Into the abyss

Being Luis: a Chilean life

Luis Muñoz <em>Impress Books, 272pp, £11.99 (pbk)</em>

ISBN 095475861

Reading this autobiography of a revolutionary in Pinochet’s Chile is a reminder that my contemporaries and I inhabit a world dramatically different from that of our parents. Despite the odd stage-managed protest, the heady times that gave birth to Luis Muñoz and his ilk are gone, times when young people really believed that they could save the world. And nowhere is the generational shift starker than in Latin America.

I worked in Colombia for a couple of years after leaving university and became friends with a group of bright, well-informed students. To engage with politics was, for them, to participate in the long, bloody conflict that has scarred their lives and families. Many of them had parents who had participated in the early, idealistic stages of the Colombian civil war, and suffered or died for it. They felt strongly about the poverty in their country, and the corrupt politicians who were doing little to prevent it. Understandably, however, they saw little benefit in getting involved. They could see that the stakes were too high, and the chances of ever making a difference too slight.

Things were different for Luis Muñoz. He grew up in an impoverished family in Chile, and became active in left-wing politics as a teenager just before Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970.

It was a harsh era - Muñoz describes his father’s descent into bedridden depression as his family went hungry - but at least it was an optimistic one. Muñoz and his comrades believed passionately that "everything was possible" and were prepared to risk their lives for a better future. When Allende came to power and introduced sweeping reforms, their dreams seemed on the brink of coming true.

We know what happened next. General Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup in 1973, and the 80,000 people whom it is estimated were murdered or tortured during the 17 years he remained in power, have been well documented. This eloquent, brutally personal book takes us right inside the torture chamber and, even more disturbingly, inside the mind of a torture victim.

Muñoz and his pregnant girlfriend, Diana Aron, were detained in 1974. Aron never reappeared, having apparently been shot on arrest. Muñoz was taken to Villa Grimaldi, the infamous torture centre in Santiago, where he was subjected to months of "interrogation". He was then transferred to a concentration camp, one in a network dotted across the country. After a long and terrifying incarceration, he was exiled to England, where he began slowly and painfully to rebuild his life.

These days, Chile is hailed as one of Latin America’s success stories. Pinochet is credited in some quarters with having implemented the strict economic policies that eventually stabilised its economy.

But this book highlights the true legacy of those years: a society that has looked into the abyss and seen how low human nature can sink. Muñoz describes how his youthful optimism, "the openness, the honesty, the nobility of everyone’s intentions", were shattered. Face to face with his torturer, he sees "the face of the new Chile that had just been born: out of horrendous atrocities and terror, the past had been erased and a new kind of person had emerged in power, devoid of feelings towards fellow humans".

The most heartbreaking chapter of Being Luis is the first, in which Muñoz returns to Chile to testify against his torturers after 12 years in exile. He is confronted with a sight that will be only too familiar to anybody who has visited Latin America - streets full of homeless children, who sleep in doorways and beg for leftovers from restaurants. "We had left our blood and flesh in the torture chambers . . . lost our dearest and most loved ones. All because we did not want to see . . . children of such a tender age begging for food in the streets. And here they were, in their hundreds." It seems to Muñoz that the sacrifices made by his generation did not count for much. Who can blame young Latin Americans of today if they are not prepared to do the same?