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Cher Recteur Allan Rock, membres de la Faculté, et étudiants gradués de l’Université d’Ottawa.
Tout d’abord je voudrais vous remercier profondément pour m’avoir invité à prononcer quelques mots d’ouverture durant cette cérémonie de graduation, ainsi que du grand honneur personnel que signifie de recevoir le degré de Docteur Honoris Causa de votre Université. Je vous en suis très reconnaissant.
À un moment si important, comme la graduation des étudiants qui commencent une nouvelle étape dans leur vie, il est, je, crois, convenable de partager avec vous quelques épisodes de ma vie qui vous pourront être utiles, du moins intéressants, dans l’avenir.
On 9/11/73 my country, Chile, suffered a coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende. General Augusto Pinochet was among the leading conspirators. As a young man committed to the program of social change that Allende represented, that day I decided that it was my duty to defend the constitutional government.
The morning of the coup I very nearly became the world’s first accidental suicide bomber.
As the radio reported unusual troop movements I left the house where I lived with my American wife, who had been in Chile for barely a year, taking along my .32 caliber gun and headed for the local Socialist Party offices. Once there, my task was to retrieve four sticks of dynamite that I’d hidden at a friend’s house. I set out on foot to where he lived. A long line of military trucks rumbled past, filled with heavily armed soldiers in combat fatigues.
My friend was a leftist who had kept a low profile in our neighborhood; so, his house provided an ideal hiding place for the explosives. He was pale and distraught when he greeted me at the door.
I had given him precise instructions on how to store the dynamite. The sticks had to be rotated every few days or else the nitroglycerine would begin to “sweat,” rendering them highly unstable. But when we went to the closet where the explosives were hidden, I was shocked to see that the blue cloth they were wrapped in was totally soaked. Any abrupt movement could be enough to set them off. I yelled at him for an explanation, but he merely mumbled that he had forgotten. Obviously, my friend had stashed the dynamite in his closet and, perhaps out of fear, never touched it again. I had no choice: I slid the deadly
bundle under my coat and headed to join my Socialist buddies at a pre-arranged meeting point, at nearby foundry, Maestranza Jemo, whose workers were all pro-government.
I was carrying four sticks of highly unstable dynamite and a gun on my belt. I was ready to fight and die, if needed, to defend the constitutional government.
In a political memoir I wrote, entitled The Dictator’s Shadow, I tell what happened afterwards.
On that fateful day, 36 people died in all of Chile, including in the attack on the presidential palace where Allende committed suicide rather than be captured. But by the end of the year, 2,000 Chileans had died as brutal and systematic repression by the dictatorship swept the nation.
I went underground, accompanied by my wife, and over the following months I tried to survive. I attempted to contact fellow socialists but they had either sought asylum in embassies, were in hiding, had been taken prisoner or had been assassinated.
There is one anecdote that I’d like to tell you about those days.
During a 2005 dinner in my honor given by Barbara Walters at her apartment in Manhattan, she proposed during dessert a topic suggested by a recent movie, “Match Point”, where the main character’s life is altered by a stroke of luck. As the charming hostess with an inquisitive mind that she is, Barbara asked all guests at her round dining table to tell a personal story where chance had change one’s life, excluding moments such as the meeting of a spouse or similar family milestones. There were top journalists, businesspeople, academics and diplomats present. There were some very interesting stories. When my turn came, I was the last one, I told about my narrow escape with repression in 1973, a couple of months after the coup when the Army came to arrest me at my residence.
It was a Saturday afternoon as I saw out the window army trucks and dozens of heavily armed troops in combat gear stop in front of my house. I realized they were coming for me when I saw two prisoners, both friends of mine, they’d taken already, in the back of a military jeep.
I told my wife that I was about to be arrested, put on a jacket, and sat down to wait. Resistance was pointless – I was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Right outside our door a soldier held a .30 caliber machine gun. I told Pamela to get in touch with her congressman, to contact Senator Ted Kennedy, and to try to find out where I would be taken. When several minutes went by and the army troops had still not entered our house, I wondered what was going on. Ten more minutes passed, which felt like an eternity. Suddenly, to our astonishment, the troops, the military trucks, and the Jeep all sped away. We couldn’t believe it.
When calm had returned to the street, someone knocked softly on our door. It was Doña Alicia, our next-door neighbor—we’d known her for decades. The soldiers had mistakenly gone into her house instead of ours. When she explained that she only had two daughters and a young boy, they’d turned her house upside down. Even so, she had refused to betray me.
Four years later, in Mexico, I ran into one of the prisoners I’d seen in the Jeep. We embraced and he shed tears as he told me his side of the story. The military had a list of names, mine among them. When the caravan pulled up in front of my house the prisoners knew it was my turn. They couldn’t believe it when the soldiers went to the wrong door; they were ecstatic when they gave up the search and left without me.
When Barbara Walters, and the others, heard my story of luck. I was declared the winner by acclamation.
I survived other close calls until my wife Pamela pressured me into moving to the U.S. to undertake graduate studies in international affairs at the University of Denver. (Too bad for me that I did not choose the University of Ottawa!)
I got my PhD and I worked with Chilean exiles, many of whom were also warmly received in Canada (for which we are forever grateful). I decided to return to Chile in late 1978, having rejected attractive professional offers to stay and work in the United States. I had to go back, although I promised my wife that I would not get involved in the resistance to the dictatorship. I lied.
Somehow, I felt a false sense of security because I had been awarded a doctoral degree and written my PhD. dissertation at the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington DC. But on a February morning of 1979, three months after my return, I was arrested at a small and daring rally for labor rights. I was beaten up, had two fingers fractured and had the unforgettable experience of feeling the cold metal of an automatic rifle on my right temple as a military policeman threatened to put a bullet through my head if I moved. I didn’t.
My lesson of that detention, which led me to be prosecuted for insulting Pinochet and disturbing the peace, was that a high academic degree – like the one you are receiving today—will not keep you out of jail!
My story had a happy ending, when, many years later, as a member of the Executive Committee of the NO campaign, we defeated Pinochet at a plebiscite where the people could only vote “Yes” or “No” on his extension in power. That was the beginning of the end of the dictatorship and, soon after, the start of my political and diplomatic career, that eventually took me to the United Nations as Ambassador of Chile, where I presided over the Security Council and had the great pleasure and privilege of getting to know and work with your skillful then-Ambassador of Canada and present Recteur of the University, my friend Allan Rock.
As you commence a new life, my advice to you is that through ups and downs, in good and bad times, be loyal to your principles and to the best values of humanity. Make the journey, up to the end of the road, a meaningful sense of place and purpose.
Merci et bonne chance à vous tous!
Best of luck!
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