By Maxine Lowy
Immigrants and refugees bring great expectations to the country they arrive in. In Chile, however, both today and decades ago, such aspirations for a better and more just life can become tarnished by a harsh reality.
Hostility towards immigrants to the point of placing their lives at risk was a thread that wove together a commemoration held August 30 on the narrow, cobblestone lane outside Londres 38 Space of Memory, organized in conjunction with Justicia y Dignidad Sin Fronteras, and a number of other organizations in Santiago. The event was the formal launching of “30 to 30,” a month-long series of activities against racism in Chile.
It was the International Day of Disappeared Detainees, so declared in 2010 by the United Nations. Of the 1193 persons (i) subjected to this never-ending absence that was state policy of the Chilean dictatorship, 88 persons were seen at the 38 Londres street detention and torture center operated by the repressive DINA secret police in 1973 and 1974.(ii) This year the commemoration’s special focus was on the foreigners and immigrants who form part of that tragic roster.
Greater awareness of the vulnerability immigrants face in Chile, which in the past ten years became one of the major destinations for regional Latin American immigration, was reinforced by a coincidence of the date. On August 30, 2017 the Haitian immigrant Joane Florvil was detained in Santiago, culminating with her death a month later.
In regards to foreign residents of Chile, both tragedies are interlaced by an attitude that stems from a similar root.
In the 1960s under the presidency of Eduardo Frei Montalva and during the three years of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, Chile was viewed from afar as a stable, democracy with the promise of increasing improvement in the quality of life. Thousands of foreigners saw Chile as a place to study, work, live, and, during Allende’s term, observe the socialist process. Moreover, neighboring countries submerged in authoritarian regimes led to an exodus of hundreds who found safe harbor in Chile. At the time of the military coup, according to estimates of the military junta itself, approximately 13,000 foreigners were living in Chile.(iii)
On September 12, 1973, the day after the coup, the radio and other mass media broadcast a military decree that ordered foreigners to report to local police stations. In the following days, Chileans heard military officials call on them to report all foreigners: “Do not have compassion with the foreign extremists who have come to kill Chileans.”(iv) From one day to the other, foreigners had become potential enemies. Sixty-one immigrants are among the forcibly disappeared detained by the dictatorship, while scores were arrested and expelled. Additionally, 200,000 Chilean citizens were forced to leave in this country, which was not a propitious land for immigrants in those years.
With the March 1990 inauguration of the first post-dictatorship government, Chile projected itself as a prosperous developing nation with modern communications and infrastructure. However, the political and economic structure inherited from dictatorship remained practically intact. Also pending was truth and justice for the human rights violations committed during dictatorship. The lack of full justice is another common thread that unites legal processes for crimes committed by dictatorship with those committed today, as in the case of Joane Florvil.
Recognition of Chile as member of the circle of democratic countries was crowned in 2004 with the invitation to participate in the United Nations peacekeeper mission in Haiti. The thirteen-year presence of Chilean troops on the island generated a positive image of Chile, encouraging thousands to travel to the far southern hemisphere.
In early 2017, when Joane Florvil arrived in Chile, expressions from the government itself that stigmatized immigrants, differentiating between “good and bad immigrants,” were already heard. It was a strategy by which the government justified measures that denied visas specifically to Venezuelan and Haitian immigrants. The consequence of this policy for many immigrants has been extreme vulnerability and precarity in the quality of their daily lives. Next, in 2021, the government has proceeded to implement an action, not seen since in Chile the years under dictatorship: the administrative and mass expulsion of immigrants, largely, Venezuelan. The institutional distrust and repressive policies that affect immigrants represent another link that connects the government of today with the military regime.
A discriminatory view of immigrants and Afro-descendants in particular had tremendous consequences for Joane Florvil. A series of errors, negligence and mistaken presumptions by municipal, police, and health officials, led to her arrest and the dispossession of her two-month-old daughter. As occurred 45 years before when the communications media abated the detention of foreign residents, now Joane was criminalized by the repeated transmission of images of the handcuffed young mother who had allegedly abandoned her baby. One month later, on September 30, 2017, Joane Florvil died in the hospital. Her daughter remained in custody of the governmental child protection agency until her now widowed husband was able to recover the child.
Subsequently, other situations of discriminatory negligence led to the death of Monise Joseph, 31, (May 2019) while waiting for care in a hospital and of Emmaus Louis, 6, (January 2021) who drowned in a swimming pool during a school outing. On August 31 Louis Gentil became the latest Haitian immigrant to die, this time, shot by police, according to witnesses without cause, in the La Ligua neighborhood of Santiago.
Since the beginning of the democratic recovery process in 1990, the whereabouts of five people have been unaccounted for subsequent to their arrest by police have gone unaccounted for: Hugo Arispe (2001), José Huenante (2005), Ramón Pacheco (2008), José Vergara (2015), and the young Haitian immigrant Jean Fedor Louis (2020). The lact of truth and justice in these cases is yet another link in the chain that connects them to the majority of forced disappeared detainees during dictatorship.
The seventy people, with masks, who gathered in front of the Londres 38 site of memory listened to the stories about 19 immigrants forcibly disappeared in dictatorship. They also heard Haitian social work student Michel Joseph affirm, “In Chile we are worse than animals. Here animals receive medical treatment and live well, but we are humiliated and mistreated. The color of our skin has made us victims of this supposedly democratic system.”
Carlos Astudillo took the microphone, still leaning on crutches nearly two years after police left him severely wounded in the early days of social protests in October 2019. He told the crowd, “Human rights violations connect many generations. They connect those of us who endured human rights violations today because there is no justice for us.”
The Londres 38 and the coalition Justicia y Dignidad sin Fronteras Londres 38 have collaborated on immigrant rights issues several years. For the series of events scheduled in the “30 to 30” program, they are joined by other organizations: Trama Tejido Migrante, Ethic Commission Against Torture, Ampro, Migraciones y Acceso a Derecho, Feminist Professors and Students Collective, Observatorio Ciudadano, Diana Aron Jewish Association, and T-Zen. The activities will conclude September 30 with a memorial service in front of the hospital where Joane Florvil died four years ago.
i La Segunda, October 20, 1973, p. 3., cited in Pascale Bonnefoy, Terrorismo de Estadio (2016), 166.
ii La Tercera, September 16, 1973, cited in Terrorismo de Estadio by P. Bonnefoy, 111.
iii Elías Padilla. La memoria y el olvido: Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Chile (Santiago: Ediciones Orígenes. 1995)
Thanks to London 38 for the photo of the event.