Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp

A Tale of Survival
A Review by Marguerite Feitlowitz

a tale

Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp
Sergio Bitar,  translated by Erin Goodman with  foreword and notes by Peter Winn
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017

On September 11, 1973, at about eight o’clock in the morning, Sergio Bitar, one of Allende’s top economic advisers and the Minister of Mining, received a phone call from a colleague: the military was on the move.  Downtown Santiago was surrounded by soldiers. It had to be the coup they’d been expecting. Bitar’s first thoughts were “diffuse.” Since Chile’s constitutionalist military had neutralized previous coup attempts, he prepared to head downtown himself for a meeting he had scheduled with CORFO, the agency that managed the public economy and had nationalized the country’s major industries. But then, the one radio station still functioning announced that the military was bombing the presidential palace La Moneda. As his middle-class neighbors cheered the fall of the socialist Popular Unity government, Bitar and his wife gathered their children to take them to a place of greater safety. 

As the family drove away from their home, news reports confirmed that the coup was unstoppable. 

Bitar recounts his experiences in this 1987 book, translated for the first time into English, in an even tone: from the moment of his capture, he clearly made a pact with himself to stay alert, observant, lucid and mentally organized. He kept track, as best he could, of dates, knowing that timekeeping is especially hard for those in captivity. 

But that’s getting ahead of the story. That fateful September 11, war planes were bombing radio stations, flying low above the city streets to intensify the terror. Radio Magallanes broadcast Allende’s courageous and devastating last words, then went off the air. Bitar had long known that Allende would die by his own hand rather than let himself be slaughtered by the enemies of democracy. The legitimately elected socialist president wanted, more than anything, to save his country from civil war. 

With his regime long under threat, Allende had instructed his Cabinet to secure safe houses in the event of dire emergency. Bitar drove to the modest neighborhood of La Florida where a woman who had worked for his mother and known him as a child would shelter him. A day later, Bitar was ordered via radio broadcast to report to the Ministry of Defense. Although he had offers of asylum from several embassies, Bitar refused to flee; Allende’s surviving Cabinet members, congressional representatives and political leaders had all got the same order. Some of these men had, like Bitar, left their safe houses; others had remained at the presidential palace during the bombing and since their capture had been held incommunicado. The reunion (if that’s the word) was emotional: they were relieved to see dear comrades alive, but were also anxious and frightened, especially for their families. 

From September 12, 1973, until October 28, 1974, Bitar was a political prisoner (renamed Isla 10 by his captors) in Antarctica. The body of his narrative is preceded by a complete list of the forty-seven Unidad Popular Prisoners held at Dawson Island—Cabinet members, government ministers, congressional representatives, senators, mayors, party and union leaders, a university president, the director of the national bank, Allende’s personal physician and press secretary. Among these men (they were all men), was Orlando Letelier, who served, successively, as Allende’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Defense, and who would be assassinated by an agent of Pinochet’s secret service in September 1976, in Washington, D.C.

Located in the Strait of Magellan in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Dawson Island has a long history as an internment camp. Inhabited for thousands of years by the Selknam and other indigenous tribes, it was seized in the 19th century by European settlers, miners, gold-diggers and bounty hunters who corralled the local Indians after taking their lands, dwellings and animals. After the Selknam genocide, the island was given to Salesian missionaries who were to oversee the “assimilation” of the surviving Selknam and their descendants. Dawson Island again became a site of human rights abuses when within days of the coup, the Chilean armed forces commandeered the island and ran it as a concentration camp for Allende’s inner circle and prominent supporters.

In freezing temperatures, driving rains and deep mud, Bitar and his companions were subjected to forced labor (cutting down trees, sawing logs, sinking fences), insufficient and disgusting rations, inadequate sanitation, and uniforms and bedding grotesquely unsuited to Antarctic conditions. Prisoners got badly injured; several died. Some got so sick they would be ill for the rest of their lives. Torments included ear-splitting sirens and light storms in the middle of the night. Interrogations sometimes included outright torture (though not in Bitar’s case). The group could be suddenly moved to other locations—furious roundups, a storm of trucks, unexplained transport to another bare-bones and brutal camp, as he vividly recounts. 

