Published in the Monadnock Shopper News – February 8-14, 2017
This column is supposed to be about healing and often we are told that talking about politics or anything that could be confrontational and divisive is not healing. But I beg to disagree, especially now given events in the political arena that seem to be beyond the norm of our political system to date. These events are causing stress and anguish for many people while others are cheering in victory.
For me, my interest in healing actually began with an experience when I was 17 years old. I was an exchange student to Uruguay where I learned shortly after arriving that the country was in the midst of a brutal dictatorship and my host family had a son who was a political prisoner. His name was Luis. I visited him several times in prison, at a place called Libertad. Ironically, this word means Freedom in Spanish.
How could my host brother have ended up in jail for carrying out non-violent activities? It was my Uruguayan high school friends who explained to me that their military had learned how to do this repression from the U.S. military school, then based in Panama (now in the Carolinas). At first I refused to believe it, but they convinced me of this truth. They also told me that they did not equate me with my government, and that of course they like me and wanted me as a friend.
Flash forward many years. Luis just finished serving as Minister of Development for Uruguay, under the Presidency of another former political prisoner – Mujica – who endeared himself to the world with his modest ways and care for the poor.
I became obsessed with understanding how governments can fall apart, how democracy can be lost, and how it can be regained again. That one question guided me all the way through to a PhD in Latin American studies.
I spent more than a decade living in Chile as I witnessed that country shift out of a military dictatorship to return to a robust democracy under the banner of a coalition of political parties from the left to the center right. I became friends with Cubans who helped rebuild their country’s economy during the Special Period, when the nation was near starvation. I spoke with people who ran soup kitchens in Buenos Aires for formerly middle class people who had no food due to an economic collapse.
What I can say from all these various experiences is that the people who were at the forefront of the struggles has no certainty of the outcome. They would tell me modestly of how they just started to write down a few human rights cases for the record or go into the fields to learn how the old timers grew crops or give solace to people who a few months earlier had not wanted to help any beggars or soup kitchens themselves but now were without food.
As desperate and hard as those experiences and times often were for so many people, at the same time they were moments that brought out the courage and imagination of many. Some people just did what they felt called to do, with their unique strengths and gifts.
The other thing that I have felt in those places and periods was that in some odd way they were also times of great joy. In my early days in Chile, the man who became my husband and his friends had little money to go out, but they would hold all night dance parties until the curfew was lifted. There was lots of laughter, easy friendships. Difficult discussions were had. People disagreed about politics. Folks were scared, unsure, but also we were oddly alive.
Ever since my time in Uruguay, I have felt a heavy burden knowing that it was the policies of my government that helped to jail my host brother Luis. And contributed significantly to the military coup in Chile, where the brother of my friend Marcelo Montecino was killed, along with thousands of others.
I sometimes hesitate to talk too much about these truths here, afraid to offend people, or sound too political, or too harsh against the United States. But these days, for better or worse, I am hearing people talking about politics and policies in new ways. People are grappling to understand what may not be understandable. I spent decades studying this same question and never found the answer.
But what I did find was many amazing stories, many brave people, and a few tragic tales as well. I did learn that processes can take time, sometimes a long time, to play themselves out but that nations can heal from trauma and pains. Challenging times that shake a nation to its core can eventually help usher in new beginnings we cannot yet even conceive of.