The Ghosts of Victor Jara, Ho Chi Minh, and Salvador Allende Continue to Haunt the Chilean Right

In 1993 Argentine ska band, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, released a single entitled “El Matador” as part of an album devoted to Southern Cone resistance to military dictatorship.[1] The lyrics of the single include a line asserting the fact that, “Victor Jara, no calla” (“Victor Jara does not keep quiet”). Jara was instrumental in the founding of the Chilean New Song movement (CNS).[2] Between 1964 and 1970, popular discontent with the glacial pace of reform under the Eduardo Frei administration led Chileans to elect Marxist-Leninist Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity coalition (Unidad Popular, UP).[3] In the process, CNS provided a soundtrack for this revolution, offering young Chileans an alternative to the imported music inundating the radio waves. The musical movement did not immediately dethrone Rock and Roll and Nueva Ola[4], but it soon became the official music of the revolution.

The Chilean revolution turned Victor Jara into an icon of social commitment, and then of resistance after his death. Only the image of Salvador Allende, martyred in the violent assault on the presidential palace, rivals the image of Jara, whose body was identified by his wife bearing the marks of torture that included mangled hands.[5]

But because of the singer-songwriter’s wholly committed and profoundly grassroots devotion to the progressive aims of social change in revolutionary Chile, Jara stands tall and alone. In a display of transnational solidarity, and with a generous amount of marketing savvy, US musician Bruce Springsteen moved a large crowd of Chilean concert-goers as he performed one of Jara’s hits on September 12, 2013, forty years after the abduction, torture, and murder of the Chilean musician by the military regime.[6] Coincidentally, Rolling Stone had included Jara in a list of fifteen Rock and Roll rebels a few months prior to Springsteen’s concert.[7]

In mid-October 2019 Chilean high school students began massive acts of civil disobedience as they responded to a hike in public transportation fares. By jumping over subway turnstiles and knocking down gates, they evaded fares and soon occupied the Santiago Metro, waking a sleeping country saturated by governmental abuses of power and indifference in the face of social and economic corruption caused by a failed neoliberal economic model. Gradually, over the next few days, Chilean citizens began to protest en masse.[8] They took to the streets in a peaceful yet animated demonstration of discontent through pot-banging, marching, and chanting redolent of the revolutionary protests of the Chilean Sixties.[9]

Sporadic acts of looting and property destruction provided the justification that conservative President Sebastián Piñera needed to declare a state of emergency and deploy the military to purportedly safeguard citizens in the streets.[10] On a televised announcement of his executive decision, Piñera further antagonized the pueblo by declaring that “Chile is at war,” producing an atmosphere evocative of the military dictatorship under Pinochet[11]

As demonstrators in Chile protest decades of a neoliberal assault on their education, health, and pensions they blame on a string of corrupt and incompetent governments, impromptu and popular musical performances serve as reminders of the historical significance of this and other cultural productions as acts of solidarity.

Amid a barrage of social-media information, an amateur video recording showed a lone musician playing an impeccable saxophone rendition of Victor Jara’s “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The Right to Live in Peace”), breaking through the silence of the night and defying the military-enforced curfew in a dusty and modest working-class neighborhood of anywhere Chile. This ephemeral scene illustrates not only the indelible impact and commitment of Chilean New Song on Chilean social movements, but also the versatility of Victor Jara’s song, as it was originally written for revolutionary Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in 1971.[12]

Along with fellow musicians like Rolando Alarcón and ensemble Quilapayún, Jara provided acts of solidarity with the pueblo (people) of Vietnam. During this revolutionary time in Chile musicians were joined by other cultural producers, students, workers, and political leaders, in imagining themselves part of a process of anti-imperialism and, in the words of social movements scholar Sidney Tarrow, “internalized international issues and conflicts into domestic politics.”[13]

With the simple and direct title of “The Right to Live in Peace,” Jara provided an act of solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle through the image of their iconic leader. The first of three stanzas is capable of summarizing the entire struggle of the Vietnamese pueblo and convey the implication of rural Vietnam in the struggle for self-determination. “The right to live,” begins Victor Jara simply, “poet Ho Chi Minh, / which strikes from Vietnam / to humanity as a whole. / No cannon will erase / the furrow of your paddy. / The right to live in peace.”

