50 Years After Chilean Coup, Let’s Remember Pinochet Resisters’ Inspiring Legacy

I barely slept the primary evening I arrived in Chile in December 1976. The army dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which had seized energy 3 years earlier than on September 11, 1973, following its violent, United States-backed overthrow of President Salvador Allende’s left-wing Well-liked Unity authorities, was on the peak of its energy.

Earlier than touring to Chile, I had been energetic in the US solidarity motion within the San Francisco Bay Space, organizing to safe the discharge of the hundreds of political prisoners in Chile. Unable to sleep, I tiptoed to the window and appeared out on the abandoned streets of the northern Chile city of Arica. Nothing and nobody moved outdoors, apart from the army convoys that periodically raced via the empty streets. I finally fell asleep and woke as much as my first day in Chile.

My sister and I had traveled via Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru on our technique to Santiago, Chile’s capital. Like so many individuals around the globe, we abhorred the overthrow of the Well-liked Unity authorities, a coalition of left events supporting financial and social justice for employees and peasants, and had been outraged on the army’s imprisonment, torture and homicide of hundreds of Chileans who had supported Allende. We thought that witnessing firsthand what life was like in Chile below the dictatorship would strengthen our potential to talk to folks within the U.S. about why they, too, wanted to oppose the dictatorship and help human rights in Chile.

From Arica, we traveled south to Santiago, the place the households of political exiles I had labored with in San Francisco lived. Ramón Soto, the cousin of 1 former Chilean political prisoner and refugee I knew within the Bay Space, proposed to take us to La Penitencería, certainly one of many prisons housing hundreds of political prisoners in Chile through the army regime. Due to my U.S.-based organizing work, I used to be keen to go to the jail, meet the prisoners, and study their situations. Once we arrived on the jail, one of many guards advised us we couldn’t go inside. Melinda, responding with a great deal of bravado, merely mentioned, “Oh, however we all the time do.” The guard hesitated after which allowed us to cross. We then waited as different guards inspected our papers and people of the opposite members of the family and mates lined as much as go to imprisoned family members.

Sitting on concrete slabs in a big, open room, we met political prisoners throughout specifically designated visiting hours. Soto launched me to his former cellmate, Luis Torres, a former member of the Chilean Air Pressure. He joined after his father died, to help his mom and brother and to get an training, and like numerous different enlisted males and officers, he supported Allende’s Well-liked Unity authorities. Consequently, Pinochet’s armed forces arrested, tortured, and convicted him and 80 different Chilean Air Pressure members for treason. Torres and I hit it off, and for the subsequent six months, I visited Torres on the jail two or 3 times every week.

A black and white photo of two men, seated side by side
Luis Torres and Jaime Salazar of their cell within the penitenceria in Santiago, Chile, in 1977.

Political prisoners in Chile had been incarcerated in particular blocks collectively to isolate them from the opposite prisoners. The army’s acknowledgement of their particular standing allowed political prisoners to keep up their identities, interact in ideological discussions and manage themselves behind bars. This association had the unintended penalties of boosting the prisoners’ spirits, strengthening their sense of political dedication and inspiring resistance.

The vary of organizations, events and political tendencies that existed in Chile through the Well-liked Unity authorities largely reconstituted itself within the jail. The 2 predominant poles on the Chilean left had been nearly all of the Socialist Get together, the Motion of the Revolutionary Left and a number of other smaller Christian events on one facet, and the Communist Get together, smaller sectors of the Socialist Get together, and the Radical Get together on the opposite. The previous promoted employees and peasants instantly taking management of factories and the land and organizing inside the army in opposition to a coup. The opposite pole urged a gradual strategy and sought to type an alliance with the Christian Democrats, a big, centrist occasion that in the end backed the coup.

Political prisoners maintained contact with their comrades on the surface via conversations with guests and written communications, which had been shared with prisoners contained in the cellblock and with occasion contacts on the surface. Most of the guests entered and left the jail with messages, written in tiny script and punctiliously folded to be as small as potential, hidden of their garments or baggage.

A black and white photo of people posed for a large group photograph.
Chilean political prisoners within the penitenceria in Santiago, Chile, in 1978.

Safety remained an ongoing concern. For example, after it turned clear that Melinda and I’d proceed to go to prisoners and be taught extra about how the events functioned inside, one of many leaders of the Motion of the Revolutionary Left, the group Torres and his cellmate had been affiliated with, despatched a message to the group’s management within the Bay Space to inquire about us. The group initially advocated armed wrestle to finish capitalism in Chile, which is why it supported the Well-liked Unity authorities however remained outdoors the governing coalition.

Regardless of the political variations among the many prisoners, they united to have a good time key holidays like Worldwide Employees’ Day. They organized one other occasion for Worldwide Ladies’s Day, during which a number of prisoners stood on the concrete slab that ran the size of the room and, one after the other, spoke in regards to the historical past of working-class ladies’s wrestle and the way vital ladies guests had been to maintaining their morale excessive. They thanked the ladies within the room and emphasised how they supplied them with clear garments, nutritious meals, and different provides they wanted to get by. The prisoners then handed the ladies a pink carnation as a logo of their wrestle.

Melinda and I additionally labored with varied human rights teams in Chile. Most of them labored below the auspices of the Catholic Church, because it was the one establishment that had some measure of safety from the army. Particularly, we met with ladies who had been members of various human rights committees, reminiscent of The Affiliation of Households of the Detained-Disappeared, which met in Santiago’s predominant cathedral. Two different church-sponsored organizations we labored with had been the Ollas Comunes (Soup Kitchens) that individuals organized in poor neighborhoods throughout Santiago and the Bolsas de Cesantes (Unemployed Employees’ Teams).

