Richard Gott

Although I had lived for some of the previous decade in Santiago, I was not in Chile on 11 September 1973, the day 25 years ago when the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown. I was sitting in the Guardian’s old building in the Grays Inn Road when the news came in over the wires, but could not immediately fly to Chile, having a longstanding engagement to drive my family from Sussex to Yorkshire to establish them in a new home. The foreign editor threatened to send the Washington correspondent instead, so I promised I’d be on the first plane into Santiago. The Chilean military had closed the country to the outside world, and I knew that it would be some days before it opened up. They did not want too many foreign witnesses.

When I eventually arrived in Buenos Aires, hoping to fly on across the Andes, there was good news and bad. Michael Brunson and John Humphrys had hired a large plane from Aerolineas Argentinas, on behalf of ITN and the BBC, and they were leaving for Santiago late that night. The new Chilean authorities had promised to open the frontier the following morning, and for a payment of $200, Brunson and Humphrys were happy to let lesser mortals onto the flight. The news at the Reuters office was less encouraging. A message had arrived from their correspondent in Santiago, suggesting that I would be ill-advised to come. My name was on a ‘wanted’ list.

We flew in to Santiago’s old airport at Los Cerrillos before dawn. I did not think I would be at risk in the company of two hundred other foreign journalists, and this proved to be the case. At the first military press conference at the Hotel Carrera, across the square from the bombed Moneda Palace where Allende had died, my friend from Reuters expressed surprise at seeing me. He was even more surprised – I was quite surprised myself – when a senior air force general caught sight of me and bounded up to shake my hand. We had attended the same university seminars a few years earlier, and had got on rather well. Chile was always a place where Right and Left could meet socially without quarrelling, though it’s not been like that during the last quarter of a century.

Another English person who has rather bleaker memories of those first few days after the coup has written about them in a memoir of her husband that has just been reissued in paperback.[*] Joan Jara had lived in Chile for nearly twenty years. She, too, was familiar with that peculiarly Chilean world where politics were kept subordinate to polite social routines. She lived comfortably in Santiago’s barrio alto, the upper-class suburb, with her children and her Chilean husband, Víctor Jara. She was a ballet dancer and choreographer, he was a theatre producer who had become famous as a politicised musician, singing his own songs in folk clubs and at political rallies. Like Pablo Neruda and several other stars of the Chilean cultural world, he was a member of the Communist Party. He had travelled widely in Latin America and in Eastern and Western Europe, and had even spent time with theatre groups in Britain, courtesy of the British Council.

On the morning of the coup, Joan Jara took one of her children to school as usual, and Víctor set off through the city to the Technical University where he worked. She never saw him again. The military seized the university, and Víctor, along with hundreds of others, was taken to the Estadio Chile, one of Santiago’s two football stadiums. There he was locked up, tortured and killed. A week later, his wife was taken to see his body in the morgue.

Partly because of his international reputation, Víctor Jara’s death became a cause célèbre, particularly in Britain, where it was, rightly, seen as an important indication of the vicious nature of the new regime. For the British Embassy in Santiago, where the Ambassador, the late Reginald Secondé, was a solid supporter of the coup, it was a serious embarrassment, as Joan Jara’s account of her meetings with diplomats makes clear. Almost alone of the foreign embassies, the British refused to give refuge to Allende supporters. Tiny embassies like those of Panama and Sweden packed in hundreds, while the spacious British premises remained closed. For many journalists present in Santiago that month, it was a less than glorious moment to be British. Only Margaret Anstee, a British UN representative in the city, emerged with credit – she unilaterally extended diplomatic immunity to those taken into the homes of UN personnel.

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[*] Victor: An Unfinished Song by Joan Jara (Bloomsbury, 288 pp., £6.99, 10 September, 0 7475 3994 4).