Flight from Chile: Voices of Exile


by Thomas Wright and Rudy Oñate
(University of New Mexico Press, 1998)

Exiles Return, 1978 to 1988

Struggle on Many Fronts

Although both the departed and their families longed for the day when exiles could come home, after the illusion of a brief military regime faded, so did the idea that exiles would be able to return in a reasonable period of time. The military government's initial policy on return was defined in Decree 81 of November 1973, which required exiles to obtain permission from the Minister of the Interior to enter Chile. This meant, in practice, that legal return was impossible for most exiles. Many of those who maintained Chilean passports had them stamped with a letter "L," signifying that the bearers were on a list of those prohibited from returning. Having had some success in portraying exile as a humane alternative to prison, or a worse fate, for "enemies of the nation," and relying on massive exile of the left to keep his power secure, Pinochet felt no inclination and little pressure to change policy through the 1970s. When foreign correspondence covering the 1980 plebiscite asked the general whether exiles would be allowed to return, he responded:

"I have only one answer: No."

1 Only the MIR and the Communist Party systematically defied the regime's policies on return, beginning in 1978 and 1980, respectively, by introducing members clandestinely for political work and armed resistance.

Despite Pinochet's opposition, by 1984 most exiles had obtained the right to go home. This far-reaching policy change occurred within the context of the popular protest movement that shook the tranquility of military rule between 1982 and 1986 and led to a slight, grudging opening achieved, in the words of a close observer, at the cost of "dozens of innocent deaths, thousands of arrests, and serious abuses of fundamental rights."2 Among the concessions that the regime unwillingly made were a loosening of press controls, granting permission for student and professional organizations to elect officers and allowing the opposition to hold occasional rallies. None of these concessions had such far-reaching consequences as the liberalization of policy on exiles' return.

The issue of exiles' return had been formally raised in 1978 with the founding of the Comité Pro Retorno de los Exiliados Chilenos under the auspices of the nascent human-rights movement, but no results were obtained until 1982. In that year, sparked by the 1981 economic crash that greatly exacerbated unemployment and poverty, unauthorized protests began that would lead in 1983 to a broad antigovernment mobilization, the "national days of protest." In September 1982, street demonstrations protested the Supreme Court's refusal to permit the return of the expelled president of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, Jaime Castillo Velasco. Since Castillo Velasco, a Christian Democrat, could not be portrayed as a dangerous radical, his case served to broaden support for the return movement beyond the families of UP exiles. Against this backdrop, and in a clear attempt at preemption, the government convened a commission to study the return policy in October 1982, and on Christmas day of that year issued the first of ten lists of persons authorized to return.

This cosmetic concession quickly proved to be a cruel hoax. Issued periodically through October 1983, the lists contained a total of only 3,562 names — a miniscule proportion of the exiles — and when duplications, dead persons, and persons who had previously returned were subtracted, fewer than 2,000 individuals were authorized to return. 3 Nonetheless, in October 1983, as part of its response to the rise of the protest movement, the regime scuttled the lists and reverted to its previous hard line on exiles' return.

The regime's policy reversal did not settle the issue, however, because the outbreak of the unexpectedly potent protest movement — after nearly a decade of absolute military control — made clear to the exiled opposition leadership the importance of reestablishing itself inside Chile. On one hand, the protest movement gave hope of forcing the dictatorship to grant major concessions or even to step aside. If such ambitious goals could not be achieved, the opposition still would need to be back in Chile to organize and proselytize for the plebiscite on the continuation of military rule to be held, according to the 1980 constitution, in 1988. Thus in 1983 and 1984, aided by the formation of numerous pro-return groups abroad and the beginnings of international pressure to allow exiles to return, an energetic campaign emerged for the total abolition of restrictions on exiles' return.

This campaign focused on redefining exile. Rather than the humane alternative, the "golden exile" that the dictatorship had projected, the movement presented exile and the prohibition of return as grave violations of human rights, specifically of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' section 11 which established "the right to live in one's homeland." The legal department of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad flooded the courts with thousands of petitions for return, while FASIC began publishing its periodical Chile Retorno in December 1983. Meanwhile, the influential news magazine Hoy boldly carried large supplements on exile in seven consecutive weekly editions between January and March 1984. Titled "Vivir sin Chile," these supplements featured staff reports from Europe, interviews, photographs, thoroughly researched accounts of exile life, bibliographies of exile writings and artistic accomplishments — in short, taken together these amounted to a book that offered Chileans the first mainstream, non-governmental view of the entire exile phenomenon. These developments, and the united voice of the UP and the Christian Democratic opposition on the issue, inserted the question of return into the narrow but growing space the regime grudgingly allotted for the public discourse.

