Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of torture.
Disclaimer: This article is heavily based on my grandfather’s memory, news articles, historical footage, and audio clips. I strive to keep faithful to those. But where appropriate, I have filled in dialogue and other narrative details.
Listen to the audio story here:
Valparaíso, March 11, 1990 — Lined with marble walls and filled with scores of dignitaries, the Hall of Honour of the newly built Chilean Congress watched as the country’s brutal dictatorship came to an end in relative calm. President-elect Patricio Aylwin took the oath of office and received the presidential sash from Gen. Augusto Pinochet, president for the previous 17 years.
In that moment, democracy returned to Chile.
When Pinochet took power, it was distinctly unceremonious. The general and his co-conspirators bombed Chile’s presidential palace in a coup d’état on Sept. 11, 1973.
It was 8:38 a.m. in Concepción, and Teruel Carrasco was still in bed.
His kids — two young daughters and a baby son — were sound asleep in their room, the nanny already cooking their breakfast. His wife Lucila was doing housework nearby.
Teruel reached over to his nightstand, stretching to turn on the radio. He winced as he felt the wound on his torso ache — Teruel had been shot the previous day by a far-right militant.
But he wanted to hear the latest news. He was an ardent supporter of socialist President Salvador Allende and a member of the local Communist Party regional committee.
He had also worked on all of Allende’s presidential campaigns, including his first three failed attempts. In 1952, he handed out campaign literature and painted city walls as a 12-year-old. In 1958, an 18-year-old Teruel helped organize events. He was invested.
But when Teruel turned on the radio, he didn’t hear the latest headlines. Instead, the staccato drums and brass of a military march blared through the speakers. Maybe he had the wrong station.
Stretching over and once again disturbing his mess of bandages, Teruel fiddled with the dial. He checked the stations one by one. March, march, and march again. No matter how he turned the dial, the result was the same.
Every station was playing the same military march.
Is it actually happening? Teruel wondered to himself.
Teruel sat up on the edge of his bed. He stayed there listening to the march, brow furrowed, for a few minutes. Then, a voice.
As the message ended, the marches resumed. Teruel looked back at Lucila, who had stepped in to listen. He doesn’t remember exactly what they said to each other in that moment, but it wasn’t much. They sat in their room, calm but stunned.
There was still so much they didn’t know.
Five hundred kilometres away in Santiago, Gen. Pinochet’s forces would soon attack La Moneda — the presidential palace. Government ministers would be arrested. Congress would be dissolved. The president would take his own life. Some of Teruel’s close friends, members of the Communist Party, would be taken and killed. The coup would generate thousands of victims.
Eventually, Teruel and his family would end up in a city called Winnipeg, Canada.
That’s where I was born — Teruel is my grandfather.
“Even until September the 11th, the day of the coup, I did not believe that a coup was going to happen in Chile. My arguments were that the Chilean Armed Forces were on the side of the constitution and that they were to defend President Allende,” my grandfather told me over 40 years later.
“Why was there so much trust in the military?” I asked.
“The whole constitution established that the Armed Forces should not have any political opinion.”
At nine o’clock, there was a knock at the door.
Four men entered the apartment, among them a municipal councillor named Gonzalo Rivera. His deeply furrowed brows gave away his worry.
“Gonzalo, what do you know?” Teruel asked.
“Not much more than you, but…” Gonzalo paused. “José disappeared. We don’t know if he’s been taken, killed…”
The men fell silent for a moment. José Vergara was the general secretary of the regional committee. He was, essentially, the party’s leader in the area. In times of crisis, he would be the one to receive instructions from party leaders in Santiago — and now he had disappeared.
They didn’t find out what happened to him until that afternoon: José had fled the country.
“[He] left all the troops behind without any instruction,” my grandfather said. “That was extremely disappointing.”
“Come to the table, gentlemen. I’ll make you some coffee,” called Lucila.
When the coup struck, my grandfather was 33 years old.
Although he was born into a poor family, by 1973 he was a content, relaxed lawyer with a young family. He specialized in labour law and worked for Chile’s fisheries ministry.
Like many Chileans, he has mixed Indigenous-European ancestry, only with a dash of African blood thrown in from a couple of generations back. As a young man, his brown skin, long, curly black hair, and full beard evoked that classic anti-CIA revolutionary look.
He is short by Canadian standards — about 5’7”. But back then he had a deep, radio-quality voice that accompanied him on his busy professional and political schedule.
Decades later, seated at the dinner table of a small apartment dining room in Winnipeg, his hair is mostly gone. The beard is no more. He says he has trouble projecting at times, and his voice is a bit raspy. His mobility has declined in the last few years — he uses a walker to get around — but mentally, he’s as sharp as ever.
“When I heard that announcement from the military, then I thought, ‘Oh. There is a coup,’” he told me.
“How did you feel?” I asked.
“Well, confused, frustrated, scared…but mostly confused. ‘What’s going on? What’s going on? Why?”
The men spoke softly, already hyper-aware of their surroundings. They lobbed questions at one another, but none could answer.
“How far is the military prepared to go?”
“Are they going to kill the president?”
“Are the other party members okay?”
Amidst the confusion, one conclusion did emerge: don’t stay in one place.
“We started to come to [our] senses…’Okay, the most important issue here is for us to be safe and to hide,’” my grandfather told me.
“Ok, Lucila and I will head to Javiera’s apartment. Gonzalo, where are you going?” said Teruel.
“I’m going to Alejandro’s place,” said Jaime.
The group split up, each heading to a nearby party member’s apartment.
The door burst open. Teruel and Lucila entered, immediately shutting the door and closing the blinds. Javiera was standing in her kitchen a few feet away, frantically trying to contact party members via phone.
“You two! What’s happening? What do you know?” Javiera asked, relieved to see the pair. She hung up the phone and watched them hurry to settle in.
“We don’t know,” said Teruel, wincing as he found a chair to sit down in.
Out of nothing, the sound of military aircraft roared over the house — and dissipated just as quickly.
Teruel put his hand on his chest, breathless. “That scared me. We got here just in time.”
Lucila made her way to the window and cracked open the blinds, peering into the street.
Through the now-afternoon sun, a helicopter flew low to the ground. Another plane soared past. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets in Jeeps, long rifles pointing outward.
Pinochet’s time as dictator has had a profound impact on Chile — as any 17-year stint in power would. Chileans still debate his legacy.
Many credit him for the policies that would make Chile “the miracle of Latin America,” as it is sometimes called. Chile has been consistently ranked one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in Latin America, its economic model held up as an example for the region.
But many Chileans don’t believe that wealth is shared equally.
They deride these policies as rank neoliberalism, pointing to things like widespread privatization. Successive governments have privatized everything from electric and water utilities to old-age and disability pensions. The richest Chileans earn 14 times more than the poorest, according to a 2018 study. It is the most unequal country in the OECD.
So when the government raised fares for the Santiago Metro by 30 pesos (around $0.05 CAD) on Oct. 6 of last year, it touched a nerve for many.
Students were the initiators. They began a mass fare-evasion campaign, jumping the metro gates rather than paying. Then subway cars started burning. Soon people filled the streets, and protests attracted hundreds of thousands.
“¡Chile despertó! ¡Chile despertó! ¡Chile despertó!”
“Chile has woken up!” they cried.
Thirty pesos could have been seen as a negligible increase. But in a country where many feel wages don’t keep up with living costs and half of workers make 400,000 pesos or less a month — that’s around $700 CAD — it sparked a massive movement.
Some protestors became more violent, burning cars, buses, and even whole metro stations. Businesses were being looted. Conservative President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and an evening curfew in Santiago and surrounding areas soon after. There hadn’t been a curfew in Chile since the dictatorship.
He also sent the military into the streets — and it brought back bad memories for many.
