‘They came into the house. They broke my teeth’

Carmen Castillo, survivor of the 1970s coup in Chile, is still fighting oppression

The demonstrations that rocked Chile at the end of 2019 were a source of joy for the Franco-Chilean film-maker Carmen Castillo.

France gave Castillo asylum after the late dictator Augusto Pinochet had her husband assassinated, and nearly killed her, in 1974. Now 74 she returns to her home country for several months each year, to teach in a co-operative that trains disadvantaged Chileans in cinematography.

By chance Castillo was in Santiago last October when a protest against a rise in the price of metro tickets mushroomed into the worst civil arrest since Pinochet's CIA-backed coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Pinochet enlisted “Chicago boys” trained by Milton Friedman, the father of neoliberal economics, to transform the Chilean economy. “The neoliberal bible was followed more in Chile than in the US,” says Castillo, quoting the Canadian activist Naomi Klein.


“They made Chile a neoliberal utopia. They reversed agrarian reform and privatised everything, even the water supply, creating colossal fortunes. They dismantled trade unions and laws on social protection.”

As soon as the 2019 protests started, Castillo went out into the streets with colleagues and students from the film school. “I wasn’t a spectator,” she said in an interview in her apartment in an immigrant neighbourhood of northern Paris. “I was there to do something. We filmed in the streets and squares, to give the lie to government propaganda that the unrest was due to vandals, delinquents and drug addicts.

“We edited our films very quickly, and projected them on city walls after nightfall,” Castillo continues. “Chileans have hard, dehumanised lives and they have been humiliated. They were dying to talk. And what did they say? They said, ‘We love each other. We didn’t know each other.’ ”

The young people asked me, 'Afraid of what? What do we have to lose?'

When President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency on October 18th, Castillo remembered the 1973 state of siege and assumed the unrest would end. “But it didn’t, because the young people hadn’t been through that experience. Fear dissolved in a newfound sense of community. The young people asked me, ‘Afraid of what? What do we have to lose?’ ”

Castillo had thought Chileans were “robotised”, too beaten down by the struggle to survive to even think of rebelling. “I never expected to see such a moment in my lifetime, when isolated people become a group, when a population again becomes a people. I was swept away by it.”

Among the images projected on the walls of Santiago was that of a 99-year-old protester in a wheelchair. She was Monica Echeverria, a much loved writer, artist, founder of the anti-Pinochet women’s movement Mujeres Por la Vida, and Castillo’s mother.

In December, the month before she died in Castillo’s arms, Echeverria lost her right eye in an accident. Before her funeral, Castillo and her sister dressed their mother in her favourite red blouse, and placed a red patch over her lost eye, “in solidarity with the 340 youths who lost an eye to police flash balls”.

A photograph of Echeverria lying in state went viral. “She has become the emblem of today’s youth revolt in Chile,” Castillo says proudly.

Renewed unrest

Castillo anticipates renewed unrest throughout this month. A feminist group called Las Tesis drew global attention to widespread reports of sexual abuse and rape of female protesters by singing “You’re the rapist!” blindfold and with pointed fingers. The song was performed in cities around the world, including Berlin, Paris, London and New York.

Castillo will be a guest of honour at a retrospective of Chilean films at the Pompidou Centre in early April. El País de Mi Padre, her 2004 documentary about her father, the architect and university rector Fernando Castillo Velasco, will be shown on April 5th. She will fly to Santiago the following day to film the April 26th referendum on a new constitution. “The referendum is our first victory,” Castillo says. “We obtained something that was not achieved in 30 years.”

Castillo’s life was changed for ever by Pinochet’s 1973 coup and the assassination of her second husband, Miguel Enriquez, a medical doctor and the leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Mir).

Castillo’s parents were friends with the family of President Allende. She was for a time married to one of Allende’s nephews, and worked in the foreign ministry during his administration.

When Allende was overthrown, Castillo and Enriquez went into hiding.

“We had a beautiful life, with two little girls: mine, Camila; and his, Javiera. We lived in a blue house with a patio, a little garden and a dog. Miguel was the head of the resistance. I ran messages for him.

“I became pregnant – apparently that happens when you risk your life, when you’re living intensely. You think about life, not death. We organised everything so I could give birth under a false name.”

A year after the coup, the couple learned that Marcia Merino, a Mir leader known as La Flaca Alejandra, had talked under torture by Pinochet’s secret police. “We asked the Italian embassy to take care of the little girls and prepared for our escape.

The nurse notified my uncle that I was alive, and a huge international campaign forced Pinochet to expel me

“On Saturday, October 5th, 1974, the military attacked our house. We resisted and they fell back. They weren’t very many at first. We tried to escape but a grenade exploded. I was wounded in the chest and right arm. It cut an artery. Miguel was wounded too. The two comrades who were with us thought we were dead and ran away.

“Miguel fought for an hour and a half. We talked. He realised I was bleeding to death and there was no way out. He climbed on to the roof of the house next door and he screamed, ‘There is a wounded woman. Stop shooting.’ They shot him dead then. The Dina (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional) came into the house. They broke my teeth.”

Political refugee

Castillo’s tone changes as she recounts what she calls “the chain of good”, which resulted in her survival. “There were helicopters and hundreds of soldiers around the house. A humble neighbour, who barely knew me to say hello, pushed his way through. He carried me in his arms to an off-duty ambulance that was parked nearby. He took me to the hospital emergency room. The nurse notified my uncle that I was alive, and a huge international campaign forced Pinochet to expel me. I was sent as a political refugee to London.”

Castillo told the story of Miguel Enriquez’s assassination in a film, Rue Santa Fe, which was shown in the official selection at the Cannes film festival in 2007. She had recounted the torture of Merino and her betrayal of fellow party leaders in the 1994 film La Flaca Alejandra.

But she had not talked about the infant she gave birth to in Cambridge in December 1974. “Only now am I able to think about the baby. Not before. Trauma is like that. I couldn’t. Now, for my daughter ... He lived five weeks. He died because of my wounds ... Miguel and I had chosen a different name for him, but because Miguel was dead, I baptised him with his father’s name, and my father added Angel, because he saved my life.”

How does one live after such tragedy? I ask. “You either commit suicide, as my closest friend, Allende’s daughter Beatrice did, or you rise above it,” Castillo says. “I think you have to destroy nostalgia to live. In my case I had to become concerned about other people again, about politics and the world ... Sometimes you remember and sometimes you forget. Memories do not age. When they resurface you deal with them. But sometimes forgetting is precious.”

Castillo’s most recent film, broadcast on French television in January, tells the story of Ambassador Pierre de Menthon and his wife, Françoise, who saved the lives of more than 600 left-wing Chileans by sheltering them in the French embassy and ambassador’s residence in the aftermath of the coup.

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Castillo was inspired to make the film by an encampment of African and Middle East migrants living beneath the overhead metro line near her apartment building. She wants the France of Emmanuel Macron to be as generous to present-day refugees as 600,000 French members of solidarity committees were towards Chileans fleeing Pinochet back in 1973.

Castillo is now raising funds for her next film, based on an interview that the Italian director Roberto Rossellini did with Salvador Allende in 1971. “Allende can teach today’s Chilean demonstrators how to think,” she says.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Castillo says: “My generation stopped believing in an ideal communist society.” She defines her own politics as being on the side of the oppressed. She is thrilled that Bernie Sanders is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in the US.

“He contradicts all the analysts who say that’s not the way to beat Trump. He doesn’t have the support of the Democratic establishment. He doesn’t have money. And people are following him, because he’s against neoliberalism and he has a programme of social justice.”