Beginning in mid-1984, return policy came under more direct fire as prominent opposition figures began flying into Santiago without authorization to enter the country. In July, two members of the popular exile musical group Inti Illimani flew into Santiago's international airport and were denied entry. On September 1, six UP leaders arrived on an Air France flight from Buenos Aires; Chilean agents entered the airplane, roughed up the six, handcuffed them, and after the French ambassador visited them on the airplane and publicly denounced Pinochet's policy on return, re-embarked them to Buenos Aires. The six leaders returned the following day on an Avianca (the Colombian airline) flight; denied entry again, they were flown to Bogotá, where they conducted a hunger strike and were received by Colombian President Belisario Betancur. These events, covered extensively by the international press, created a public relations embarrassment and a serious enforcement problem, as the international airlines had begun openly defying the regime's long-standing threat to cancel the landing rights of any airline that did not deny passage to Chileans lacking documentation authorizing their return. 4

Yielding to these mounting domestic and international pressures, the Pinochet government adopted a new policy of lists, this time naming those persons prohibited from entering the country. The first list, issued September 5, 1984, contained 4,942 names; the twelfth, dated March 15, 1987, named 1,471 individuals. In an attempt to cast the October 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet's continuance in power as legitimate and fair, the government decreed the end of forced exile on September 1, 1988. Nonetheless, a substantial number of exiles who had taken foreign citizenship and had been declared "undesirable aliens" were still forbidden to return. And for those exiles facing charges of anti-regime activity, returning to Chile meant surrendering to the military government.

The regime's concession on return policy was apparently based on a serious miscalculation of the opposition's determination and ability to send its cadres home. Indeed, there was plenty to discourage exiles from returning: Recovery from the economic crisis had not begun; blacklists would prevent the employment of leftists; and the regime's repressive apparatus was still fully intact, as demonstrated by the brutality with which the continuing protests were put down. Yet the dedication of many exiles to ending the dictatorship propelled them home to take advantage of the slight, tenuous opening that that been achieved for political work. Some returned without jobs, others in the employ of their still illegal parties or of the private academic, human-rights, communications, and social-service organizations that had been established with international financial support, often through the exiles' efforts, and which were hated but grudgingly tolerated by the regime so long as they did not overtly violate the "political recess" that the regime still tried to enforce. Meanwhile, the MIR, since 1978, and the Communist Party, since 1980, had been sending cadres back to Chile clandestinely to organize and mount an armed struggle against the regime — a policy that placed those parties at loggerheads with the rest of the left and with the Christian Democrats.

Returning home for political work in any form was dangerous, for the level of repression employed to counter the protest movement between 1983 and 1986 rivaled that of the regime's first four years and generated a large wave of new exiles. But with continued international financial support, the opposition reestablished itself in Chile as a result of the 1984 opening and worked rebuilding their parties, pushing the limits of tolerated political activity, and mounting a drive to defeat Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite.


Return to a New Exile, 1988—1994

The military government's liberalized policy on return, adopted under pressure in 1984, formally opened the doors for most exiles to go home. For the great majority, however, the new policy meant little because of the continuing impediments to their return. Most exiles were leery of living under the same dictatorship that had forced them out of their country. Furthermore, the government's new return policy was adopted at a time when both political and economic conditions were uninviting.

On the political front, the government faced the outbreak of popular opposition beginning in 1982. On one hand, this awakened hope among exiles for an earlier end to the dictatorship than that which might result from the scheduled 1988 plebiscite. On the other hand, the regime's responses to the rising opposition clearly demonstrated its willingness to use as much force as necessary to retain control, as reflected in the internationally reported 1985 burnings of two children by a military patrol, and a dramatic increase in the number of political exiles. In the economic realm, the boom of the late 1970s had given way in 1982 to Chile's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a sustained recovery did not begin until 1986. This made the prospect of finding employment even bleaker for returning exiles, who already faced the blacklist as well as negative attitudes of the business sector toward hiring them.