I’ve been seeing different figures in different places, but the UN Human Rights Office puts the numbers like this: from October 2019 to Dec. 10 there were at least 26 deaths, more than 4,900 injured, and over 28,000 detentions.
About 350 people sustained eye injuries from encounters with police using pellets. Gustavo Gatica, a 22-year-old student, was the first protestor to lose all vision in both eyes. Bleeding eyes drawn on city walls and social media have become a symbol of the demonstrations.
“A police officer from the Special Forces pointed his gun right at my face, from eight metres away. I stared at him, and he shot me in the eye,” university student Diego Foppiano told BBC Mundo in November.
The protests peaked at over 1.2 million people on Oct. 25 — the biggest in Chile’s democratic history. Their scope had quickly expanded from the fare hike to include broader social demands. Among them: an end to wealth inequality and a new constitution to replace Pinochet’s 1980 document.
Santiago, Chile’s capital, had been Teruel and Lucila’s refuge for two weeks. That’s not what you might expect — Santiago was the centre of the action at the time. Pinochet and his junta were raiding and seizing control of state institutions, and soldiers were still rounding up Allende sympathizers.
But the anonymity of the metropolis provided some security. In Concepción, people knew who the communists were. It was easier to blend in with Santiago’s population of 3.6 million.
The children were still in Concepción — the nanny had been taking care of them. Dora (my mother), Ana, and Teruel Jr. were still young: 10, seven, and two. Teruel and Lucila longed to see them, and they were tired of running. It was time to go home.
“The same night that we arrived in Concepción, the military came to my home and took me as a prisoner,” my grandfather said.
Teruel looked at Lucila, tears streaming down her face. Then he looked at the men standing in their doorway: four marines in uniform, faces painted black, holding large rifles. They held their weapons with both hands, fingers on the trigger.
“Mr. Carrasco, come with us.”
Teruel knew what was happening: He’d probably never see his family again. He embraced Lucila.
“Está bien…I’ll be fine,” he said, despite what he knew. Teruel let Lucila go and turned to leave.
“Are you going to tell me where you’re taking him?” said Lucila.
“No. Go to the nearest police station. They’ll have lists,” the marine said.
He walked down the stairs from their second-storey apartment, two soldiers leading him and two soldiers behind. He looked back — there had been no time to say goodbye to the children.
Teruel felt the butt of a rifle on his back. It struck quickly, pushing him through the door of the jail cell. Then the door banged shut.
This was a police station, Teruel knew, but it reminded him of a dungeon — it was impossible to see anything. He sighed and took note of the cold air in the room, wondering how long he’d be kept here.
“Sit down on the floor, compañero Carrasco,” a voice said.
Manuel. Teruel recognized the voice immediately. He had known Manuel through the party for many years. Teruel carefully lowered himself to the ground through the darkness.
At least there was a friendly face here.
The next day, Teruel watched from a moving Jeep as the horizon slowly became marked with blue. Ah, Teruel thought. The base.
Soon, he was walking into the gymnasium of the Talcahuano Naval Base, guided still by soldiers. There was a line of detainees waiting to be processed, and Teruel knew them all. All were leftists.
Their faces showed a mix of fear and resignation. None of them spoke. The silence amplified every one of Teruel’s footsteps.
As he passed by another line of detainees — most of whom he also knew — he saw Gonzalo. There he sat, one of what must have been hundreds of prisoners crammed into the gym bleachers. Gonzalo shot a wink and a slight smile.
“[That] kept me going in the circumstances we were in,” my grandfather said.
Teruel continued walking, took his place at the back of the line, and started waiting.
After President Allende’s election victory in 1970, my grandfather and other supporters knew opposition would be fierce.
He was the first democratically elected Marxist president anywhere in the world, and he came to power on a promise to transform Chile and its system for the better.
The problem: His tiny margin of victory.
On his fourth try for the presidency, Allende had barely won the most votes: 36.6 per cent. His lead over runner-up Jorge Alessandri came down to about 39,000 votes — just 1.3 per cent. Congress had to vote to confirm Allende following the election.
That low support stacked the odds against Allende.
The new president’s election platform had promised only to lay the foundations for socialism, according to a 1970 New York Times report. This was not a hasty revolution.
Many Chileans were not comforted. That same report describes widespread panic in the financial sector the first business day after Allende’s victory. Chilean stocks collapsed, depositors panicked, banks ran out of money, and the outgoing government of President Eduardo Frei started printing currency at double the normal rate.
The next three years in Chile would be marked by extreme volatility.
Allende: Timeline of Events
Drag the timeline to the left to reveal more dates.
62-year-old Marxist Dr. Salvador Allende wins Chile’s presidential election with 36.6 per cent of the vote, making history.
Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon lays out his strategy to prevent Allende from taking office — or to depose him once in power. Declassified meeting notes include this phrase: “Make the economy scream.”
Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief and staunch constitutionalist René Schneider is killed in a botched kidnapping attempt. The operation, meant to eliminate opposition to a coup d’état, instead outrages the public and quashes any plans for a coup.
Chile’s Congress votes 135-35 to confirm Allende as President of Chile. The lack of a candidate with a clear majority triggered the Congressional vote.
Salvador Allende takes the oath of office in the Hall of Honour of the old Congress building in Santiago, becoming the 28th President of Chile.
Chile’s truck drivers go on strike, demanding assurances the government won’t nationalize the industry. The strikes paralyze the economy across Chile’s long and narrow territory.
Gen. Roberto Souper, about to be dismissed for anti-government conspiracy, surrounds the presidential palace with tanks and around 80 soldiers. Other generals — including Augusto Pinochet — withhold their troops’ support, forcing Souper and his men to retreat.
Chile’s truck drivers go on strike again, this time with shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and other professionals. Declassified documents would later detail U.S. involvement in financially supporting the strikers.
The heads of four military branches — the Armed Forces, the Air Force, the Navy, and the National Police — take power in a coup d’état, bombing the presidential palace. President Allende takes his own life following a final radio address to the nation.
Teruel sat on the bleachers, fidgeting and scanning the room. He was looking for some hint of what would happen next. It was his second day at the naval base.
“We had a lot of time there,” my grandfather told me.
“One, two, three…” Teruel started counting the detainees to distract himself. “89, 90, 91…167, 168, 169…302, 303, 304…”
“One, two, three…”
After restarting a couple of times, eventually he finished counting. There were over 500 men in the room.
(This is my grandfather’s recollection. The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 1991 report says 158 people were held at the Talcahuano Naval Base in November 1973.)
Teruel turned his head to the right.
“Gonzalo, there are over 500 of us here…” Teruel started, but he stopped when he saw Gonzalo looking elsewhere.
Actually, everyone was looking at the same thing. Teruel followed suit.
They all watched as uniformed guards walked to the centre of the gym with piles of grey fabric in their hands. They released their grip without bending down, letting a mess of blankets fall to the floor.
The prisoners had all been sleeping without blankets. They looked a bit panicked, all scrambling to the piles to snatch a thin cloth. Many places in Chile now don’t have central heating, never mind a naval base gym in 1973. Nights were cold there.
But blanket or no blanket, the worst part of sleeping there was something much worse.
Every night around midnight, four or five prisoners walked out. Not to their freedom, but to interrogations.
In 2004, the world found out what those interrogations were like.
That was the year the Chilean Congress commissioned the Valech Report. Its 1,200 pages contained distressing accounts of the torture that was a staple of Pinochet’s regime.
The methods included — among many others — the removal of nails and teeth, cuts to the genitals, extremely loud noises played until ears bled, hanging from the wrists or feet, sexual assaults, electrical shocks, forced eating of excrement, and simulated executions.
