Chile thriving after death of dictator

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Today, Pablo Neruda's house is filled with life once again as visitors from all over the world come daily to learn about the life and career of this highly partisan poet. Neruda embodied life, art and politics as one whole philosophy.

It was not by prior design that my partner and I landed in Chile only five days after the death of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Our tickets had been booked months in advance and it was just a happy coincidence that we were able to partake in a number of pisco sours (Chile's national drink) that were still being raised in celebratory toasts on the streets of Santiago.

Although Chile officially returned to democratic rule after the plebiscite in 1989, the exploits of the corrupt generalissimo continued to be international news through his period of house arrest in the UK in 1998 and his subsequent return to Chile where it was revealed that not only was he a murderer but a thief who had been actively embezzling public funds for years.

With the election last year of the socialist, agnostic Michelle Bachelet, Chile joins a host of other countries on the continent who have decided to move away from the neo-liberal economic agenda that dominated the region for so many years. The reasons for this are manifold, and many visitors regularly build into their tours “must see” socio-political and artistic landmarks that help to explain this contemporary phenomenon. Eco-tourism for the socially and politically conscious, if you will.

We started with a look at the local theatre scene, generally a reliable barometer of a country's political and cultural mind-set.

Theatre in Santiago is alive and vibrant with over 20 major venues regularly mounting the classical to the experimental. I was unfortunately just a little early to partake in January's international theatre festival, Santiago a Mil, which features the work of numerous Chilean companies at stages throughout the city along with international artists such as Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, et al.

However my guide (and translator), Jaime Lanfranco, a well known Chilean actor and teacher (whose production of A Mi Ciudad produced with writer/actor/director Veronica Oddo was a big hit last season) did take me around to see a representative sampling of shows.

Neva (in preview prior to its world premiere in Santiago a Mil), directed by Guillermo Calderon, was playing in the culturally pulsating neighbourhood of Bellevista at the Centro Mori theatre just a few blocks from La Chascona, once the house owned by Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda and now a museum.

The neighbourhood itself is a testimony to community activism since the re-birth of democracy in Chile. Several years ago, the Bellevista neighbourhood was slated to be cut in half by a major highway project which essentially would have destroyed the community. Local residents organized themselves into a movement they called Ciudad Viva (Living City) that beat back the project and returned the neighbourhood to a bustling (one might say “bursting”) mix of restaurants, bistros, artists' co-ops, theatres and bars which nightly feature a wide diversity of live music.

Neva was a noteworthy introduction to the local theatre scene. The play is a three-hander that takes place in St. Petersburg in 1905 on the eve of the abortive revolution of that year. Three actors, including Olga Knipper (Chekhov's widow) and two colleagues named Masha and Aleko, arrive in the theatre to rehearse a play based on the death of their beloved Chekhov who died the previous year in a sanatorium. Because of the social and political upheaval that is taking place throughout the city, they are the only three in the company to show up for rehearsal and their attempts to soldier on with the project are at once hilarious and poignant.

The next afternoon we saw a very athletic and fast paced student production of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle at the UNIACC university that is dedicated to communications and the arts among other things (I would liken it a bit to Ryerson U.) This production, directed by Gonzalo Cid, had the benefit of a long four month rehearsal period and the actors were well schooled in Brechtian storytelling technique and backed with a fine musical ensemble that featured an original score (with a bit of an Andean motif) that pushed the narrative forward.

Finally, a moving reminder that theatre can be “the soul and conscience of the country” (as the Spanish playwright Garcia Lorca once said) was the experience offered by the meta-drama, Cenizas al Viento (Ashes to the Wind) a collaborative production from two companies, Teatropan and Teatroi No Mas. The play was commissioned by Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi, a memorial park which was formerly the site of a detention centre used by the DINA — Pinochet's secret police — for the purpose of interrogating and torturing prisoners. President Bachelet herself was once held here as a political prisoner.

