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Postcard from Chile

I couldn’t decide whether to accept an invitation, October is a busy time of year in politics, would I ever have a better reason to visit Cuba?

So, I decided to accept the invite from my friend Pablo and his fiancée Consuella to attend their wedding in Casablanca about half an hour’s drive from the capital Santiago.

Taking place in the hospitality area of a vineyard with – despite a temperature of 30 degrees - stunning views of the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. The wedding proved memorable.

I was much in demand for photos as the only foreigner and the only one with a kilt (happily restored to me after my case was lost in the transfer at Sao Paulo airport).

The marriage ceremony included a classical guitarist playing quietly in the background. Followed by local sparkling wine and pinchos in the grounds of the viñas.

The party after the main meal was notable for the heavy consumption, most notably by the bridegroom himself, of pisco, a local brandy-like firewater. By 4am when the taxis arrived to take guests home exhaustion had taken hold.

The next day I had the pleasure of meeting the wider family and sampling homemade food on a trip to Vina del Mar a beautiful port by the sea; waves crashing on glorious sandy beaches, old mansion houses now museums and public galleries, green space amidst high rise projects…

The garden city as it’s sometimes known boasts an amazing coastline, Excellent fish and shellfish are not to be missed, along with the Municipal Theatre and Wulff Castle. Add some of the many festivals and you’ll not be spoiled for things to do!

A couple of days after the wedding my hosts took me to Valparaiso, which had been an important port for ships coming round Cape Horn to the Pacific. However its importance declined after the opening of the Panama canal in 1914 provided a shorter and safer route.

The city retains many remarkable buildings from the 19th century including the faded glory of the Queen Victoria Hotel. Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but I regret to say that it has a distinctly down at heel look where graffiti is the lingua franca.

The most stunning building in the city is the headquarters of the Chilean Navy where I learned a lot more about Thomas Cochrane from Culross in Fife who from 1818 commanded the navy of the Chileans fighting for their liberation from Spain.

Until his arrival the Spanish had control of the seas and were able to send reinforcements of men and supplies to strengthen their land forces.

Cochrane’s intervention meant that his ships gained control of the seas and decisively changed the balance of forces on the land. He is better known in Chile than here in Scotland and is still regarded by Chileans as a great hero.

Hero is not a word that can be used about Augusto Pinochet the military dictator of Chile from 1973 till 1990.

Not only did his period in power start with the overthrow of the elected government but his repressive regime ruthlessly extinguished political dissent through killings, torture and censorship and indeed after he ceased to be President in 1990 he continued to have a big influence as Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army until 1998.

It is clear that Chileans are still working through the full meaning of Pinochet’s effect on their country.

In the National Art Gallery there were two major exhibitions both devoted to the Pinochet years. One of which concentrated on the work of Alfredo Jaar whose Public Interventions Studies on Happiness: 1979-1981 - at a time when most left wing artists had left Chile - was a project that gave ‘the finger’ to the establishment by putting up large posters in cities and beside major roads asking the question Es usted feliz? (Are you happy?).

It asked people to think about their circumstances and was of course a very subtle, perhaps inoffensive, form of protest. The fact that such a mild question could be seen as important 40 years on is a good indication of the scale of the repression under Pinochet.

By coincidence one of my good friends had visited Chile a few weeks before I did. He signed up for a trip to the Maipo Valley for what was described as an opportunity to sample a few glasses of good wine beside a beautiful lake.

It turned out to be more than that.

The area is not only important for its vineyards but also its gold mines and the tour minibus stopped beside a railway engine. The guide explained that the engine was used to transport rock from the mines to the processing plant where the gold was extracted.

However in the Pinochet years the train had a more sinister purpose.

It regularly pulled carriages peopled by Communists and other left wingers which entered a tunnel where troops were waiting to shoot the occupants.

In a private conversation during the tour my friend asked the guide about the Pinochet years and was told one of his close relatives had died in that tunnel.

In my time as Leader of Edinburgh Council I have stressed the importance of Edinburgh continuing to be an international city alert to the issues in the wider world such as Ukraine.

My visit to Chile has only strengthened that view. ■

Cammy Day

Info: Cammy Day is Councillor for Forth Ward and Leader of Edinburgh Council


Maipo Valley Winery and Alfredo Jaar’s Public Interventions Studies on Happiness: 1979-1981

Pinochet continued to have a big influence as Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army until 1998



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