An Interview with the General (December 11th, 1975)

11th December 2022 |

In December of 1975 I was in Chile. At that time the entire country was under a fierce military dictatorship. In this same week, 48 years ago, I was in the capital Santiago where a nightly curfew was strictly imposed by lethal means. I was deeply in love at the time with a Chilean journalist who belonged to Chile’s upper social stratum and lived in a prosperous part of town, but her circumstances made it impossible for me to stay with her. My hosts lived some miles away, there was gunfire in the streets every night and several times, leaving her too late, I ran the gauntlet on my bike.

Chile really was beautiful, but deadly

Chile really was beautiful, but deadly

The dictatorship was imposed by four generals, Pinochet for the Army, Leigh Guzman for the Air Force, Merino for the Navy and Mendoza for the police. The most notorious then was Leigh Guzman, whose planes had bombed the presidential palace and caused the death of the President, Salvador Allende. My lover was passionately opposed to the dictatorship but had friends everywhere and we were invited to a party where most of the guests were upper class and favoured the regime. As always in extreme times the producers of tragicomic episodes worked overtime. I met a leather-jacketed man who supported the generals but had been arrested by mistake and imprisoned with left-wing suspects for some days. Frightened to death at the time, he nevertheless described with awe and relish the horrifying screams of tortured victims echoing through the building, relieving me of any doubt I might have had about the stories I had been told. Fortunately for him the mistake was discovered in time and he was released, but he remained convinced that ‘leftists’ all deserved what they got.

I also met a rather pretentious newspaperwoman called Perla Searle who worked for El Mercurio, Chile’s oldest newspaper whose editor, Silva Espejo, fervently supported the generals. I asked her to talk to him on my behalf, and soon after was told that the Air Force General Leigh Guzman had agreed to an interview for The Sunday Times.

So on this Sunday, 48 years ago, I went to her office to meet Perla who complained that she had had to interrupt her lunch, and that we would have to use her car because the paper wouldn’t reimburse her for a taxi. We drove through empty streets to the UNCTAD building where Silva Espejo was waiting to introduce me to the General. Apparently the generals had seized that United Nations building, a great glass barn with a heli-pad on top, for their offices. Uniformed carabinieri, with slung machine guns, unusually shiny boots, and many more leather straps than seemed necessary, were clustered around all the doorways. Because I had no other clothes, I was in my travelling jeans with a broad leather belt and leather pouch, which seemed oddly suitable, and I toyed with the idea of asking to borrow a gun.

Eventually Silva Espejo, an elderly man, formal and impassive, arrived walking very, very slowly and seeming to have trouble with his shoes. Together we advanced at a snail’s pace to the reception area, also dominated by police. A woman exchanged my passport for a piece of paper, I was asked to open my camera case, and we proceeded across a courtyard to the main building. There were some steps to go down, and twice I had to hold Espejo up as his legs gave way.

A guard travelled with us in a lift and passed us on to a reception area, and Espejo went into the general’s office first for 20 minutes before I followed. The General, a short man of undistinguished appearance, greeted me easily and sat opposite me at a table. We talked in French. He began by asking me which countries I had visited. I went through the list as quickly as possible and told him, truthfully enough, how beautiful I thought Chile to be.

“How do you find things here?” he asked.

I said I was anxious for him to know that I had not been sent to get a story. I would only write something if I thought it could be constructive. Thus my opinions would be my true opinions, not those he might want to hear. I said Chile made me nervous, that people were afraid, that if I lived here I too would be frightened of being carried off in the night.

He replied by making a general case for the measures they had taken, putting most emphasis on the “Communist Plot” to isolate Chile psychologically, economically and militarily in preparation for “a Viet Nam in South America. He walked across to his desk, fished out a printed White Paper about the build-up of arms in Peru and came back to sit next to me. It had a rather meaningless title, “Defense: Foreign Affairs,” and he read out lists of arms being supplied to Peru, which had a moderately reform minded government at the time. I remember seeing SA 5, 6, and 7 missiles and 500 T4 tanks. He said he got it from his attaché in London. He read them out as though they were self-explanatory; Peru was being primed for war with Chile. Peru he said was “on a direct line to Communism”, part of the world conspiracy, financed by Russia, through Cuba. Then more stuff about human rights in Cuba and Russia, all confirmed, he said by an exiled Cuban singer whom he’d met the night before. Meanwhile, he said, the British were strangling his air force by refusing to supply parts for his British Hawker Hunters. This was all to do with Communist Unions in the UK.

“Better watch out,” he said, “or we’ll bring all our money out, and won’t sell you any copper.”

Most startling though was his belief that Britain would soon have its own military coup, and I only found out later that there had, in fact, been a crackpot scheme, involving a general or two, to overthrow the government.

I said that my preoccupation was with the many thousands he had locked up and subjected to torture.

“I don’t think you appreciate the significance of the human rights issue in Europe,” I said. “Even those who might otherwise support Chile would not do so in face of the evidence. Surely by now you must have removed the threat to your internal security.”

“Yes, he replied, “there is no more an internal problem.”

“Then you can relax your repressive measures,” I said.

“Yes, I am going to talk to the other generals about it this month.”

“And your prisoners?” I prodded.

“We realise we must let them go.”

I left on a wave of euphoria, but before writing anything I went to discuss the matter with the British ambassador’s number two.

Far from being encouraged, he was disturbed by my news. We sat outside the embassy on a plumbed lawn where the risers, inconveniently, popped up to water the benches we were sitting on, causing him to speak sharply to his gardener. After a lengthy talk I was persuaded not to send anything to London for fear I was being used and that it might upset the ambassador’s arrangements.

I have regretted it bitterly ever since. There never was a relaxation and, so far as anyone knew, no prisoners were released. At the very least I would have exposed their hypocrisy.

I visited Gustavo Leigh Guzmann again in 1982, now retired and in business. He received me in his office in jovial fashion. Shortly afterwards men burst in with machine guns and assassinated him.