Postscript : Chileans Can Go Home Again, but It’s Not Easy : With democracy restored, exiles are returning. But despite government and private help, some find the adjustment difficult.
When Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973 and imposed the harsh dictatorship that was to send more than 200,000 Chileans fleeing into exile, Roberto Carcamo was only a child. But when Carcamo grew up, he also fled.
His activities as a member of a Socialist youth organization had gotten him in trouble with the police. He spent nine years in Norway before returning to Chile in May.
Many Chilean exiles have put down permanent roots abroad after years in the diaspora. But thousands, like Carcamo, have yielded to the age-old tug of homeland.
“Our culture makes us return,” said Carcamo, 33. “My roots, my language, my people.”
The returning exiles are known as los retornados . While their homecoming may not be as wrenching and tumultuous as their exodus was, it is a mass migration filled with human drama, historical significance and metaphorical meaning.
If the exiles were living sparks thrown out into the world by Chile’s political firestorms, the retornados are the harbingers of Chilean freedom and reconciliation, coming back like swallows in the spring as repression eased near the dictatorship’s end. And they have kept flocking in during the four years since democracy’s return. An estimated 80,000 exiles are back so far.
Among the most prominent is Hortensia Bussi de Allende, widow of the Socialist president who died in the 1973 coup. Other retornados have become Cabinet ministers and members of Congress. And those who have achieved notable success in business include the president of the Chilean Telephone Co., one of the country’s biggest corporations.
For many returnees, however, coming home is harder than they imagined. Finding work and housing are big problems. Many who lived in Europe or North America have trouble readjusting to life in a developing country. They often say they feel like strangers in their own land. Some have encountered discrimination. More than a few have decided to leave Chile again.
If they go, of course, they do not receive benefits that have been provided for Chilean refugees during the past two decades by numerous countries. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a formal recommendation in May that governments end refugee status for Chileans. That step may influence more Chilean exiles to come home.
The Chilean government, international agencies and non-governmental organizations have developed programs to assist the returnees. But now, some of those programs are being phased out. A special government bureau created for that purpose is preparing to shut down. Those who do not return by August, 1995, will receive no U.N. aid for the move.
With the consolidation of freedom and democracy in Chile, officials say, it is time to acknowledge that Chilean expatriates no longer deserve the special treatment offered to those who left because of political persecution.
Not all benefits for returnees will end, but because they are being cut back, officials fear a rush of new retornados seeking to receive the benefits while they last.
Retornados formed a line one recent afternoon in the waiting room of the National Return Office, the government agency that coordinates aid. They were there to ask for help--in getting official documents in order, getting their belongings through customs, finding work, and obtaining housing, legal aid and health care.
Carcamo and his wife were in the line. The onetime Socialist militant was seeking help to go into business, applying for technical aid and a low-interest loan to start a private home for the elderly.
“It isn’t with the goal of becoming a capitalist and a big businessman,” Carcamo said. “It’s just to survive, to make a living.”
The National Return Office and other agencies have helped more than 1,000 returnees start small businesses. “There are shoemaking businesses, photo shops, many medical centers,” said Carlos Espinoza, assistant director of the Return Office. “There are restaurants, stores, accounting services.”
Luis Aravena, who was exiled in neighboring Argentina, joined forces with two retornados from Mexico to start a Mexican restaurant. Called Las Mananitas, the restaurant has become well known and fashionable since it opened in 1992.
“Thank God, here we are,” said Aravena, 41. “I think we’re doing pretty well.”
Carlos Daville, 56, isn’t doing so well. Daville returned from Brazil early this year with hopes of starting a metalworking shop. He has been offered a low-interest loan from the Chilean state bank, but he has been unable to find a co-signer.
“I’m a stranger here now--no one knows me,” Daville said. “If no one knows you, who is going to give you an opportunity?”
