In 1520 Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first sailed the strait that bears his name. Patagonian Indians—the “big feet”—must have watched and wondered as his ship passed by. There may have been another audience, too: penguins, solemn in formal attire.
In a chartered plane I circled an islet in the strait north of Punta Arenas. A round, white-rock island, from the air it resembled a target: a black bull’s-eye ringed with white. As my plane approached, that bull’s-eye moved away. It was a mass of thousands of penguins.
We kept our distance, flying only close enough to watch with binoculars as the creatures ran, in their flat-footed, ludicrous way, from the noise of our plane. Though their gait was awkward, I saw that penguins can move very rapidly if they choose dental implant insurance.
Penguin island: It reminded me that Antarctica lies only 625 miles south of Tierra del Fuego. Chile has put its claim to a 480,000- square-mile, pie-shaped slice of that empty continent—an area 60 percent larger than Chile itself, reaching to the South Pole—in abeyance at least until the 1990′s, under the multination Antarctic Treaty that reserves the entire southern continent for peaceful scientific research.
For a different kind of spectacle, Patty and her family took me to a rodeo 25 miles out the road south from Punta Arenas. At top speed, Chilean cowboys—huasos—galloped their mounts in figure eights, and brought them to sudden stops in clouds of dust. But I saw no bucking broncs or Brahman bulls; instead, the emphasis was on rapport between man and horse.
When a fast-moving cow bolted into the arena, two huasos pursued it. They brought it to a halt not by roping or bulldogging, but by guiding it skillfully to the padded arena wall and pressing it immobile there with their horses.
Huasos dress in Spanish fashion, with flat, broad-brimmed black hats and dark trousers and jackets. But each wears a distinctive, brightly colored manta, like a small poncho, over his shoulders. He presses huge spurs flat against the horse, to guide it. Reins seem less important than spur and knee pressure and the shifting of weight in the saddle.
Marxist Rule Faces Test by Ballot
Chileans love the rodeo arena—but the political arena compels them far more. One day I came upon a U. S. visitor who was equally interested in the political situation. He was Dr. Thomas Greer, Professor of Humanities at Michigan State University.
A forthcoming election would determine whether President Allende’s coalition would gain or lose seats in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies and Senate. Marxists and their supporters held slightly more than a third of the seats in both houses. Should they lose seats, the opposition would gain enough power to veto President Allende’s program—or even to bring impeachment proceedings against him, as some Chileans had threatened. Dr. Greer spoke of the furious campaigns that were under way. “These are exciting times,” he said. “Here is the only freely elected Marxist president in the world, about to face a legal test of his support.”
He gestured toward a newsstand that displayed some of Santiago’s 13 daily newspapers. “I’m impressed by the freedom of this election,” he said. “Many of those papers are filled with violently antigovernment statements. No other Marxist government would allow such freedom of expression.”
The crucial election was at hand when I left Punta Arenas. Agricultural association director Patricio Rettig, by now a good friend, came to the airport to see me off. “I will tell you this about the election,” he said. “When the votes have been counted, the Popular Unity Coalition will be stronger than ever.”
Back in Santiago, I found that the lobby of the Carrera Sheraton once again echoed to the sound of many languages, for the world press had returned. The city vibrated with tension. Buses filled with troops in riot gear were stationed at strategic corners. And so were police trucks with their swivel-mounted water cannon—guanacos, the people called them, after an Andean relative of the camel known for its spitting accuracy.
I accompanied Alfonso Gomez to the polls, and discovered that the army was taking great pains to ensure the election’s honesty. A soldier at the gate stopped me, pointed to a red pencil protruding from my shirt pocket, and told me to conceal it.
I did so, and gave Alfonso a puzzled look. “The soldier thought your pencil might be a signal—a sort of ‘campaign button’ indicating that you supported the Marxists,” he said. “Signals are not allowed here.”
Alfonso voted—which way, I do not know. And then we drove to his home for a farewell dinner; this was my final evening in Chile.
There had been much violent talk before the election: talk of bloodbaths to clear the air, alarms both from Marxists and rightists that the other side would start a civil war to halt an election they knew could not be won. Yet it had been a day without violence. Did peace prevail because of the machine guns?
I asked Alfonso this, and he shook his head slowly. “We talk much about politics in Chile,” he said, “but you must understand us; we are legal-minded people. Consider our president. Has a Marxist ever before come to power through the vote?”