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Memories Of Travel To Chile, Two Years After The Coup

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It was a long time ago, but...

Back in 1975, when I was traveling through South America, I decided to go to Santiago, Chile. I had been told that the country was beautiful, especially the area around the Pacific resort of Vina del Mar. I also knew that there had been a coup two years earlier, and I was curious to see that the country looked like in its aftermath.

My first impressions of Santiago were chilling. It certainly looked like a city under siege, even two years later. The military presence was everywhere, from armored personnel carriers parked alongside the road from the airport to the soldiers standing at the main intersections, their automatic weapons held loosely at their sides.

Like everyone else, I had seen the newspaper photos of the coup against the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende. The pictures were dramatic, especially those of the presidential palace -- La Moneda -- being strafed from the air by the Chilean Air Force, now under control of General Agosto Pinochet.

It was quite a feat to do it -- the Palace, a squat, walled compound that sat right in the middle of downtown Santiago amid high rise office buildings and hotels, was a difficult target, to say the least. A pilot would have to swoop down and then pull up quickly to avoid crashing into the neighboring buildings.

I expected to see total destruction when I arrived at the presidential palace, but I was amazed to see, from the street level at least, that the outside seemed perfectly intact. The walls surrounding La Moneda, which took up an entire city block, were gray and smooth, showing no signs of the destruction I was sure had been inflicted during the aerial bombing.

Curious -- and not believing what I had seen -- I took an elevator to the top floor of a nearby hotel. There was a rooftop bar there, and from that vantage point, you could look down at the inside of the presidential palace.

What I saw was shocking -- total rubble within the perfectly preserved outer walls, a scene of massive destruction, but not visible unless you had this bird's-eye view.

I quickly guessed what had happened -- the military dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet and patched up the outside of the palace to make it look like nothing had happened. But I wanted to test this theory and get a local opinion, if anyone dared give it, so I summoned a waiter over to my table.

"Why is there so much destruction inside," I asked him, pointing to the scene down below. "The walls are so well preserved."

The waiter looked at me as if I was the dumbest person he had ever met. Then he said, "They did it for the tourists. The government has moved downtown to an office building."

I paid my bill and went back down to the street. I walked all the way around La Moneda, carefully examining the gray, plaster wall, looking for signs of the coup's destructive bombing. There were none. The wall was perfect, smooth, weathered and looking none the worse for wear.

Then I saw it. One of the street signs had a bullet hole in it. Then another and another. Several signs, all on the streets surrounding the palace, were pockmarked with bullet holes.

The coup leaders had done a good job of covering up what they had done. But they couldn't hide it entirely.

But like I say, that was a long time ago.