Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter fourteen

Another spell in South America


< Chapter 13 | Chapter 15 >

In June of 1973, the BBC sent me as Latin America correspondent to Buenos Aires, where I was just in time to cover the return of the old dictator, Juan Domingo Peron, soon to be restored as President and shortly to die in office. He was succeeded by his third wife, Isabelita.

I arrived in time to cover the installation as a stop-gap presidentof Peronist ally Hector Campora, who later accompanied Peron on his return flight after 18 years in exile in Spain.


Spectacular welcome

A huge crowd estimated at 3.5 million gathered at Ezeiza aiport to welcome Peron and his third wife, Isabelita, a former night club singer whom he had married in exile in Panama. It was also widely rumoured that he had brought with him the embalmed body of Evita, his second wife, beloved by millions of poor Argentines, the so-called decamisados, shirtless ones.


Fighting breaks out

A symphony orchestra was on hand to welcome the Perons as were bands of armed leftwing Peronist guerrillas, the Montoneros.

No sooner had Peron’s aircraft touched down, than shooting broke out. The orchestra’s musicians dived for cover, sending musical instruments flying in all directions. When the shooting stopped, 13 people had been killed and an estimated 300 injured.


Dramatic sound effects

On my bulky Uher tape recorder supplied by the BBC, I had managed to record the sound of gunfire and the noise made when orchestra members dived for cover. These sounds I sent down the line to London for inclusion in my dispatch about the Ezeiza shooting.


Salvador Allende


Juan Domingo Peron, after his troubled return to Argentina



Isabel Peron: she walked in Evita's shadow

Chilean drama unfolds

Once the Peron story had settled down, much of my time was spent tracking events in Chile where leftist President Salvador Allende was facing gowing opposition from rightwing elements in the armed forces. Truckers who transported copper ore from the mines for shipment overseas went on strike, administering a hammer blow to the Chilean economy, heavily dependent on copper exports.

I was lucky enough to secure an interview with the then Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier. I called at his offices and was courteously received by the Minister. Trying to set up my Uher for the interview, I discovered to my horror that the machine was not working. Letelier was quickly on his knees beside me, shaking the machine to make it work. Sadly, I cannot remember the subject matter of the interview, which was dispatched to London by air freight. Letelier was murdered by Chilean agents in Washington soon after Allende’s overthrow.


The first coup attempt

In August of 1973, a regiment staged a coup attempt, attacking the Moneda presidential palace. I was present in a street near the palace, where an A rgentine television cameraman, working with a Swedish woman reporter, attempted to film the advancing infantry and tanks. The officer commanding the advancing soldiers visibly ordered one of them to shoot the cameraman, which he did. Sinking to his knees, the cameraman shot film of his own murder by the advancing troops. The incident was seen on television screens all over the world.

Salvador Allende under siege


Guards repulse attack

On that occasion, the military police unit guarding the Moneda Palace repulsed the attackers. That day, for some unfathomable reason, I found the A.A.Milne poem, “They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace”, running through my head.

There was no adequate defence a few weeks later, when the new army commander, General Augusto Pinochet, led a successful coup attempt.


Coup succeeds

The attacking troops swiftly overwhelmed Allende government officials who attempted to defend their President.

There were for years disputes oraged over whether Allende took his own life with a pistol given him by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, or whether he was murdered by Pinochet’s troops.


A reign of terror begins

Whatever the truth about Allende’s end, his overthrow preceded a reign of terror, during which thousands of leftists were rounded up, tortured and often killed by the Pinochet regime.

The fall of Allende was the signal for my return to the BBC World Service newsroom in London.


An offer I did not refuse

Soon after my return, I received a call from my old Reuter friend, Ian MacDowall, then News Editor. Over lunch, Ian invited me to rejoin Reuters, promising that I would soon be given a correspondent’s post if I did. Having just unsuccessfully applied for an appointment as Singapore-based Far East correspondent with BBC, I accepted with alacrity.

I was particularly glad to rejoin Reuters, having been informed unofficially that the reason the BBC did not give me the Singapore appointment was that I had a "communist" brother in law, and could be subjected to pressure. This was a reference to my wife's family in then communist East Germany.

Salvador Allende addresses his supporters in happier times



Chlean foreign minister Orlando Letelier



The Moneda Palace under air attack



Augusto Pinochet, leader of the coup



Next: Chapter 15 >>

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh