Interview. Maria Inés Bussi was Salvador Allende’s favorite niece. She lived with him while he was president, and she fled Pinochet’s soldiers after his death. Here she tells her story in detail for the first time.

Allende’s niece: ‘The Saturday before the coup, I asked my uncle for a gun’

On Sept. 11, 1973, the La Moneda Palace in Santiago de Chile was attacked: the military rebelled in a coup aimed at overthrowing the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Seventy men barricaded themselves inside the palace to protect the life of the President, and the images were broadcast around the world: tanks invaded the streets of Santiago, the National Stadium was transformed into a concentration camp and the refugees ran for their lives to reach the grounds of various embassies.

The assault was relentless, and in the end Allende shot himself. The fighters at La Moneda were captured, tortured and killed, and the darkest days of Chile’s history began, under the oppression of the ferocious military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.

But what happened on that day to those who were close to the president? What happened to his family? Inés, the president’s favorite niece, 26 years old at the time, was caught by events far from La Moneda. That young girl has now become an elegant lady: Maria Inés Bussi.

Tall, slender, with blond hair in a chignon haircut and big blue eyes, Inés looks proud: she has decided to tell her story to the world for the first time. “That morning, I was at home with my partner, who was a political leader. He got a phone call, turned around and told me: ‘The Navy has mutinied in Valparaiso. The coup has begun.’ And that was how it all started.”

You were the President’s niece, and your partner was an important leader of the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement). You yourself were helping Miguel Enríquez—the head of the MIR—and you had lived in the house of your uncle, President Allende, for many years. You must have been high on the list of people to be captured on Sept. 11. What do you remember about that day?

That morning, I did not know what to do. I couldn’t move. It was obvious that the military would be coming to get me. I remember I left my daughter with my parents that day and I hid at the home of a colleague. In the afternoon, probably not realizing the danger we were in, I went back to my house to see if the soldiers had come by. The front door was made of heavy black wood, and as I was opening it I heard a strange noise, as if some device had been tripped. I stopped, closed the door and ran into the garden through a hidden passage. That’s when I saw soldiers running towards my house with machine guns in hand. I had just barely escaped. Still not fully realizing the danger, I went immediately back to my parents’ house to see my daughter, but as soon as I came in, my father came to me and urged me to run. My boss had called them to warn them that military men had come by my office to kidnap me. My parents’ house was no longer a safe place. This was only the beginning.

How did you manage to escape?

The next day, I went to the United Nations, where I was working, to seek help. But I saw a familiar van parked just outside the office: it was the same one which had been lurking near my house the day before. I heard a shot coming from the van. It was all over. They had spotted me. The only thought going through my head at that moment was that I didn’t want to die like this, right in front of them, unable to do anything. I kept a cool head and continued walking. I managed to escape: at that very moment, a senior official passed by in a car, picked me up and carried me to safety. Again, I was saved at the last second.

From that moment on, all my colleagues at the United Nations mobilized to help me, and they asked a woman named Margarita, who was the lover of one of Pinochet’s lawyers at the time, to hide me in her apartment. No one would ever search it. I remember that while I was living there, there was only one rule I had to follow: I couldn’t open the cupboards. One day, I broke the rule and I opened them: they were overflowing with food that one could no longer find on the market. Those were terrible days: I wanted to escape from that house, but I couldn’t do anything. After some time, it turned out that a French colleague had a wife who looked a lot like me. So I managed to get into the French embassy with her passport, and two months later I got on a plane to Paris. There’s one particular memory I still have from those days: the mother of one of my colleagues was listening to her daughter as she recounted my story, and then she looked at me and said, in an astonished tone: “But no, there must be some mistake. Look at her, she has blue eyes. She can’t be a communist.”

I purposefully erased my memories, the faces and the names of people I had seen in my uncle’s house. My biggest fear was that they would be captured because of me.

How were the two months you spent in the French embassy?

I felt like I was already a prisoner. Even though I was in an embassy, I was sure that they would catch me. The military were obviously unwilling to release any documents to allow Allende’s niece to escape. And so, every day during those two months, I did an exercise to erase my memory. I forced myself to erase the faces and names of all the people I had seen in my uncle’s house. My biggest fear was that I would lead to the capture of someone I knew: I just wanted to forget everyone I had known. Thankfully, after two months, I was able to board a plane to Paris with my daughter. It would be 13 years, three months and 18 days until I could return to Chile again.