This song reflects Victor Jara’s gentle personality, which was always reflected on his work. Compared to Jara, most contemporary cultural producers were more abrasive in their anti-imperialism.[14] However, his tenderness should not be mistaken as a lack of disdain for imperialism. Jara exploits the fact that this leader, who has been vilified by most of the US-dominated western media in a crusade against communism, is not but a poet farmer. “Indochina is the place,” continues Jara, “beyond the wide sea, / where the flower is destroyed with genocide and napalm. / The moon is an explosion / that melts the clamor. / The right to live in peace.” Jara here uses images of nature involved in the double task of absorbing the war’s destruction and appeasing its horrors. He also manages to indict the US military without naming it, alluding to it with two global symbols of atrocity that were readily associated with the US American presence in Vietnam: genocide and napalm.

“Uncle Ho, our song is / the fire of unadulterated love,” continues Victor Jara with passionate familiarity, “is dove to the dovecote / olive to its tree. / It’s the universal song / in a network that will triumph, / the right to live in peace.” Victor Jara ended his ode to “Uncle Ho” with the message of ultimate peace provided by the universal symbols of the olive branch and dove. With this final message, Jara stamps the song with his tenderness, without undermining the intensity of support and solidarity in the face of destruction that can only be countered by armed struggle.[15]

In arguing that the success of transnational solidarity rests fundamentally on empathy, historians Jessica Stites Mor and Maria del Carmen Suescun Pozas aver that, “Cultural production and art produced as part of solidarity action, participating in the work of framing social issues and discourses, present visual and performative pathway-spaces through which subjectivities can be crafted and realigned.”[16] In other words, the music of Victor Jara illustrates one way in which the emotions necessary for empathy were triggered. This, according to Stites Mor and Suescun Pozas, in turn facilitates the mobilization of people to make “transnational solidarity networks and communications an expedient means to analyze the success and failure of empathetic political actions.”[17]

Jara was one of a number of Chilean cultural producers that raised awareness of the intimate relationship between the national and the global during the long Sixties. “The Right to Live in Peace” was written and released during the infancy of the Unidad Popular experiment with socialism, but most adherents understood that the experiment began dying when it was born. It is not far-fetched to assume that most revolutionary Chileans were aware of the machinations of destabilization already in motion by 1971, and the role of US imperialism in it.[18] Jara’s song might have been dedicated to a Vietnamese struggle, but its application to the domestic situation was also clear. In other words, US imperialism was being defeated in Southeast Asia by armed struggle, but it was also gaining ground in Chile through social propaganda and economic strangulation.

Like most revolutionary Chileans during the global Sixties, Jara wrestled with the contradictive imperatives of Chilean exceptionalism. This doctrine prescribed that because of its relative democratic stability in the region, Chile was capable of implementing a successful socialist program through the “ballot instead of the bullet.” This rhetoric became increasingly more contradictive in the face of imperialist intervention, and the contemporary examples of Cuba and Vietnam further galvanized the skepticism of those who supported Allende, while opposing his peaceful road to socialism.[19]

Musician and literary scholar Daniel Fischlin, has also contended that, “Sound and music are always produced in social and political contexts,” even if at times, opposition groups undermine the socio-political nuance of music in order to keep it from influencing dissent. As such, he considers that sound, although not intrinsically revolutionary, cannot be realistically “divorced from its social and political contexts.”[20] As a result, the music that Victor Jara and company produced during this revolutionary moment in Chilean history was inevitably socially committed and militant.[21] The persecution, exile, and murder of Chilean artists that followed the 1973 coup prove Fischlin right. The power structure that took control of Chile tried to silence these singers by force, and inadvertently perpetuated their message: “Sound as the contradiction of silence. Musicking as the contradiction of…being silenced.”[22]

