Mauricio Hernández Norambuena (62), former Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front [FPMR, a revolutionary guerrilla group that fought against the fascist dictatorship of Pinochet in the ‘80s and ‘90s] fighter, spent 17 years in Brazil, confined practically 24 hours a day in a few meters and totally segregated. Now, he is serving a sentence in a Chilean prison; he is in the maximum security section (special isolation and punishment module), the same compound from which he escaped hanging from a helicopter 24 years ago. Norambuena is serving two sentences for the kidnapping of Cristián Edwards and the death of Jaime Guzmán. Today he gives an interview through a video call on WhatsApp to talk about his story.
The Medical College and the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) emphasize that Mauricio Hernández Norambuena’s health situation shows signs “very consistent with the internationally recognized definition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” Therefore, they urgently request to modify the conditions to which he is subjected.
From the Special High Security Unit (Ueas), Maximum Security Section (special isolation and punishment module), the same compound from which he escaped hanging from a helicopter 24 years ago, he has no possibility of visits, but he could have a video call by WhatsApp, an instance that he used to give a 30-minute interview, where he is seen in confidence, attentive and critical. It touches on issues little addressed previously, it refers to the high number of men, women and young people deprived of liberty after October 18. He talks about the repression of the Carabineros.
Mauricio, there are people who consider you a symbol of struggle and resistance. How do you feel in that position?
Difficult, it surprises me that you ask me that, because I don’t feel in that position, I feel like I can contribute in relation to what my experience was, but today it’s up to you. Today they are the new generations, I have that clear. I have even said sometimes that I can contribute to today’s struggles with what my experience was, but not with much prominence, because the prominence belongs to the generations of the young people.
Not everyone can endure more than 18 years in conditions of extreme confinement. How have you been able to achieve it and get here today, November 21, 2020?
Well, the question of resistance, in general, is a very complex issue, because when you take it to an already more individual aspect, you have to survive in certain extreme circumstances. There is a human, ancestral wisdom that allows you certain adaptations, to find certain mechanisms. I believe that all human beings have that.
But I do believe that there is an essential question that has to do with convictions, I think that is the point that basically gives strength to being able to resist in extreme conditions. This question of thinking, “Damn I’m being punished because I’m an enemy of the system, ideologically, and they’re not going to defeat me.” It is a resistance in struggle, it is the continuity of the struggle in another scenario, and I cannot allow myself to be defeated. For everything that has been, for what I believe, and also, because I can disappoint many, that is, there is a commitment, let’s say. To begin with, I am not going to betray myself and I am not going to disappoint those who believe in this way or share what is the popular struggle, social justice, and so on.
To cope with all the isolation, there are some more particular aspects that are more complicated, more complex; they have to do with the non-religious, but a bit spiritual question. I have always approached those oriental traditions, spiritual traditions: Buddhism, Taoism…. I do not consider them a religion, not from a religious point of view. But those are more complex questions.
Tell us about those complex things that you rely on.
I do some spiritual exercises; I do, for example, yoga exercise, which has to do with meditation. Not here, in Brazil it used to be, because there was a cemetery, la cana, it was total silence all day. And it gave me the opportunity to do a few hours of meditation. That has all the techniques that have to do with visualizations, I did contemplation to advance. By ‘advance’ I mean to power, what they call settling the mind, freeing it from thoughts, emptying it. Well, I already have different experiences, because it is quite difficult to achieve that continuously, for me, they were only flashes.
I approached that but it is a question for which you also need a guide. I did not have a guide, so I did not develop much in that. I was self-taught, reading many things. To delve into this, a guide is required, a teacher, a yogi, whatever you want to call him, but someone to guide you.
A court acquitted two accused of setting fire to the Pedrero metro station on October 18. The judge held that there was illegal evidence, that the participation of the defendants, who are a man and his 16-year-old nephew, was not credited. The prosecution asked for 20 and 10 years respectively. They spent a year unjustly imprisoned.
Another case, in the Alto Hospicio jail, a 20-year-old youth was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail, and attempted suicide. He has not had visits for seven months and without any type of psychological assistance.
In your opinion, what is the prison being used for?
To begin with, it is intimidation, it is punishment, that is clear. Considering that the majority of those accused of everything that was the social upheaval, the majority will be released, they will not be convicted. And the punishment will be to have paid the preventive prisons; there are already several cases that are beginning to come out, let’s say.
It is the way in which the State punishes without evidence, a bit dragging, because it took many people in demonstrations, without having concrete evidence, and in the end, they will not be condemned, but they were punished for a year. All first-timers or mostly, first time they spent time in jail.
Here, more or less, I know something about the comrades of the revolt who are in Santiago 1, close to here, they have had a bad time, because it is a very hostile environment, having had problems with common prisoners.