What struck me most forcibly about these varied organizations was folks’s potential to arrange and work collectively below essentially the most troublesome of conditions. Individuals knew that the army may arrest, torture and imprison them at any time, as so a lot of their members of the family, comrades and mates had been. However, they joined with others to type the ollas communes to alleviate the starvation they and others like them confronted. In so doing, they not solely supplied meals for others and themselves, in addition they affirmed their sense of private dignity and their dedication to work collectively to get what they wanted.

Children eat at a a long table, set for many
An olla commune meals kitchen in March 1978, in Santiago, Chile.

Two different intently tied qualities characterised these activists: They’d a excessive diploma of sophistication consciousness, they usually had been very political. They knew that the army served the pursuits of the rich, and that the rich benefitted from their oppression. Consequently, they appeared to one another for help and solidarity. For instance, one lady within the soup kitchen defined to us that to get meals for the “frequent pot,” they went round asking folks for it. At first, they went to the wealthy neighborhoods, however these folks didn’t give them something. In order that they concentrated their efforts within the poor neighborhoods and open air markets, the place distributors would usually give them one thing.

Someday a lady, Olga Sazo, approached us at one of many conferences of the Bolsa de Cesantes and advised us she wished to introduce us to members of the resistance. In Chile in 1977, “resistance” meant the armed, clandestine underground that was working in opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship. As I later came upon, Sazo had been born on a landed property in southern Chile, the place her father was a landless tenant who labored for the landowner. She fled what would have been a compelled marriage and a dead-end life on the property to Santiago, the place she supported herself as a seamstress and joined the Socialist Get together.

After surprisingly little dialogue, Melinda and I agreed. Sazo then took us to fulfill a number of members of a clandestine cell of the Socialist Get together, which operated in what’s now Cerro Navia, a poor neighborhood within the western a part of Santiago. Over the subsequent few months, we met with them and transported paperwork to completely different members of the Socialist Get together, since, supposedly, it was much less seemingly that the Chilean secret police would arrest us than they might a Chilean. For Worldwide Employees’ Day on Could 1, the group determined to place out a leaflet condemning the dictatorship and calling on Chilean employees to arrange to collectively oppose it.

One or two days earlier than Could 1, we went to Sazo’s home. She was ready for us with the curtains drawn. She requested us to sort up the leaflet they deliberate to distribute, since she knew we had labored as secretaries and typed higher than she did. After a second of consideration, we agreed. I did the typing since I had labored as a secretary longer. Nervous, I did my finest to sort the leaflet as shortly as potential. Sazo then requested us to assist hand out the leaflets on Could 1 after curfew, when solely the army was allowed on the streets, which Melinda and I declined. We had been taller and blonder than most Chileans, and would stick out like a sore thumb in a working-class neighborhood after curfew. I by no means noticed the leaflet, however Sazo later advised us that they did distribute them, and thankfully nobody was arrested.

When I’ve spoken about these experiences, folks usually ask me if I used to be scared. The reply is that I used to be — particularly after the Chilean secret police got here to the home Melinda and I had been staying at, in search of us. Fortunately, we had been away on the time and for no matter cause, they didn’t come again.

Two elements helped allay my fears considerably: First, the Chileans I met who resisted Pinochet’s dictatorship had been a nonstop supply of inspiration for me. If they will do it whereas going through even better dangers, then so may I. Second, Jimmy Carter turned president in January 1977, and I benefitted straight from his emphasis on integrating a bit extra respect for human rights into U.S. overseas coverage. Whereas the Carter administration backed United Nations resolutions condemning Pinochet and vastly decreased army assist to Chile, his administration failed to chop all assist or denounce or withdraw help from Operation Condor, via which South American militaries labored collectively to repress and homicide leftists all through the area and internationally, thus complicating his human rights document.

Nonetheless, as a part of Carter’s new coverage, a brand new group of officers started to work within the U.S. embassy in Santiago. Melinda and I turned mates with a newly appointed younger consul within the embassy. Though he didn’t know the extent of our actions in Chile, he knew sufficient to be involved about our security. Once we flew out of Chile, carrying taped conversations with what he thought had been members of the Catholic church however in actuality had been members of the resistance, he met us on the airport and made certain we obtained on our flight.

As soon as Melinda and I had been again within the U.S. we did all we may to share what we had discovered with folks right here and to induce them to behave in help of human rights in Chile. We spoke with members of the solidarity motion about our experiences and at political occasions within the Bay Space. We talked to everybody we may in regards to the scenario and what they might do to persuade the U.S. authorities to stress the Chilean army dictatorship to respect human rights. Melinda and I even drove to Washington, D.C. and met with elected officers and staffers from our residence district in southwestern Pennsylvania, asking them to finish all assist to the Pinochet dictatorship and demand the discharge of political prisoners.

My six months in Chile have had a long-lasting influence on me. I discovered straight what it was wish to reside below a army dictatorship. I witnessed each the fury and the hatred that the rich really feel for individuals who not solely oppose their rule however try to construct a extra simply and equal society, in addition to the brutal measures they’re prepared to make use of to suppress these efforts. However I additionally skilled the profound dedication of many Chileans, each inside and outdoors of jail, to work collectively to construct a society during which exploitation and oppression don’t exist.

Bored with studying the identical previous information from the identical previous sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake issues up and produce you the tales and views that always go untold in mainstream media. However being a radically, unapologetically unbiased information website isn’t straightforward (or low cost), and we depend on reader help to maintain the lights on.

If you happen to like what you’re studying, please contemplate making a tax-deductible donation immediately. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an funding: Put money into a nonprofit information website that’s not afraid to ruffle a number of feathers, not afraid to face up for what’s proper, and never afraid to inform it like it’s.