Each evening in small groups of no more than 30, the audience moves through the park with actors who use puppets and text to create the metaphor of a country torn by war and poverty and the long journey toward peace, democracy and spiritual renewal.

Santiago's venerable Teatro Municipal (this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of its birth) is the city's major venue for high culture including the symphony, the opera and the ballet. This beautiful house seats 1,400 and although it maintained rather conservative programming during the years of the dictatorship, today the opera company is regarded as one of the best in Latin America.

The museums, galleries and historic sites that abound in Santiago have all been touched in some way by the golpe (Spanish for coup d'etat) that toppled the government of Salvadore Allende on September 11, 1973, ending the longest constitutional democracy in Latin America that began with the struggle for independence from Spanish rule led by Bernardo O'Higgins in 1818.

A visit to the National Historical Museum revealed that two exhibition rooms were presently closed while a new installation was in progress. Only now are curators grappling with how to interpret the period of Allende's Popular Unity government.

Across town, the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvadore Allende opened its doors in a recently restored mansion that ironically once housed the official administrative offices of the DINA. How appropriate to see this building, with its marble floors and hand-carved staircases, now exhibiting contributions of two and three dimensional visual art forms from major artists representing over 50 countries in expressions of peace and solidarity with the people of Chile.

Since we were staying in Bellevista how could we resist a visit to La Chascona — the home of the great poet, Pablo Neruda? Meaning literally “woman with tousled hair” after his wife, Mathilde, the house (one of three, all of which are now historic sites) was desecrated by the military soon after the coup with Neruda's books and some belongings being burned publicly in the street. The shock was too much. Neruda, who was in failing health at the time, died several weeks thereafter.

Today, the house is filled with life once again as visitors from all over the world come daily to learn about the life and career of this highly partisan poet. Neruda embodied life, art and politics as one whole philosophy. Known as a cosista (a collector of things), the house — which was constructed on various levels of the spacious grounds to resemble the small but highly functional rooms of a ship, is filled with artifacts, manuscripts and memorabilia that bear silent testimony to the voice of the poet. Neruda was said to have quipped: “I am the only captain of a ship on dry land.”

But if one wants to follow the Neruda thread further, a visit to Isle Negra is a must. This beautiful seaside retreat offered the perfect venue for writing, contemplation and relaxation. Located just south of the historic port city of Valparaiso, the house is packed with more wonderful cosas — books, shells, folk carvings, sculptures and paintings — and overlooks the dramatic, pounding surf of the Pacific Coast. No wonder that Isle Negra marks the poet's final resting place alongside his beloved Mathilde. A few feet away, on top of one of the many boulders that line the shore, is a bust of Neruda looking wistfully out to sea.

We were hooked. Valparaiso was only a short drive and we wanted to see La Sebastiana, the modest home that Neruda co-owned with friends. Our guide noted that every New Year's Eve would see Pablo in Valparaiso to enjoy the spectacular fireworks display. It is easy to see why. The house is located high up on a hill close to the city's heritage district and offers a spectacular view of the bay from almost every room. And note the recipe for coquetelón (Neruda's favourite cocktail) just over the bar: equal parts champagne and cognac with a few drops of Cointreau and orange juice. Feliz año Nuevo!

On our way home to Santiago we detoured slightly to take in the beautiful beach town of Viña del Mar. It's important to note that Pinochet's military dictatorship did have its supporters, principally from Chile's wealthy, privileged and politically conservative élite classes. Here they are in abundance.

The sun was setting as we returned to Bellevista in Santiago. Crossing the Mapocho river at Pio Nona bridge, we wanted one last sight of the city and so we took the funicular up Cerro San Cristóbal. At the top of the hill is a 14 metre high statue of the Virgin Mary that dates back to 1908. With the lights of Santiago flickering below, it was an appropriate place to reflect upon the setting sun and the inevitable sunrise that will always follow the darkest night.

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