In his last public speech, given through the telephone to a local radio station while the presidential palace was being bombarded, Allende famously assured his pueblo that, “…much sooner than later the great avenues through which free men walk to build a better society will open.”[23] Forty-six years later over one million Chilean citizens fulfilled his promise in relative peaceful demonstrations through the great avenues of Santiago. The mainstream media might want to promote the perception that, as no party flags wave above the crowd, it stands to reason that it is not about the left or the right. However, this attempt to clean the slate is not fully true, given that the political coalition that dominated the Chilean presidency following the dictatorship was not entirely of the left.[24] In addition, these demonstrations of popular discontent are, at least in Chile, inherently of the left.

It appears that Los Fabulosos Cadillacs were right because dissenting Chileans in 2019 are using dissident tools of the global Sixties to shout that Victor Jara does not remain quiet, and his message of self-determination transcends space, time, and death in a reminder that the “neoliberal miracle” did not happen for all.[25] At the time this essay is being written, demonstrations continue in Chile, and “The Right to Live in Peace” has become a central anthem of the demonstrations. The song is ubiquitously performed by amateur and professional musicians. Victor Jara’s song about Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese pueblo continue to add relevance to Salvador Allende’s last words.


Juan Pablo Valenzuela is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Georgia State University and a part-time instructor of history at Kennesaw State University. Born in Chile, Valenzuela has been in Georgia since 1981. His dissertation looks at revolutionary Chilean transnational solidarity with the people of Vietnam between 1964 and 1973.

References

[1] For Southern Cone “dirty wars” and popular resistance to them, see John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents (New York: The New Press, 2004); Aldo Marchesi, Latin America’s Radical Left: Rebellion and Cold War in the Global 1960s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[2] J. Patrice McSherry, Chilean New Song: The Political Power of Music, 1960s-1973 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015), 6.

[3] Simon Collier and William F. Sater, A History of Chile, 1808-1994 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 305-329.

[4] Nueva Ola, or New Wave, featured yanqui-ized Chilean artists performing in US American styles and typically English, see http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/602/w3-article-3529.html; Yanqui is a Spanish colloquial derivative of Yankee, and is often used to connote someone from the US. In contrast to gringo, which is also used for that purpose, yanqui has connotations of imperialism. Many times, but not always, so-called anti-Americanism was actually anti-yanqui sentiment, in what I call a pervasive but fading monolithic yanqui. In other words, the criticized yanqui associated with US imperialism was often distinguished from members of the US American pueblo, and not subject to anti-imperialist criticism.

[5] Joan Jara, Victor: An Unfinished Song (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 2.

[6] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bruce-springsteen-honors-chilean-folk-hero-victor-jara-in-santiago-49194/; Jara was murdered on September 16, 1973, at the age of 40.

[7] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/15-rock-roll-rebels-141565/victor-jara-169477/.

[8] https://jacobinmag.com/2019/10/chile-protests-pinera-repression?fbclid=IwAR0hyvB8sInLUG_1XKhcUzFlPAVh2otZdthnF7ho9my0vesnrUVKsgdnEmo, accessed October 22, 2019.

