-called Valech Commissions – named after their head, Bishop Sergio Valech – disappointing. Whereas ex-political prisoners groups have counted 400,000 victims of torture according to the UN definition of torture, the Valech Commission has only acknowledged 38,254 victims. “Our government still tries to minimize what has been” criticised Nelson Cabrera, who himself was a political prisoner. “It does not want to interfere with the Armed Forces.”

Nelson Cabrera, founder of Peace Boat’s local partner Cine Forum, invited participants for a lunch at his organisation

When Pinochet’s air force was bombing the Palacio de la Moneda in 1973, president Salvador Allende announced through his radio “I am going to die now but some day in Chile there will be democracy again!” Chile officially returned to democracy in 1990, but the dictatorship traumatized a whole generation and its legacy remains. Unlike in Argentina, where the former ESMA torture camp was handed over to the public in 2007, Silva Palma is still a school of the Chilean Navy. Until today the Piñera government has rejected the demand of victim groups to transform it into a human rights museum. “The civilians who assisted in detainments and torture still run freely” Viviana Fernández asserted, mentioning people who have recognized their torturers in the street. “They are not being tried and remain in political power. There is impunity in Chile today.” The testimony of victims given in the Valech Commission cannot be used in trials as it is kept secret for 50 years – in contrast to the Archives of Terror concerning Paraguay and Argentina. Today the 53-year-old coordinates a group of former child prisoners (“Agrupación de Ex-menores Víctimas de Prisión Política y Tortura”). The Valech Report has recognized 1080 minors, who were detained underage like Viviana Fernández or who were born in prison – some of them as a result of rape. “Many children have suffered traumas and carried a heavy burden over all these years” Viviana Fernández emphasized. “They tend to mistrust people, isolate themselves socially, have low self-esteem and a guilty conscience. We try to give them social, judicial and psychological support. But the victims still lack public attention and a moral compensation. Until today it has never been publicly recognized that we were imprisoned because of our political ideas and not because we committed a delinquency. We do not even have a place for our reunions, although we were asking for the return of workers’ houses which were expropriated during the dictatorship. Especially the Piñera government makes it very difficult for us.”

Student leader Carla Amtmann (left) and her three year old daughter Amuda put cranes delivered by Peace Boat participants on the memorial for victims of the Pinochet military regime

But there is a gleam of hope. 2013 is to become a memorable year for post-Pinochet Chile. Forty years after the coup d’état, activists have finally achieved two big successes: Former military officers will be tried and Pablo Neruda’s body will be exhumed in March to investigate the reasons for his sudden death. The famous Chilean writer was number two in the alliance of socialist and communist party on which Allende presided. A week after the coup, the military took him to the hospital by ambulance where he died shortly afterwards – allegedly by cancer. But many are convinced that he has been poisoned – among them Neruda’s last assistant Manuel Araia, himself also a victim of torture. “We got his call few hours before his death” he told Peace Boat participants when they visited a former camp for political prisoners. “Neruda asked us to come to the hospital immediately. ‘A doctor is giving me an injection into my belly and I have high fever’ he said.” Manuel Araia – in formal suit and manners – has dedicated his life to find out the reason for the death of Neruda, whom he honours as “the greatest writer of all times, not only in Chile but the world”. He has recently published a book about the case. “I have fought for the exhumation for decades, for me it is one more step more towards justice.”

The tour visited a former prison where Pinochet’s military tortured political opponents, among them Nelson Cabrera. It now serves as a cultural space and museum

In Valparaiso, Peace Boat participants realized how the memory of the dictatorship shapes the political campaigns for the upcoming presidential elections in November. “Our human rights have been systematically violated, not only during the dictatorship but also during allegedly democratic times” claimed the independent candidate Marcel Claude during a peace ceremony, which was held at the memorial for victims of the Pinochet military regime. “The persecution of the Mapuche, the repression of the 2011 student movements and the violation of essential rights to health and nutrition is nowadays just as strong as in the years of the dictatorship.” He promises his voters to renew the constitution, renationalise Chile’s large copper resources and introduce a public health and education system. “Chile is a big salt mine in which a small minority owns, invests and exploits all the resources” he criticized in his speech, indirectly hinting at right-wing president Sebastián Piñera (Coalición por el Cambio – Coalition for Change), who holds the stock of major companies. Prior to the visit, Peace Boat participants folded a thousand cranes for their partner organisation Cine Forum and attached them to the memorial. The crane is a symbol of peace in Japan; a legend goes that for one thousand cranes a wish will be fulfilled. “We have lost our hope that this government or the governments to come are going to solve Chile’s problems” added student leader Carla Amtmann in a passionate speech, which reminded people of Camilla Vallejo, the famous leader of the 2011 student movements. “We have to take them into our own hands and fight against capitalism and neoliberalism as a people.”

  While the Ocean Dream was lying in the port of Valparaiso, presidential candidate Marcel Claude (independent) visited the vessel and held a speech. Chile has elections in November 2013

The coastal wind rattles the roof panels of the Valparaiso prison, which was converted into a cultural centre at the turn of the century. It resembled the sound of chains and brings back the memory of the 1,000 political prisoners that were kept here annually during the dictatorship. One of them was Nelson Cabrera, who was part of a resistance movement. “By committing acts of sabotage on the military equipment, we tried to spread hope among the oppressed population, which was suffering from a shock after the coup.” After 18 months in prison, he was sentenced to leave the country for 12 years by a council of war. “But I didn’t leave.” He smiles for the first time. “I went underground and they never found me. The photograph they had of me looked very different.” An accident he had at that time helped him to change his physiognomy. When his face had to be operated, he convinced the doctors to do plastic surgery. Nelson Cabrera let his beard grow, acquired a new identity as “Jorge Garcia” and never stayed in a flat longer than two months. At the end of the dictatorship he founded Cine Forum, a collective which produces and shows alternative cinema. To support their local partners, Peace Boat delivered six digital and two video cameras as well as 13 video tapes via the UPA program, which Nelson Cabrera happily accepted. He finished a script to produce a film about his years in prison and underground – but the governmental foundations have declined to give him any subvention.