But there also, in my opinion, there are certain weaknesses from the point of view of external support as well. Although there are some coordinators, especially the “October 18” that has been organized. But it seems to me that more consistency has been lacking. In one way or another, they have left… I am not going to say abandoned, but I make a little comparison with the political imprisonment of the times of the dictatorship and post-dictatorship, as well.
In this period of political imprisonment, we always felt accompanied, with a lot of solidarity, a lot of support outside; even comrades who had no family who could visit them because they were from [far away] regions, many people wrote to them, received letters. There was the possibility of having visits from friends and people came to visit them so that they did not feel alone.
Another historical context, but the quality of a political prisoner whether in dictatorship or now is the same quality of a political prisoner: it is someone who is fighting -in whatever way- for political motivation. So, from the point of view of solidarity, it should be as forceful and abundant as it was previously.
I understand that today is different; the prisoners are not even very organized, that is what I have known, because there are different groups. In our time, it was more homogeneous; today, it is more diverse, which has a quite positive part also in a number of aspects. But the problem is that this diversity does not seem to allow them to organize themselves, that it is not a contradictory issue, there may be diversity, but they should organize themselves, it makes them stronger, more articulate.
What do you think of this persecution against children and adolescents in the prisons for youth? Did we see the case that the Carabineros shot young men in the SENAME [National Youth Service] recently?
I believe that there is a line, a policy of the State, through the State, in general, but in particular with this government, to repress as harshly as possible, with all possible brutality, anyone who demonstrates, who rebels.
Before the revolt, there were a number of cases here. I think that is worse because there is a police force, the Carabineros, which has the DNA of repression, that is inherited from the dictatorship. As they have had impunity in a series of cases, practically, they feel totally immune and that they can act freely. Because in addition to the situations that have become known, they later obstruct justice, invent evidence, that is, they have a scope of autonomy that is an institution that practically runs itself, and they have already gained that space in the last 30 years. No government controlled them. The assemblies they put together, the ‘Hurricane’ case, the death of Camilo Catrillanca and other Mapuche people, there are seven Mapuche people who have been killed by them. In all these situations, they have acted with total impunity; it is not only this government. I say this government has aggravated it, but the Concertación [coalition of centrist, liberal and democratic socialist parties], the New Majority, always empowered them, because they were functional to maintain order. The Concertación obviously did not want to change anything.
Now, it is interesting because there is this question of the reform of the Carabineros, it seems to me that it will be a makeup, I have no doubt. If in the Constitution there are no clear precepts of what is intended with the type of police, if it is not installed there, this will be no more makeup. In the new Constitution, then in the convention, that the problem of what can really be addressed there about the police. Why so much police, 60 thousand pacos, for what?
Two years ago the feminist movements stormed into Chile, the Las Tesis collective went around the world. Which brings me to the figure of Cecilia Magni [known by the political name “Comandante Tamara”], key in the FPMR, who has been vetoed for being a revolutionary woman, who was part of a struggle. How do you remember the empowerment of Cecilia Magni?
For the times and even more so in organizations or armed movements in general, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were quite macho organizations, because there was a much more macho culture than today. And the subculture of the armed organizations were also macho, not openly, we were aware of our ideology, that there can be no discrimination, all that. But there was always the underlying idea of considering women for certain tasks, even more of an operational nature.
I remember that Tamara always had a fairly intelligent attitude for the rest, in that she was not so confrontational, but she was very powerful in terms of rights. It must be taken into account that she managed to make her way to the Front and participated in operations, which very few comrades did. There are a few comrades who participated in the operative field and Tamara always demanded to participate, not because of a question of snobbery or ego, but because of a question of having that ability to be heard. Because generally, in the armed movement, in those times, it was very acute, very hard; there was always the point of view of being heard or not, from the point of view of the trajectory of the militants. Here I am not making evaluations; I can be critical and self-critical in a series of situations, but everything must also be seen in its context: clandestine organizations, very closed, to survive; it was necessary for survival without a doubt.
There, Tamara was characterized by always fighting, in a very intelligent way, she managed to win over the spaces. And I also say: with tremendous courage, she was quite capable too, a very efficient and brave woman too, quite brave. There are other less well-known comrades from the Front. I believe that Tamara is accompanied by all this question that has to do with the tragedy, because she died in Los Queñes, she died with the leader of the Front. So a myth has been built more, let’s say, myths are built like that too, which has overshadowed other comrades who had less focus. And not only in the Front: in the MIR, in other organizations, there were comrades who also stood out.
In one way or another, Tamara was also a feminist, I remember that she raised some questions, but without entering into a dispute, she sometimes raised them as a topic of conversation. I don’t know from what source she saw in relation to everything that is the feminist issue, but she was not a radical, she was not a radical feminist.
