No Going Back: When Exile Becomes Eternal

It began with the ‘No’ campaign. Chileans around the world, many of whom famously kept their suitcases packed till the day they could return safely, were filled with optimism. Then the transition to democracy engulfed us in a euphoric sense of hope that maybe, slowly, things could be edged back to the middle ground and we could safely return home. True, the mass influx of people from Europe, North America and Australia would bring with it problems: language barriers, cultural confusion and readjustment but finally exile would be finished. And this was the dream had in my family.

Sadly we did not anticipate what lay ahead. Language barriers were the least of our troubles in a country that was unwelcoming in every sense. Education and professional qualifications had to be certified which cost much time and money, flats could not be let to us as we had no financial history in Chile, so a years deposit was required. And then health care; we had no insurance so £20 per visit had to be shelled out (soon I learned to ignore colds and minor infections). The expense of bureaucracy and the premiums we had to pay for a lack of financial history soon took their toll, as did the price of my college fees. Soon our little mound of pounds began to disappear and I began to understand that I may not be able to progress in this country. Not only was it alien, it was exceedingly hostile. A place where only those who swim in gold can access the basic things that we take for granted in the developed world.

Among the financial barriers that many exiles faced, there were invisible political barriers that we were naively unaware of, not having been subjected to the brainwashings of a military dictatorship for years on end. I now understand that my inability to insert myself in the social spheres around me, despite my best efforts, was an inevitable side effect of societal prejudice woven tightly for many years, by the Junta’s media machine.

The biggest disappointment for the  returning population, was finding itself witness to the political lie that was the ‘transition’ to democracy. Alarm bells rang at the release of the Rettig report: a whitewashed shambles of a document that just added salt to fresh wounds. Harder still, was having to live side by side with former torturers & delatantes and seeing the best positions in politics and business filled by ex military and secret servicemen. It certainly didn’t feel very democratic or safe.

The rocky road back to Chile was like a cruel cat and mouse game that many would never win. We had neither the means nor the will to adjust to this cruel bear pit of a country, where Pinochet was still casting his shadow long and dark over every aspect of Chilean life. And so the bounce-back commenced, destroying families and yet again draining yet more funds and emotions. Leaving Chile meant having to pick up the pieces once more but this time, for many, there was truly no going back. Making the choice to come back meant I left my father behind but there was no place for me there. Chile was demanding an unreasonable compromise: insertion into a damaged amnesiac gorila nation with nothing much in return. With all them sticks and not a whiff of carrot, it was the end of the road for me.

As a community, the acceptance of eternal exile has been hard. We all dream of someday returning but for many, especially the elderly, who depend on healthcare and social services, or those who have already made a life here, the only viable option is to choose the country of refuge. Chile is barely able to accept and face the horror of its recent past; A politically immature nation, where the power of the beast is king. It’s poor handling of even the most basic fulfillments makes me wonder if it will ever have the social sophistication to handle the complex needs of a rather battered retuning population. That is why coming back is the start of a long goodbye.

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