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Not Since Pinochet, Chile's Army Back On The Streets


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Chile's earthquake has brought soldiers back onto the streets. Soldiers have kept a low profile since a military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s. Many Chileans have dark memories of those days. Journalist Annie Murphy reports on how the military is viewed today.

ANNIE MURPHY: The city of Concepcion is full of olive green trucks, buses and tanks. And the sky hums with planes and helicopters. All are carrying military personnel to help with relief efforts and keep order following last Saturday's devastating earthquake.

The city is the second largest in Chile and was one of the hardest hit by the quake. It's gradually coming back to life. Water and electricity are being restored. Food is getting handed out. The army has put an end to most looting, and soldiers have been widely welcomed. It wasn't always like that.

Many older Chileans, like Professor Concentia Gandi(ph), recall the Pinochet years, when soldiers were a constant presence and were responsible for widespread human rights abuses. Her father was a journalist and was imprisoned.

Professor CONCENTIA GANDI: You never trusted anyone. You learned to - not to talk to anyone. And well, the streets were always full of military, all the time, and there was curfew just like now. And the situation was very tense.

MURPHY: But when looting got out of control in the aftermath of the earthquake, Concentia was relieved to see soldiers in the streets.

The military is also taking part in relief efforts like distributing food and water. Though aid was slow to arrive, when it did most people were grateful to the soldiers who helped distribute it.

Ms. EDITSA NUASA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

Editsa Nuasa was one of the first people to get a relief package. Her adult daughter and grandchildren stayed at her house. And all they had left for food were some hotdogs a neighbor gave them.

Ms. NUASA: (Through translator) The army has done a good job, because we were in danger of being robbed and they guarded our neighborhood. This time they were there to protect us.

MURPHY: The decision to send soldiers to the earthquake zones was not an easy one for President Michelle Bachelet. In the mid-1970s, she was arrested and tortured by the military. After her release, she lived abroad for many years. And both her parents were also arrested and tortured.

Her father, who had been a high ranking military officer before Pinochet came into power, died in prison. According to reports, Bachelet was hesitant to send in soldiers after the earthquake but eventually did so. She's been criticized for not acting more swiftly and on a larger scale.

Bachelet's presidential term ends next week. She'll be replaced by one of the country's wealthiest men, Sebastian Pinera. He hasn't openly criticized Bachelet. But he has said that the state's most important priority is to restore order.

A small park in Concepcion is full of camping tents that have become temporary homes. A pair of black boots and some camouflage pants stick out of one. Soldier Francisco Belmonte(ph) is getting up from a nap. His home was damaged by the quake, so he's living outside with his family for now.

Mr. FRANCISCO BELMONTE (Solider): (Through translator) The chaos that we just went through changed how people think about soldiers. Before, we weren't liked because of what happened in the past. But now people feel calmer. Now we're responsible for their well-being. If we act poorly, imagine how that would affect people.

MURPHY: When he was growing up, 23-year-old Hernan Vidal(ph) heard stories about past military abuses. And he still has a negative opinion about the army.

Mr. HERNAN VIDAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Hernan says he believes the military abuses its power. I don't know what they exist for, he says. I guess to defend the country and to fight. But they're real dictators, and it's always their way, he says. They won't just let you be.

MURPHY: Hernan isn't happy to see soldiers in the streets. But he accepts that they're necessary to stop the looting and robberies.

At night, Concepcion is under a curfew and the empty streets are under the control of the military. For now, most residents seem willing to accept that.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Concepcion, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Murphy