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.
The Estadio Chile was still forbidden territory when I arrived in Santiago, but I went with other journalists to visit a second makeshift prison in the rather larger Estadio Nacional, the huge ground where international matches were played and political rallies sometimes held. This was a sporting event of a different kind. We were the players, standing in the middle of the pitch; the prisoners, thousands of them, stood on the terraces behind the wire as though they were fans. At the time, the sense of role reversal gave the spectacle a tinge of farce that overlay the unease. The prisoners shouted for cigarettes and we tried to talk to them, but the distances were too great. Soon, and for many years afterwards, the word ‘stadium’ was to be synonymous with ‘concentration camp’, the gift of the Chilean military to the international vocabulary of terror.
The Chilean coup and the extraordinary years that preceded it now seem very old history. Chile is a country that has almost entirely disappeared from the screen. It first became a place of rather more than academic interest when the Marxist Allende nearly won the presidential elections of 1964. It faded from view only after ‘the Chilean road to socialism’ was blocked by Pinochet’s coup in 1973, and the country descended into a nightmare, which lasted until the Eighties. When the Chileans finally woke up, no one much noticed. The attention of the world had moved away.
I went there in 1966, and began working at the University of Chile in Santiago; I later travelled around the country and Latin America more generally, writing for the Guardian. Joan Jara had come from Britain in 1954, and worked in another part of the university. Along with her first husband, a Chilean dancer, she worked with the Chilean National Ballet, one of the university’s cultural off-shoots. The university, known as the ‘U’, was a vast, amorphous, much loved institution, whose tentacles stretched into almost every sphere of Chilean life. Its bureaucracy was a typical inheritance of the Spanish colonial era; it was said that the Rector signed every wage cheque personally. Each month my salary came from an account in a different bank, as my employers sought to keep one jump ahead of their creditors. Although autonomous, the ‘U’ was by no means apolitical. The law school was permanently right-wing, the teachers’ training institute always left-wing, but everyone else fought a battle for political hegemony – including the ballet dancers and, in my case, those teaching international affairs.
The debates within the university reflected the political battles outside. The presidential elections of 1964 had threatened to bring a Cuban-style regime to power just at the moment when Castro was being anathematised by the United States and by all right-wing governments in the region. The actual victor was Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat of Swiss origin who embarked on a programme of radical structural reform that appeared for a moment to give teeth to the Alliance for Progress, the American-sponsored attempt devised during the Kennedy era to push back the tide of ‘Castro-Communism’ that seemed about to engulf the continent. Backed by radicals within the Vatican and the State Department (and by governments in Paris, Rome and Bonn), President Frei seized large landholdings that had hardly been touched since the days of Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador of the 16th century. He also imposed unfamiliar taxes on the American-owned copper-mines that produced much of the country’s wealth for the benefit of foreign shareholders.
With hindsight, it is clear that Frei’s programme was a good deal more radical than I and a number of other infantile leftists of the time (among them, my friends in the Chilean Socialist Party that backed Salvador Allende) were prepared to admit. Yet, as with so many other political projects during the roller-coaster Sixties (including Dubcek’s Prague Spring), Frei’s ‘revolution in freedom’ soon ran into serious trouble, of the kind that was later to affect Allende, though without such fearsome results. Opposed from both left and right, Frei also lost the support of the centre and, crucially, that of the United States. At the next presidential election, in 1970, the right-wing parties entered their own candidate, ex-President Jorge Alessandri, in a three-horse race, thus destroying the chances of Christian Democrat continuity under Radomiro Tomic, and handing the victory to the Left.
Salvador Allende, who had lost in 1952, 1958 and 1964, was elected President in 1970 with 36 per cent of the vote. His Popular Unity Government lasted for three years of a six-year presidential term. It had the active support of less than half the nation, yet in 1973, the year it was overthrown, its vote in municipal elections had increased to nearly 44 per cent, a figure bearing rough comparison with the support for Margaret Thatcher throughout much of her reign.
Allende was a professional politician, though a doctor by training. He was a lifelong member of the Chilean Socialist Party – a large Marxist nationalist party traditionally to the left of the Communists – and as well as fighting three presidential elections had been in government (as health minister) thirty years before. What he lacked in charisma (he was no Castro), he made up for in experience, integrity and political magic. With a five-party coalition government to manage, and without a majority in the Congress, he needed all his political skills to survive. Aware that Congressional opposition would be fierce, he pushed through much of his ambitious programme within the framework of legislation already put in place by his Christian Democrat predecessors. Land reform, impressive by the standards of Latin America at the time, was conducted without fresh laws and overseen by Jacques Chonchol, a minister who had performed the same role in Frei’s Government. His programme of copper nationalisation, which appealed over the heads of politicians to nationalist sentiment in the country as a whole, was endorsed by all political parties.
Greater difficulties arose from within his own Government. The five parties making up the Popular Unity coalition were themselves divided. The bedrock was the Socialist-Communist alliance that Allende had embodied for so long, but the tensions were considerable, especially as his own Socialist Party soon shaded off into the MIR, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, which, brought up on revolutionary romanticism, had little patience with peaceful politics. There was verbal excess and incompetence, and considerable chaos as well. Many sympathisers could see that the Government’s pinprick attacks on the Conservative media and on the Catholic education system were politically unwise. Yet Allende’s Chile was never in any danger of being dragged into the Soviet camp (the Communists were the most cautious and conservative element in his coalition). He had embarked on an independent road, and recruited some of the best brains in the country. So what went wrong?
The United States, of course, at the height of the Nixon-Kissinger era, was a bitter and implacable opponent, throwing money into subversion, cutting off access to multilateral capital flows and orchestrating a worldwide economic boycott in protest against the nationalisation of the American copper companies. The Soviet Union was friendly, but showed no sign of wishing to subsidise an interesting experiment that it did not control. After its Cuban experience, the USSR preferred to take a back seat in Latin America. In the capitalist world outside the United States, Allende’s Chile enjoyed a measure of political support from those who had been content to back the Cuban revolution and who were later to have no problems with Nicaragua and the Sandinistas. Like all leftist governments, Allende’s was not exactly the toast of capitalist boardrooms, and prolonged external hostility was certainly a factor in its eventual demise. But it was not the most important.
In the end, internal opposition proved fatal. Allende himself, and the Communists in particular, refused to contemplate violent measures against the increasingly unconstitutional behaviour of their opponents, fearing a civil war which they would lose. The memory of the Spanish experience of the Thirties was still fresh in the minds of older politicians. The Chilean Right was less reluctant to contemplate violence, and urged the military to intervene, though it may have been surprised by the ferocity of the coup.
By 11 September 1973 Allende had run out of options. Pinochet, who had leapfrogged to the top of the list of senior generals the previous month (an early indication that he was Allende’s equal in political skills), ordered the bombing and then the capture of La Moneda, the presidential palace. Allende killed himself in its ruins with the submachine gun Castro had given him as a present, and the socialist country he had dreamed of was rubbed out.
The Christian Democrats had lent tacit support to the coup, imagining that they would be its beneficiaries. They were soon to be unpleasantly surprised. The military quickly revealed that they were fed up with civilian politics altogether, and wished to put an end to the era that had begun with Frei in 1964. A period of military repression began in Chile, as it did in Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. When military rule was imposed in Brazil in 1964, it had seemed a continental exception: now it became the rule for much of Latin America and survived until the Eighties.
Members of the Chilean military had a visceral hatred of the Left. As good nationalists, they disliked the over-used rhetoric of Marxism, imported from Europe, but were driven wild by something far more subversive of their sense of nation: the beginnings of a local, indigenous ideology. In the ten years before the coup, the Left had begun to recover the culture of the indigenous peoples of Chile and had started to rewrite a history of the country that went beyond the exploits of its settler population. Such developments were anathema to the military, who, as in much of Latin America, were the descendants of a colonial army whose purpose had been to crush indigenous rebellion. Víctor and Joan Jara were both leading lights in that extraordinary cultural renaissance, and they paid an unexpected price for their activities.
The rebirth that they championed was also evident elsewhere. Mexico, blessed both with an immense indigenous population and with a revolutionary tradition, had pioneered a similar development years before, as the recent interest in the work and lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera reminds us. Recovering the world of the indigenous inhabitants of Chile was more difficult. Chile was, and is, a profoundly racist society. Its ruling élite, like Argentina’s, has always believed that it lived in a white country, that the Indians had somehow been disposed of, apart from a handful who might have survived in a few distant reservations.