Bitar’s narrative, though personal, is at its heart communal. He keeps track of the men around him, documenting illnesses and injuries, moods and modes of coping. Not a page goes by without clear descriptions of canny strategies for surviving at the bottom of the world. The mutual generosity of these men may have been their best protection against the daily humiliations and cruelties of their captors. Whenever one of their group gets a letter (though heavily redacted), a package (always previously opened and often pilfered), a visit, or is released, Bitar never fails to say, “Good news for one of us was good news for all.” And he recounts how the mood in the barracks would then lift, the pace of activity pick up.

The prisoners held classes and formed study groups. In their number were international experts in economics, political science, history, the military and a host of other academic disciplines. Smaller groups studied languages. Bitar taught German, and with the skillset of a Harvard-trained economist, he began a rigorous analysis of Allende’s government programs, focusing particularly on what they could have done, or explained, better. (Bitar would go on to write a number of important books on Chilean democracy, economy and military.) The group jerry-rigged a radio, but this too could be a source of misery, as when the regime triumphantly broadcast the deaths of comrades (“enemies of the state”). 

As Bitar makes clear, triumphalism was not universally shared among the captors on Dawson Island. The highest-ranking officers tended to be true believers in the cause to eradicate socialism; the lower ranks were more mixed—a number of soldiers and policemen posted to Dawson Island had been in Allende’s Popular Unity party or in other leftist organizations, and had their own apprehensions. Even some of Pinochet’s most ardent supporters treated Bitar and his group as Prisoners of War—a misnomer (there was no war, it was an unopposed military coup), but the so-called status granted the prisoners certain rights and gave the captors a cleansing sense of mission. That these attitudes were simultaneously in play further complicated the prisoners’ situation. Speculation and rumor, conflicting statements, attitudes and information intensified the prisoners’ anxieties. 

Included in this volume are a suite of affecting photographs: Bitar and fellow cabinet member Jorge Tapia reporting to the Escuela Militar two days after the coup; a censored page of a letter from Bitar’s wife, Kenny; prisoner portraits and camp drawings by fellow prisoner Miguel Lawner (Director of the Corporation for Urban Improvement); a photo of bundled-up prisoners trudging back to camp after work; Bitar’s lovely stone carvings done to pass the time. One of the most moving photographs shows Las Dawsonianas, as the prisoners’ activist wives called themselves. The picture shows five of these vibrant women sitting close together on a living room sofa with Allende’s widow, Hortensia, front and center. Two of these women (Margarita Morel de Letelier and Moy Morales de Toha) would later also lose their husbands. 

International pressure was key to the prisoners’ survival, liberation and offers of asylum. Sergio Bitar left Chile on November 14, 1973, for Washington, D.C., where he was awaited by the friends who’d won his freedom and who now urged him to “write down everything you’re telling [us].” While teaching at Harvard in 1975, Bitar spent time each day systematically dictating his prison story into a tape recorder. His wife, Kenny Hirmas de Bitar, transcribed every word, archived every page, and kept the manuscript safely hidden away for nine years. In 1984, Bitar was allowed to return to Chile, where the book was published in 1987, while Pinochet was still in power. Printed multiple times in Chile and translated into at least a score of languages, Prisoner of Pinochet only now appears in English. That is a whole other cultural story, and a disheartening one, in view of Bitar’s distinguished profile as a scholar and political leader in post-Pinochet Chile. 

But let us take this publication for the belated triumph that it is. Erin Goodman’s translation hews to the grounded, modest tone of Bitar’s Spanish. Peter Winn supplied excellent notes, and his foreword is at once personal, surpassingly lucid and eloquent. As a young man in Santiago, Winn found himself in the plaza as the military bombed La Moneda. It was a moment that would change his life, and help produce one of the finest Latin Americanists of his generation. 

A final word of praise for Steve Stern and Scott Strauss, who direct the Critical Human Rights series at the UW Press. Theirs is a distiguished list of titles, and Bitar—aways one to value good company—is right at home. 


Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. She teaches at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.