Daville said he came back because “you miss many things, the culture, the customs, the food.” But Chile has changed since he left in 1975, he said. “Now people are all materialistic. No one lends a hand.”
He said he would return to Brazil if it weren’t for his wife and daughter, who want to stay in Chile. “I have work in Brazil, but my family is here now.”
Others have returned without their children, who have grown up and married abroad. “When these people come back after 20 years, they have more loved ones where they came from than here, and they get depressed,” said Espinoza at the Return Office. “It is like starting a second exile.”
The Return Office was created by Congress in 1990 with the stipulation that it would be disbanded after four years. Six branch offices in the provinces have closed in recent weeks, and the main office in Santiago is to shut down Aug. 20.
Espinoza said a wave of new returnees is expected as exiles rush to make it back in time to receive the office’s help. “Right now many are coming back from the United States,” he added. Although the United States gave official refugee status to only 350 Chilean exiles, Espinoza said up to 25,000 Chileans live there.
He calculated that at least 8,000 retornados will arrive before the Return Office closes. That would bring the total since the early 1980s to about 88,000, according to Espinoza’s calculations.
But that will not conclude the return migration movement, he predicted. He estimated that about 220,000 people went into exile after the 1973 coup, and many more are likely to return. “We don’t think we have solved the problem, only pointed the way, because the problem of returning will never end,” he said. His office is preparing recommendations for continuing aid to returnees by other government agencies and non-governmental organizations.
“The government is concerned about this,” he said. “It is looking for a way to continue helping and supporting these people who want to return to the country.”
He observed that many exiles have professional and technical education and experience that could be valuable for Chile’s development. A 1991 law provides for revalidation of professional degrees earned in foreign universities. “We recently validated professional No. 1,000,” Espinoza said.
The governments of Germany, the Netherlands and Norway have helped create employment in Chile for 10,000 retornados by subsidizing their salaries so that business could afford to hire them. But there are other problems.
Luis Reveco, director of research and projects in a foundation that helps retornados, said many Chilean business people have looked with suspicion on returnee job applicants because of their leftist past. “A retornado for them is a little bit outside the law,” said Reveco.
His foundation, called FARET, has organized seminars for business people with the goal of changing that image. As a result, he said, many employers now realize that returnee workers often bring modern technology and disciplined work habits acquired abroad.
Still, finding a job can be hard because returnees lack connections. “Here in Chile, everything works through connections,” he said. “If you don’t have connections, doors don’t open.”
Reveco, 48, is a retornado himself. After arriving from France in 1991, where he worked with the United Nations as an economist, he spent two years looking unsuccessfully for a job in Chile.
“You think that when you come back to your country, everything will be easier, and really, it’s harder,” he said.
FARET has worked with the National Return Office and other agencies to provide returnees with counseling, health care, legal aid, job training and business help. The foundation is now designing new projects and seeking new sponsors.
Much assistance for retornados has been channeled through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a worldwide agency formed by 52 member governments. With funds from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other sources, the IOM has arranged free transportation to Chile for 15,000 returnees and provided temporary medical insurance and other assistance.
Juan Veglia, an IOM official in Chile, said funds are running out. In the future, he said, the IOM will work only with retornados from countries that contribute funds. And the Chilean office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides money for the transportation of returnees to Chile, has announced that Chilean exiles who want free plane tickets home must apply before August and move before August, 1995. After that, the commission will provide no assistance.
The notice came with the recommendation that countries end refugee status for Chilean exiles except in special cases. “It no longer considers that international protection needs to be given, because the causes no longer exist,” said Helena Reutersward, the commissioner’s liaison officer in Chile.
Reutersward said each country will decide whether to comply with the recommendation and whether to offer Chilean exiles resident status or help them return to Chile. “Our intention is not to obligate people to return,” she said, but she acknowledged that the measures may result in increased numbers of returnees.
“We can see that there is a tendency to increase, but we don’t see that there will be an enormous avalanche,” she said.