What did you learn from her? What marked you the most?
I don’t really know, it is difficult to say, because we all learned from each other, rather we fed each other, we reinforced each other, because it was a necessary matter, the daily work was very heavy, it was quite hard, very lonely, always walking very much in tension.
Well, she always walked with a smile, we even called her ‘woman with an easy laugh,’ she had a lot of humor, she had a rather contagious laugh. You have to think about her with her daughter, all the problems she had, all that contradiction, that questioning that she faced because she had practically “abandoned her daughter,” who adored her, who couldn’t see her. She even went when we were quartered for the attack [on Pinochet in 1986] in the house in La Obra, she took Camila Po, five years old, she took her there. Even with Ernesto -spoiling her a bit, ah- but we caught her attention a bit. We said, “we have more than 20 here full of weapons, here comes the repression, and you come with your daughter.” In order not to leave her daughter, to be with her daughter, she took advantage of the trip and arrived at the La Obra house with her daughter.
What do you think of the upcoming political scenarios via the Constitutional Convention and not through a Constituent Assembly?
I’m not a guru (laugh), I think that here they have enough popular wisdom to find the paths that will be necessary. What I can say, because it is a question that has already been proven during the year, since the outbreak of October, which is that the changes are not going to be achieved without a fight.
The fight is mainly mobilized in the street, without that all things will be make-up, Gatopardismo, basically nothing changes. The entire political class is experts in tricks, they are cheats, good at the fine print. If the people are not mobilized in the street, pressing will be an illusion, a disappointment, a bitterness. I do not know to what extent, because I am imprisoned, I do not have much information on the extent to which the territories are organized, that popular power develops, that parallel assemblies are held there.
There is another option, which is the constituent assembly, which is what it should have been, obviously. But they have already put us a little on the itinerary of the political class, but the important thing is that they do not co-opt us, they cannot co-opt us, because there is already the knockout; if they can only take us in that option…
What the people have already learned this year, that the struggle was achieving things, that that itinerary was integrated due to the outbreak, that is clear. The political class was not even there with changing the constitution, nor did they imagine, no one thought about it. So the things that have been achieved have to be with the struggle, and also, be aware of what the historical experience is like, not only in Chile. All the great struggles, the great projects cost deaths; here, this has cost, at least since the revolt, more than 30 deaths, I don’t know how many there are.
We have talked a lot about freedom, but what is freedom?
I am going to paraphrase some words from José Miguel (Raúl Pellegrin), who mentioned in an interview that he gave, I think, when they asked him something similar more or less. I believe that it is to be able to do what one thinks, to be able to do what one’s conscience tells one to do. When José Miguel said it under conditions of dictatorship, we were very oppressed, the Front did what it thought, so in one way or another we were free, we felt free. We had no limits in that, from the point of view of what was our belief, our ideology, we did what we considered needed to be done. I can be a prisoner, but that limits me in basic questions, I would say, everyday, but from the point of view of what I think, I feel free in what I do. With physical limitations, but from the point of view of my ideas, of what I do, these same conversations or interviews that I have given where I present my ideas… They have not had me gagged, they have tried to prevent me from communicating, speaking.
You are considered the only Chilean political prisoner of the dictatorship. What would you say to people who are in political imprisonment?
I am not going to give words to comfort anyone, because I imagine that all the youth who are imprisoned today by the oppressive State, were comrades who consciously took risks and one of the risks was to be imprisoned. I think that’s a matter of basic maturity and commitment. Now, the political imprisonment, first thing, it seems to me that they have to vindicate themselves as political prisoners, I think that has been lacking. It is vindicating themselves, asserting themselves as political prisoners, they have to organize themselves as political prisoners, regardless of anything. I believe that now an effort is going to be promoted, so that they can reunify themselves and place all political prisoners in one place, an issue that seems important to me.
The other questions are obvious questions; they must think to walk towards freedom, that is, they must not forget that prison cannot defeat them. Be confident and bond outward. I believe that the “pardon” or “amnesty” thing will work for the prisoners of the revolt. I think that at some point that will be negotiated. Of course, it will depend on the force that is outside, on the mobilization that is made, on those who are charged, without a doubt, this will not be for nothing. Well, a big hug to all of them and strength.
- The Human Rights Department of the Medical College and the INDH warn that the isolation conditions to which Hernández Norambuena is subjected (21 hours locked up, an hour and a half in the corridor, and another 90 minutes in the “patio”) generate “harmful effects on physical and mental health ”from the 15 days, in Chile he exceeds more than a year three months in that module destined to the punished inmates and as a transitory step to enter the High Security Prison. Permanence that should not exceed six months.