Living Through a Dictatorship

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Donald Trump claims he’s going to prosecute all of the media outlets that are against him. He says he’s going to round-up all immigrants and put them behind a wall in a territory that the U.S. does not govern. He also flaunts to nuke ISIS while threatening pretty much the entire Arab world at large.

Boy, he sounds pretty aggressive, don’t you think? Some may say his words indicate a desire to take over the world…like, gee, who knows? Hitler? Pinochet? Stalin?

It might sound like an exaggeration, but Donald Trump may very well be America’s first dictator. The harsh reality is that it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to learn from those who have already survived horrid dictatorships.

BTRtoday talks with Isabel Herrera and Beatriz Luna, a mother and daughter who have lived through the era of Pinochet in Chile during the 1970s. Holocaust-survivor, Tibor Spitz, also lends a word about being forced into labor by Fidel Castor in Cuba.

First, we venture into Pinochet-ruled Chile.

The name, Augusto Pinochet, still brings shivers down Herrera’s spine. The American-trained tyrant rose to power after bombing the democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende’s palace in Santiago Chile on September 11th, 1973.

“Even today I do not like the armed forces,” Herrera tells BTRtoday. “I feel that they do not deserve my respect.”

Pinochet converted Chile’s stadiums into prison and torture camps for people suspected to be Allende sympathizers or communists. By the end of 1973, only months after gaining power, there were around 250,000 men and women in these camps. The approximately 3,200 Chileans escorted out or arrested were never seen again; Chileans called them “Los Desaparecidos,” or “The Disappeared.”

“Everyone felt fear and complete insecurity,” Herrera describes the day she found out Pinochet had taken over. “Many friends and acquaintances were arrested, some were tortured and then exiled; others just disappeared.”

Herrera and her family were known Allende supporters. Her brother was the government’s in-house dentist during the president’s term, and her father worked with the Chilean ambassador in Washington D.C. and served as president for the Pan American Union.

Herrera explains that Pinochet exiled her father to Mexico with no documentation, and then to Argentina where he was to be assassinated. However, he was able to escape to Venezuela where the government there received him.

“It is an experience that you never cease to forget, you have to live it to understand it,” she says. “You learn to be quiet—it cost too much to express that you were against the government of Pinochet, because you were risking your life. The bitterness of what should have never happened remains with you forever.”

Her daughter, Beatriz Luna, was an adolescent during the time. She was able to escape to the U.S. by age 15 and has lived there ever since.

For her, the date of September 11th will always have a dark cloud over it.

She explains that the day she found out about Pinochet she was an 11-year-old sitting in class. Over the loudspeaker, administrators announced for everyone to promptly head home.

“Just like the U.S.’ tragedy on 9-11, it started as a deceitfully beautiful day,” Luna says. “It was a mixture of intense fear and excitement. I mean, we were literally thinking, ‘Are we going to make it home alive?’ You could hear jeeps and distant bullets flying, and I just wanted to see my mom and my family.”

She conveys that the months during the state of siege were particularly terrifying because what was usually a very busy and bustling cosmopolitan city was suddenly dead silent.

All the while, Luna would receive calls from her grandfather who was exiled. Each time he called, she feared for his life.

The phone lines were tapped because of their known position in the Allende government, so she had to be careful with every word she said. The tapping devices on her phones were very loud and obvious because it was the ‘70s and technology was not as advanced as it is now.

“I feel bad, because I was a teenage girl and I would talk to my girlfriends for hours about the dumbest stuff you could imagine,” Luna jokes.

Her smirk quickly goes away—she starts to remember why she was always on the phone. “You were afraid to even go into your yard,” she says. During the state of siege Pinochet had taken over the televisions and the radios; whatever programming was available was Pinochet propaganda.

“I have to say, it really gave me this feeling of existentialism—which I was able to recognize once I was older, because you really feel like you can die at any minute,” Luna says.

After only a couple years of living in the U.S. she returned to Pinochet-ruled Chile as a teenager to visit her grandmother. Unfortunately, she was ill-prepared and had no identification on her except for her newly gained American Public Library card. The Pinochet military stopped her on the corner and identified her as the revolutionary on their most wanted list.

Luna was now not only terrified, but she was also confused and almost certain she was going to be arrested and killed. She didn’t know what to do—luckily, her grandmother came in just in time to vouch for her identification and save her from what could have been the end of her life.

“I guess no one can argue with an old Chilean lady, not even Pinochet,” Luna laughs. “Then I left feeling proud that they confused me for that revolutionary woman—I wish I would have been that.”

Pinochet was never convicted. He was arrested and put on trial when he was 83 years old, but declared unfit and sent back to Chile. However, his leading doctor came forth and stated he never said that and parliament was “misled.” By the time they realized they were tricked, it was too late–Pinochet died of old age comfortably in his homeland of Chile.

Justice was never served.

Now, rewind to 1968 in Fidel Castro-ruled Cuba. Tibor Spiz, a holocaust survivor, is being forced into labor to do the impossible. He tells BTRtoday that he was required to create a functioning glass industry for Castro that was supposed to take two years, but was demanded to be done in six weeks.

“The Cuban government representative made a gesture with his finger across his neck. As a tough guy—a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, I spoke that language,” Spitz explains. “In six few weeks the first one, and soon all three glass factories, [and] after three years of failed attempts by many others, were making useable products.”

When Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek began to inquire about payments, Castro refused. Spitz says that instead of repaying his debt, he started to deny him and his fellow co-workers ration tickets in an attempt to starve them to death.

He was sent back to Czechoslovakia to present his superior a progress report, however, when the plane landed in Canada to refuel, he and his wife took that chance to escape—they were able to lay low and remain in Canada for nine years before moving to the U.S.

“Escaping to the West has profoundly changed my life,” Spitz describes passionately. “I gained freedom, even though I lost all my possessions, livelihood, contacts with old coworkers, relatives, and friends.”

Though he was arrested for entering the country illegally, with no visa, he was able to survive. He and his wife moved eight different times before settling in Kingston, NY. Now Spitz is a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and works as a glass technologist, motivational speaker, and artist. A documentary was recently made about his life surviving the holocaust and Castro’s reign.

“I had no problems with the Cuban people—to the contrary, it was just with the regime,” Spitz concludes. “No American political system, present or in the future, is or can be comparable to the communist regimes during that time—the Nazis, Soviets, and even Fidel Castro, all three of them tried hard to shorten my life and all of them failed.”

These brave people, Isabel Herrera, Beatriz Luna, and Tibor Spitz, are just a few who survived dictatorship reigns. It wasn’t easy, but they are still alive today and living life to the fullest—Herrera is a lawyer in Santiago, Chile. Luna is a Neuroscientist for the university of Pittsburgh; and Spitz is traveling the world as a motivational speaker.

You have to be a strong person to survive through times as these three people did. With the imminent tides of a potential dictator on the horizon, we might remind ourselves such stories of bravery can serve as a beacon of hope when all light seems lost.