In times of the Chilean dictatorship, as in Nazi Germany, there were murders, tortures, betrayals, cowardice and all the evil one can imagine. But there was also solidarity, fraternity and extreme heroism. Perhaps it is always in times of catastrophe that these two sides of the human being appear.
Now I want to tell you about a hero, brave like few others, daring and altruistic, who exposed his life to save the lives of others.
Surely many of you know him, but perhaps the younger ones don’t. His name was Harald Edelstam, he was the ambassador of Sweden in Chile and he was called “The Black Carnation”, emulating that of “Scarlet Pimpernel”.
The story of the Black Carnation is similar to “Schindler’s List” because although the situations were different, both have very similar traits of courage, generosity and greatness.
Harald Edelstam was a lawyer and came from a noble family in Sweden. He fought against Nazism in World War II and when he could, he helped Jewish families in Berlin and protected those fighting in the resistance against the Nazis. It was there that he earned the nickname ” Black Carnation “, which he retained throughout his life.
After the war, he held diplomatic posts in several countries, some of them in Latin America, including Guatemala. There, in 1954, a military coup led by Carlos Castillo Armas, supported by the United States, overthrew the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz. Harald Edelstam collaborated with those who acted against the dictatorship and dedicated himself to denouncing human rights violations in Guatemala.
In 1972 the Swedish government appointed him ambassador to Chile. Edelstam felt very honored, as he sympathized with the government of Salvador Allende. When he arrived in Chile, he was no longer young, he was almost 60 years old, but he was a tall and slim man, very good-looking. He soon made friends with political and government leaders, artists, and intellectuals of the left and often went to the poorest towns and fraternized with the people.
When the civil-military coup took place, he, who had always been an anti-fascist fighter and a defender of humanism, felt involved and shocked by the crimes and excesses of the dictatorship. The Swedish embassy opened its doors to all the persecuted and they were received there with understanding and respect.
The ambassador visited the National Stadium daily, where 12,000 prisoners passed through: Chileans, Uruguayans, Argentines, Europeans, many of whom died and others were tortured.
The Black Carnation granted safe-conducts, drove the persecuted in his own vehicle, visited shelters and coordinated with international organizations.
For its part, the Cuban embassy had serious problems. Every night it was surrounded by fascists, without the dictator’s police doing anything to protect it, and insults and gunshots were heard.
Cuba decided to break off relations with the dictatorial government. However, that has some drawbacks. Because although it shows the world the repudiation of an illegitimate government, as many countries did, including Mexico, embassies as places of refuge diminish.
In those moments the Black Carnation went to the Cuban embassy and told the ambassador Mario García Incháustegui: “Don’t worry, go calmly, I assume the interests of Cuba in Chile and I will carefully attend to the people who are asylum seekers here.”
The Cuban diplomats left the embassy, ready to defend themselves against the fascist attacks, but the wretches did not dare because Cubans are brave people and are a tough bunch.
That same day, Harald Edelstam took possession of the Cuban embassy and replaced the Cuban flag with the Swedish flag.
Rolando Calderón, trade union leader and former minister of agriculture, and work of the popular government, was in the asylum there. One day when he went out into the courtyard, he was shot to death from outside. The bullet grazed his head and shattered a ciliary arch, but missed his eye. Ambassador Edelstam took him to the hospital in his car, and since he had a sense of humor when the military tried to stop him, he would shout “Where I pass, it’s Swedish territory,” and so he managed to advance.
However, there was a much more complicated case. An Uruguayan refugee, Mirtha Fernández Pucurull, a Tupamara whose battle name was Malena, became seriously ill and it was essential to take her to the hospital. Harald got a stretcher, Mirtha lay down on it and the Black Carnation went out of the embassy himself, pushing the stretcher, claiming that this was Swedish territory, and managed to get to the hospital.
But on the way out, things got complicated. When she was discharged, soldiers came in and wanted to take her away.
The ambassador had to defend her against the armed soldiers, struggled with them and lay on top of the sick woman shouting “this is Swedish territory”.
Years after, Mirtha wrote a book called “Colgada de un piolín” (piolín in Uruguay means a thin rope, a little string) and there she says on one of its pages:
“Harald remained to cling to my stretcher like a limpet to a rock. His hands were trembling, although he made an effort to appear very calm”.
That was how he carried her in and removed her from the hospital himself, putting his own body as protection against the military who tried to snatch her away from him.
By the way, on September 23, 1973, Ambassador Edelstam attended, in the main places, the funeral of Pablo Neruda, the first public act carried out under dictatorship, in which La Internacional was sung.
But the Military Junta did not wait long and in December 1973 Edelstam was declared “persona non grata” and had to leave Chile, after three months in which he saved thousands of persecuted people.
The Black Carnation died in Sweden in 1989, at the age of 76.
Numerous tributes have been paid to him in Sweden, Chile, Guatemala and many other countries where he lived, worked and protected political opponents of the governments.
In 2009, the Harald Edelstam Award was established in his country of origin.
A promenade in Montevideo has been named after him since 2005.
In March 2013 a stamp was issued in his honor in Uruguay on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
In Chile, there is a monument in his honor the Plaza Montecarmelo in Santiago.
Even in 2006, a feature film was shot in Chile about the life of Harald Edelstam, by a Swedish director, Uls Hultberg. The film is called “The black pimpernel” (El Clavel negro).
In closing, I will say: Honor and Glory to Harald Edelstam, the Black Carnation.