[9] For the significance of pot-banging, see, Margaret Power, Right-Wing Women in Chile: Feminine Power and the Struggle Against Allende, 1964-1973 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

[10] The developments in Chile coincided with similar demonstrations of discontent in Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador, to list some of those in Latin America in a three-year span. This unleashed a social media storm of information, denunciations, and demands for solidarity. As a result, it has become increasingly challenging, and dangerous, to ascertain fact from fabrication. One particular example that I have witnessed – and I use myself and the present tense because these developments are unfolding as I write this – are the citizen-led attacks on would-be looters of what they deem unnecessary consumer goods like electronics and alcohol. These “demonstration vigilantes” have been particularly defensive of small businesses like mom-and-pop stores, but have ignored the looting of essentials like milk and diapers, from icons of neo-liberalism like the Walmart-owned Lider Supermarkets. Events like this, compounded by the infrastructural destruction of public and private property, possibly staged by the police and military to justify their intervention, and working-class (poor) members of the police force sporadically looting supermarkets for food, have made it difficult to keep a clear vision of the true aims of the majority of the population. Protestors have been especially persistent in reminding police officers that they all suffer the same inequalities, as evidenced by their looting. In addition, the traditional media outlets have deviated from objectivity, trying to “outdo” each other with their respective versions of the truth. Generally speaking, the majority of the demonstrations appear to be peaceful and relatively well-ordered. It is unknown as I write this where the governmental antagonization of an already radicalized population will lead.

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/23/chile-protest-war-pinera-inequality; The extant literature on the subject of the military regime in Chile is ample. For a comprehensive history of the role of the United States and multinational corporations, see, Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (New York: The New Press, 2003); For a memoir, see, Heraldo Muñoz, The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (New York: Basic Books, 2008); and for a general study of the coup and regime, see, Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela, A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).

[12] http://www.abacq.net/imagineria/disc00a.htm, accessed October 24, 2019.

[13] Sidney Tarrow, Strangers at the Gates: Movements and States in Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 182; The author’s dissertation project addresses this theme, and a more detailed description can be found in, Juan Pablo Valenzuela, “Silent Vietnam: Revolutionary Chile in Solidarity with the People of Vietnam, 1964-1973,” World History Bulletin 34, nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2018), 30-33.

[14] Ensemble Quilapayún was especially sharp-tongued in its anti-imperialist lyrics. 

[15] http://www.abacq.net/imagineria/disc00a.html, accessed December 1, 2013.

[16] Jessica Stites Mor and Maria del Carmen Suescun Pozas, eds., The Art of Solidarity: Visual and Performative Politics in Cold War Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 5.

[17] Stites Mor and Suescun Pozas, The Art of Solidarity, 6.

[18] Even a cursory look at issues from 1969-1971 of Punto Final, unofficial organ of the militant left that advocated for armed struggle, will reveal this widespread sentiment, http://www.puntofinal.cl/.

[19] Skeptics of the peaceful road to socialism were first informed by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which was important because it revealed not only decades of US hegemony and exploitation in the region, but also the futility of adhering to US demands for democratic development in the face of the 1954 CIA-led overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. By 1967, the Chilean radical left began to offer a counter-narrative to the peaceful road to socialism, marked by a declaration by the Socialist Party, that it favored armed struggle. This was clearly influenced by the death of guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia that same year: Chilean Socialist Party, Congress of Chillán, 1967. http://www.socialismo-chileno.org/PS/congresos/22-1967/POSICION%20INTERNACIONAL%20DEL%20PARTIDO%20SOCIALISTA%20CONGRESO%20DE%20CHILLAN%201967.pdf.

[20] Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, eds., Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003), 11.

[21] T.M. Scruggs, “Socially Conscious Music Forming the Social Conscience: Nicaraguan Musica Testimonial and the Creation of a Revolutionary Movement,” in From Tejano to Tango: Latin American Popular Music, ed. Walter Aaron Clark (New York: Routledge, 2002), 43; Pablo Vila, ed., The Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), 1-4.

[22] Fischlin, Rebel Musics, 10.

[23] http://www.socialismo-chileno.org/PS/sag/Discursos/1973/Discursos%20de%20Salvador%20Allende%201973%20.pdf.

[24] The political coalition that carried consecutive leaders to the presidency between 1990 and 2010 was made up of center-left parties. These presidents were members of the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties.

[25] Peter Winn, Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

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