What was the situation like for a refugee in Paris?

I was extremely poor there, I could not find a job and I was being treated as an anomaly because I was a single woman with a daughter. I only had enough money to buy one yogurt a day. I will never forget one particular episode. I was at a university to apply for a scholarship, and the secretary said out loud, outraged: “But look how elegant she is, she looks like a model! She’s not ashamed to ask for a scholarship?” From the door, she couldn’t see that I had been holding my daughter’s hand the whole time, and I didn’t have the courage to tell her that I had a little girl, that I had come from a country where a coup had taken place and that the military had seized my house and everything I owned. To give you an idea, in Chile during those years, if you wanted to call someone an idiot, you’d say, “You’re dumber than a soldier without a car.” Whenever there was a search or property seizure, soldiers were free to steal whatever they could get their hands on, including cars. So it was basically impossible for a soldier not to have at least one car.

You said you were an anomaly in Paris because you were a single young woman with a child. Where was your partner?

My partner could not be with us. He had to remain in Chile. They killed him on Oct. 15, 1975. By that time, I had found work in Mexico, and on that morning I was sitting down at a table reading when a man put a newspaper in front of me with the headline: “One of the main leaders of the MIR killed.” That was how I discovered that my partner had died. There were five brothers in his family, and four were killed by the dictatorship.

Were you a militant yourself?

I was not a militant. I always wanted to remain independent. But I was helping Miguel Enríquez, the absolute leader of the MIR, who was assassinated a year before my partner was. I had one particular task: I was Miguel’s “co-pilot.” Since I was tall, blonde and blue-eyed, when I was in the car with Miguel, we looked like a young petit-bourgeois couple. No one ever stopped us, and that protected us from many dangers. Military people thought we were “good folks,” we didn’t have the look of fanatical communists, we didn’t fit with their caricature-like idea of ​​how leftists are supposed to look. This was how I helped Miguel, who, as head of the MIR, had to go to clandestine meetings and carry messages from one part of the city to another. I was his cover.

Before you lived with your partner, you lived for many years in the home of President Allende. Why?

I had been studying sociology at the University of Chile since I was young. I was very good, and so I was chosen to go study in New York for a time. Since I was the niece of the president, they made things difficult for me: they sent me to live with a black family in the Bronx during the years of racial segregation and the fiercest clashes. At the end of my stay, the university and the government did everything they possibly could to get me to stay longer and study in New York, but I didn’t want any part of that, and I flew back to Santiago. At the airport, I didn’t see my parents waiting for me, but my uncle Salvador and his wife, who asked me to move in with them. It was clear that I had passed some difficult tests, and this was their way of rewarding me.

He had a great sense of humor. I often took my classmates from the university to study at home with me, and when he returned home, he’d never angry, he joined us and talked to everybody.

How were the years you spent in that house?

It was a delightful time: I carry a lot of nostalgia about it. At first, I lived with my aunt and uncle and three cousins, then the three of them got married and I was left an “only child,” as my uncle would say. He had a great sense of humor. He was a very funny person in everyday life. He was light hearted. I often took my fellow classmates to study at home with me, because I knew they were curious to see the house of the president. And when he returned and found the house full of my friends, he didn’t get angry, he joined us and talked to everyone. Sometimes, when he came home, he found me studying in the dining room and was very happy. He’d say, “Inés, imagine how much a father is ashamed when a child doesn’t want to study. But you, you like studying, and you like it so much! Come on, get up, let’s dance.” He’d take me by the hand to dance a tango, he’d teach me the steps and laugh. He was amazing.

When was the last time you saw your uncle?

The Saturday before the coup, I went to see him at La Moneda to ask him for a gun. I lived in a right-wing neighborhood and the neighbors knew that I was the niece of the president, so they came to me to try to scare me. So I asked my uncle for a weapon, and he looked at me, smiled and said: “Why don’t you come back to live with us again?” This was his only response. He was very serious—he tried to smile again, but he was sad. When I left, I was sure he was hiding something from me: he probably already knew that they were organizing the coup. And it was in the air, you could breathe it. I hope that I’ve managed to explain what the situation was like in Chile in those years. This is the first time I’ve spoken in detail about what happened during those days—I’ve never been able to do it until now. Even as Gabriel kept asking me to tell him the story. He used to say we should write this story together.

Who is Gabriel?

Gabriel García Márquez.

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