The 1984 repatriation policy, moreover, was narrowly juridical. It was a concession wrung from the regime under duress. The government continued to discourage return by offering no incentives or services for returning exiles, in contrast to the generous terms it offered the few Chileans who had left during the UP government. Moreover, it was not uncommon for returning exiles to be turned back upon arriving, on the pretext that their papers were not in order, and for those admitted into the country to face harassment in various forms. New of this kind of reception certainly discouraged many of those inclined to return.

In the absence of governmental support, a host of non-governmental organizations attempted to fill the void by developing a variety of services designed to promote and facilitate return. Some of these agencies were the same ones that earlier had fought to get the persecuted safely out of the country: the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, FASIC, the OIM, and the World University Service (WUS) prominent among them. Foreign governments and private foreign agencies also helped. These organizations offered information on return, free or subsidized passages, short-term living allowances, employment services, low-interest loans to establish small businesses, psychological services for adults and children, and other forms of aid.

With the approach of the October 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet's continuance in power, the pace of return picked up. By now the economy was booming again, and the periodic lists of excluded persons continually shrank until the government, seeking to legitimize the plebiscite it expected to win, formally lifted the ban on return on September 1, thus allowing even its worst enemies to return. The opposition victory in the plebiscite was followed in December 1989 by the victory of Patricio Aylwin, representing the broad antigovernment coalition Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, over the military's candidate in the first presidential election since 1970.

The civilian government inaugurated in March 1990 acted quickly to promote exiles' return. Among its first acts were the establishment of the Oficina Nacional de Retorno (ONR) and the passage of laws creating a commission to validate the degrees and professional certificates of returning exiles and exempting up to twenty-five thousand dollars worth of their belongings from customs duties. The ONR had a modest budget, limited powers, and a four-year life span. It acted primarily as a coordinating and referral agency, relying on the existing private agencies to provide most of the concrete assistance to retornados. Although largely symbolic, these measures in conjunction with the end of the dictatorship stimulated a wave of return from exile. During the four years of its existence, through August 1994, the ORN served 56,000 persons. 5

For most exiles, the return to Chile has been a disappointing, even a bitter experience. They have faced numerous and varied problems: unemployment; discrimination; bureaucratic indifference to their needs; rejection; and alienation in a country that, many feel, is not the same country they left fifteen or twenty years earlier. Almost without exception, those who have returned report frustration, malaise, despair, and a feeling of being strangers in their homeland. They sense little attempt at reconciliation on the part of most Chileans; rather, they feel frequent reminders that they were the losers in 1973, and believe they are treated as such. To some, return is a new exile. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that some retornados have gone back to their adopted homelands, often exacerbating the fragmentation of families initially sundered by exile, later by return to Chile. Nor is it surprising that a majority of exiles had not returned by 1994, when the closing of the ONR symbolically marked the end of Chile's era of mass exile.



1 Comité Pro Retorno de los Exiliados Chilenos, "Documento presentado a la Organización de las Naciones Unidas: (1980), 10. Return to text.

2 Genaro Arrigada, Pinochet: The Politics of Power, trans. Nancy Morris (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 66. See also Cathy Lisa Schneider, Shantytown Protest in Pinochet's Chile (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995); and Gonzalo de la Maza and Mario Garcés, La explosión de las mayorias: protesta nacional, 1983—1984 (Santiago: Editorial ECO, 1985). Return to text.

3 Vicaría de la Solidaridad, internal memorandum, Oct. 31, 1983, caja 53: "Vivir sin Chile," Hoy, January 25—31, 1984, 47. Return to text.

4 These events are described in Cauce, June 15—21, 1987, 22-29. The six made a third unsuccessful attempt to enter Chile on October 11, after the new lists had begun to appear, in an attempt to force the lifting of all prohibitions against exiles' return. See Chile Retorno, FASIC's periodical publication, for general reporting on matters related to exiles' return. Return to text.

5 Oficina Nacional de Retorno, "Informe Final" (Santiago, 1995), 5. Note that this figure includes returning economic as well as political exiles. Return to text.



Return to Current Issues.




| Home | English | Español |