28 August 2003 Edition

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Remembering Allende and Jara

It is nearly 30 years since a military coup finished off the democratically elected government of president Salvador Allende in Chile. It was 11 September 1973, and still the victims are campaigning for justice. To the deaths of many activists, including Allende himself, should be added the disappearance of around 4,000 people, whose remains have not been found yet. This is the legacy of terror of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was Margaret Thatcher's best ally in Latin America during the Falklands War back in the '80s, and who evaded justice in Europe on the grounds of failing mental health.

When Pinochet saw that his time in power was ending, he ensured that he would be safe from prosecution. Through his constitution he declared himself senator for the rest of his life - members of parliament cannot be prosecuted. Then, when international pressure forced the Chilean judiciary to consider a possible trial, this was again stymied, this time on the grounds of mental health.

But Pinochet is not the only one escaping justice. In Chile most of those responsible for murders, torture and disappearances occurred during the dictatorship have never been incarcerated. Those who have been sentenced are serving their time in luxury centres run by the army.

Even more poignant is the decision of Chile's political elite to grant immunity to those responsible for the deaths of their compatriots. This is a Chilean version of a "Truth and Reconciliation tribunal", where senior army officers are offering information on the whereabouts of the bodies of the disappeared during the long years of dictatorship in exchange for immunity from prosecution. And there is a growing feeling among the families of the victims of the dictatorship that those in power, some of whom lost political collegues under Pinochet's reign of terror, are unwilling to confront Chile's social and economic elites to bring justice to those who suffered under the dictatorship.

Thirteen relatives of the Chilean disappeared are currently on hunger strike, calling on the government to punish those who directly or indirectly took part in the dictatorship's crimes. "For our part, we are tired of lies, promises and disappointments," they said in a statement. "We, who are aware that there is no possible reparation for what happened, because no action or person would be able to return us our relatives, or bring back those fellow citizens who left Chile, start a hunger strike so the country and the world will know that in Chile, the political authorities are resisting to accept these offences as crimes against humanity."

So Chile is - like nearly every other Southern and Central American country - still failing to come to terms with the impact of the dictatorship in a society that remains very much divided.

There is a feeling that the only moves towards reconciliation taken under the democratic Chilean governments - which still run the country under Pinochet constitution and law - have been more a window-cleaning operation than a real attempt to bring justice and honour the victims of Chile's oligarchy.

So there is now a monument to former President Allende, the man who died defending Chile's democracy, erected at the back of the presidential palace of La Moneda, in Chile's capital, Santiago. The houses of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda - who died three days after the coup - and which were ransacked by the military, have been repaired to allow tourists to visit them. And on 20 August 2003, the Sports junior minister anounced his decision to rename the sports stadium where many where tortured and killed Victor Jara, "to honour" the Chilean songwriter, artist and political activist who was killed in that building on 16 September 1973.

Although Jara is internationally known for his songwriting and singing, he started his artistic career acting in the School of Theatre in the University of Chile. From there, he moved towards directing, participating in countless theatre productions. During this time he also began to get involved in the politics of Chile. In 1966, he recorded his first solo record, self titled, Victor Jara. In the following years he continued as a theatre director but began to spend more and more time with his songs and political activities.

Jara's songs reflected his political ideas. He was a supporter of Salvador Allende's policies. Allende's party was a part of the Popular Unity, a left-wing coalition, and Victor Jara, along with other Chilean singers, helped on his presidential campaign. The Popular Unity party had plans to increase the country's social budget, improving housing, health and education. However, it was not his social policies - but his economic decisions - that caused the military coup against Allende. When the elected president decided to nationalise the copper mines - most of them controlled by US companies - the Nixon and Kissinger administration decided it was time to intervene to defend US economic interests and to finish off a socialist government that was setting a bad example to other countries in the region.

Months before the coup, the country had suffered from factory lockouts, transport strikes, and the growing threat of right-wing paramilitary activity. But it was Pinochet, a general who had sworn allegiance to Allende's government, who struck the deadly blow to Chile's democratic dream. On 11 September 1973, army planes bombed the presidential palace. Allende spoke to the people from the palace and told them he would die defending Chile's democracy.

That day, Victor Jara was due to take part in the official opening of an art exhibition in one of Santiago's universities. The president, Salvador Allende, was also due to be there. Hearing on the radio of the military coup and of the trade unions' call for everyone to go to the workplaces to organise the resistance, Jara drove to the university where he worked. Lecturers and students were surrounded by the military and arrested. Jara threw away his ID card, hoping no one would recognise him, as he was already a hate figure for the social, political and economic elites because of his very public support of Allende's government and his constant denouncing of the excesses of previous conservative governments and the very well-off landowners and businessmen.

Jara was seen alive for the last time on 15 September, as he was recognised and taken from the line of prisoners to be transported to the stadium. Those who tortured him, broke his hands, and according to Danilo Bartulin - Allende's doctor, who shared Jara's final days - the torturers taunted him to try and sing and play his songs. Even under these horrible tortures, Victor Jara managed to sing a portion of the song of the Popular Unity party. After this, he received many brutal blows, and finally was killed with a machine gun. In the early hours of 16 September, his body and those of another five people, were found by shanty town dwellers outside the walls of the Metropolitan Cementery.


The National Concert Hall, Dublin. Thursday 11 September

An evening of music, poetry and song featuring: Cormac Breathnach, Donal O'Kelly, Michael D Higgins, Tomás McSimóin, Joan McDermot, Hada To Hada, Tommy Sands, Jayro Gonzalez, Eric Fleming

Tickets available at €25/€15

From The National Concert Hall, 01 417 0077 www.nch.ie

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1