Joan Jara’s book casts considerable light on traditional attitudes in Chile, describing how even the Chilean national dance, the cueca, had been put into a form that perpetuated the conquerors’ racist and sexist traditions. The dominant settler tradition, she reminds us, used to refer affectionately to the lower orders of society as los rotos, meaning the ‘broken ones’. ‘Along with the term went certain expected physical attributes – Indian features, dark hair and skin, shortness of stature – and qualities such as laziness, dishonesty and alcoholism, supposed to be inherent in the poor.’ Any student of colonial history will recognise the caricature, but the Chilean version was more subtle. ‘At the same time, el roto chileno was supposed to be a great patriot, something of a buffoon, with an unfailing sense of humour in adversity.’ Jara concludes that he was ‘a kind of identikit character invented by the establishment so that the lower classes would recognise themselves and know their place’.
The mass politics of the early Seventies changed all that. ‘The rotos have become very uppity,’ an alarmed Chilean oligarch said to me during the Popular Unity period. I remember going to huge Allende rallies in Santiago, and to the immense Peronist gatherings of the same era in Buenos Aires, and looking down from above, you could see a great sheet of cabezas negras stretching into the distance, the black-haired heads of the Indian population whose existence had never before been publicly acknowledged.
Jara’s book captures what it was like to be in Chile in those years, when the recovery of popular culture was still in the hands of a few pioneers. She quotes one of them, Alejandro Reyes:
We were part of a massive movement of people who used to go out into the country surrounding Santiago at weekends, or on holiday, to look for and collect typical shapes and forms – not only in dance and music, it could be a clay pot or a lamp from colonial times, or maybe a saying, a turn of phrase, a manner of speaking, or a way of life.
The recovery of indigenous music – the achievement of Bartók and Kodály in Central Europe in earlier decades – was perhaps the most immediately significant result of this movement in Chile. Through the work first of Violeta Parra, and later of her children Angel and Isabel, and of upwardly-mobile rotos like Víctor Jara, the music of the lower orders began to make its way slowly into the mainstream, and into politics. Today groups like Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún, in which Víctor Jara performed, command audiences all over the world. Although what is called Andean music may have degenerated in the Nineties into background sound for advertising jingles, it was dangerously subversive thirty years ago. To play and sing it was a political act, and in the case of Víctor Jara it proved to be a death sentence.
During this period, Allende’s Government adopted many of the cultural ideas of that pioneering generation. The state publishing house, Quimantú, began publishing Latin American literature in cheap editions; the Centre for National Reality began a sociological examination of the Chilean population; the newly-recovered popular music was played on the radio; historians began re-examining the past. The destruction of one national myth in the course of this process has always amused me. Chile, we used to be told, was the country with the longest tradition of constitutional government in Latin America. So it was, but it turned out that for much of the time the Constitution had been suspended.
The Chilean military, provoked beyond endurance by these cultural gnats, hit back in the only way they knew how, crushing the indigenous population and those who had encouraged their participation in the political process. The inherent racism of the military first became apparent in the early days of the coup, when soldiers turned on the large numbers of harmless Indian refugees from General Banzer’s Bolivia, but it soon became evident that their rage extended to much of the Chilean population. Víctor Jara had been one of their first victims.
Unlike the more aristocratic members of his milieu, who preferred to join the Socialist Party or to maintain a fastidious independence, Jara thought of himself as a child of the peasantry, at home in the shanty towns of Santiago, and had no difficulty (as Joan, coming from a different background, may have done) in becoming a Communist Party militant. A Communist who championed the country’s Indian culture was too much for the Chilean military, even if he was only a singer.
The drama and horror of the Chilean coup, rather to my surprise, caught the imagination of the world. A diaspora of academics and professionals, unparalleled since the end of the Spanish Civil War, sought to escape the subsequent repression. Fleeing from Chile, they ended up in every country in Latin America and many in Europe, including Britain (especially after Labour’s return to power in March 1974). When I got back to England after reporting on the aftermath of the coup, I found that my new home in Yorkshire was already crowded with Chilean refugees.
[*] Victor: An Unfinished Song by Joan Jara (Bloomsbury, 288 pp., £6.99, 10 September, 0 7475 3994 4).