The commission heard over 30,000 testimonies, and the final report included dozens of selected testimonies from torture survivors:
“They told me to kneel down with the soles of my feet facing up. Three of them held me, and the fourth proceeded to jump on the soles of my feet. I felt my bones crunch with indescribable pain. In that moment I screamed for them to kill me, that I didn’t want to keep living. They told me, ‘Soon,’” said one.
“I heard with horror how they knew every one of my movements…I was so scared. They kept saying I had disappeared without a trace and that I would never see my children again. They knew their names, their schools, their schedules. I couldn’t believe it,” another said.
My grandfather was lucky enough not to receive physical torture. But every morning, he saw the state of the previous night’s victims. Every night, he waited as the soldiers made their rounds and chose four or five more.
“Every night they would come to me and would say, ‘Tonight is your turn,’” he said. “And then you start wishing, ‘Come and take me once and for all!’ Because [of] the stress of, ‘Okay, tonight they are taking me…’ So you prepare. And then they don’t come. They come, but they don’t take you.”
After two weeks on the naval base, they took my grandfather to a concentration camp on Quiriquina Island, just north of Talcahuano. He saw people taken away every night there, too. Most of them didn’t come back.
My grandfather was released on Dec. 20, 1973.
He owes his release to my grandmother’s persistence and an unusual coincidence. My grandmother went to the naval base every day for weeks, demanding to see her husband. There she met a chaplain who knew Rafael, a Catholic priest and Carrasco family friend. The chaplain phoned him up, Rafael confirmed the connection, and the chaplain pulled some strings.
The only condition: that my grandfather give his signature every Saturday before noon at the nearest police station. So he did. My aunt Ana, seven at the time, went with him every week.
Soon, he learned several released party leaders had been killed during these visits, and he left for the Colombian Embassy in Santiago. From there, Bogotá, Colombia — all with the help of Rafael.
After spending a few months alone in Colombia, he arrived in Canada in 1975. The family reunited when Lucila and the children came a couple of weeks later. Many more Chileans, including some extended family, arrived in the years following the coup. They quickly formed a sizeable community in Winnipeg.
We’re now 47 years removed from the coup d’état. Since then, my grandparents have had another child, born in Canada, who is now in her thirties. They’ve both earned degrees here. My grandfather is retired from a successful career in immigration law; my grandmother from one in education.
Their family now includes four children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. We’ve just welcomed my mom’s cousin and his family to Winnipeg in December. By all accounts, this is a refugee success story.
My mom, for her part, remembers a lot. She remembers the radio music that usually coloured her mornings being replaced with military marches. She saw Jeeps roaming up and down the streets, leading people out of their homes.
The noise woke her up on the night her dad was taken. She stayed in bed, the door to her room open just enough to peer through. She saw the guns and the green uniforms. She even remembers the soldiers as polite. (My grandparents say they were actually quite rough.)
My mom figures my grandparents never really got over the trauma the coup brought them.
As for me, I now know much more about my family’s story and the larger context, though it’s still far from the whole picture. I had always known it in broad strokes — never in any detail.
I didn’t know my grandpa was shot. I had never heard the radio announcement that changed my family’s lives. I had no clue how much they had to run.
When I was younger, people would bring up the dictatorship, its effects, and its legacy at family dinners. But they rarely spoke of the hours, days, and weeks immediately following the coup. No one really asked, either.
I think there was a tacit understanding: No one wanted to talk about it, so they didn’t.
Emotionally, this story presents an interesting conflict for me: The coup was horrific, of course. Tens of thousands suffered during that time and through until 1990. My grandparents and many others still bear scars.
But this tragic story also gave me and my family one of the greatest fortunes we have: being Canadian. I’m proud of my country, despite all its faults. I’m proud to be a dual Canadian-Chilean national.
The coup also led my mom to my dad.
Had my family not come here, I wouldn’t be alive. I owe my existence to my family’s suffering decades ago. It’s strange to think about.
But it’s important. Everyone has a path stretching far behind them, transcending generations. Taking a stroll down my family’s path shows me what to be thankful for.
The road here was long. I plan to keep exploring it.