From night into day in Chile at the San Jose Mine


It was when Sebastian Pinera, the president of Chile, reflexively crossed himself a little before last Wednesday midnight — as he, and a solemn little boy in a miner’s hardhat, and the whole rest of the world were sweating out the safe return of a capsule lifting the first of 33 trapped human beings, 31-year-old Florencio Avalosa, the little boy’s father, from a sealed-in cave 2,040 feet below the earth’s surface — that I, too, observant of no organized hocus-pocus, secretly crossed myself. And was rewarded when a grinning Florencio Avalosa, wearing protective sunglasses beneath his miner’s hardhat, stepped from the capsule, alive and well.

Truly, the Miracle of the Mine.

And then I thought of Pinochet.

Let’s give him his full name, Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006), military dictator of Chile, 1973-1990, president of Chile, 1974-1990.

It was under Generalissimo Pinochet that the right-wing Chilean secret police (the DINA) arrested, kidnapped or, as the euphemism went, simply “disappeared” some 30,000 men and women, according to such monitors as Amnesty International.

Many if not most of the “disappeared” were hurled from planes or helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. There were 3,197 known murders, and no one knows how many rapes and tortures — by beatings, by electric shock, by waterboarding (ah there, C.I.A.!).

It was under Generalissimo Pinochet that Chile became an active member, indeed the leading member, of Operation Condor, the secret “anti-terrorism” terrorist international of Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and, not least, Argentina. (If you want to learn more about electric shock, a good place to start is Argentine editor Jacopo Timmerman’s 2001 “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.”)

It was the army of Generalissimo Pinochet that on September 11, 1973 (9/11/73 — dig that), had slaughtered his predecessor, Salvador Allende, a Socialist, right there in the presidential palace, and it was a killer or killers from DINA who three years and 10 days later would assassinate Chilean leftist Orlando Letelier and a young aide, Ronni Moffitt, right there in Washington, D.C., within spitting distance of the White House.

And Pinochet? The old bastard dodged and ducked a dossier of indictments brought against him by a fearless Spanish civil-rights judge named Baltasar Garzon, took refuge for a while in Britain, then finagled a return to Chile, where, still snapping and snarling, he died in his bed at age 91.

None of that has anything to do with the Miracle of the Mine except metaphorically. From hell to heaven, 69 days and a half-mile down, you might say.

What I know about Sebastian Pinera, thanks to Wikipedia, is that he had three years at Harvard as a Fulbright scholar in economics; was then himself a teacher of economics; is a gifted businessman and a probable millionaire, if not a billionaire.

So far as I also know, Sebastian Pinera has clean hands vis-à-vis the bloody Pinochet dictatorship, even if a Pinera brother was transportation minister in one Pinochet cabinet. But then, we all have clean hands, don’t we?

The point is: Where there was night, now there is day. The last man up and out of that deathtrap, 54-year-old Luis Urzua, the foreman who for 69 indistinguishable days and nights held the whole lost crew together like a commander rallying men into battle, is reported as saying to his president (what the hell, cinematically, why not?): “We have done what the entire world was waiting for.”

To which Sebastian Pinera replied: “You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this.”

Were you listening, Augusto Pinochet, down there in a far hotter place than the San Jose Mine?