JSL: We mentioned that you were away from your country for many years…
Andres Velasco: I was away from the country for many years, because one Friday… August 6, 1976… as I was coming out of a football game at school, someone told me my father had been kidnapped. Chile, then, was a dangerous place. My father was a prominent lawyer and academic, and head of the Social Democratic Party. After the coup, he became very active in the defense of people who’d been arrested. In June of 1976, some foreign delegations were convening in Chile, and he arranged to have a say among them. He and some other lawyers provided the visiting foreign ministers with evidence of killings and torture. This, as you can imagine, caused quite an uproar. Soon after the foreign ministers left, my father was arrested, and taken illegally to Argentina. Argentina, then, under that regime, was not a good place for someone who’d been arrested by the Pinochet government. Somehow, he was smuggled into the Venezuelan embassy, left Argentina on a Venezuelan plane, and eventually made his way to Los Angeles.
JSL: What an awful time. That feels far away.
AV: This is a country with a deeply-rooted tradition of electoral politics. When I was a little boy, on election day, my father would put me on his shoulders and take me to vote. That was part of life here. You go, and even if it's hot, or even if it's cold, you stand in line and you vote. There's been concern recently about why voting has gone down from 95 to more recently 80-something vote, which is still very high. Election day is always a Sunday. The country stops and that’s all you talk about. They’re typically in December, which is early summer here, so the weather's nice, just like today. Some people put on a barbecue, and everyone pulls out their TV, and while you grill your fish, you watch the election results as if it were a sporting event. My father died in 2001, and one of the last things we did together was, when the election came, he said, “Take me to vote.” I wheeled him out, pushed his wheelchair to the school where voting always takes place, and stood outside the booth while he cast his ballot. That's the essence of this country. And that's why it was such a painful shock, at a time when we were the only country in Latin America with a democracy, a country with a democratic tradition stretching back almost two hundred years, to have that taken away… taken away for seventeen years. If you're Chilean that's the one thing that you're allowed to get teary-eyed about.
--Sunday, 14 January 2007, Santiago, Chile
... an edited version of this entire conversation appears in the March issue of Monocle magazine, on newsstands now.