Imagine a map of Australia, flattened by a steamroller and tipped up on its side. Next, visualise the history of Australia, tipped upside down and run over by a tank. You now have a geographical and political portrait of Chile.
A comically thin country running down a fault line between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile is arid in the north; riven with fjords and forests in the south; and sprinkled with mines throughout. The northern copper mines were particularly profitable for their foreign owners. Following his election in 1970, socialist president Salvador Allende nationalised them to fund his ambitious public welfare program. This, alongside his expropriation of unused land for peasant farmers, made him the target of a destabilisation campaign from both local elites and US intelligence services. The coup which followed in 1973 has entered the global consciousness as a symbol of Latin American military oppression.
Parallels between Allende’s government and that of Gough Whitlam in Australia have been made before. Both men were undemocratically removed from power after three years. Aside from this, Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975 feels like a mild aftershock following the brutal earthquake of Augusto Pinochet’s coup. Whitlam was on the right of the Labor Party (hard to believe by contemporary standards), while Allende was the first democratically elected Marxist leader in the Americas. Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr through a constitutional sleight of hand, and delivered a clever one liner to mark the occasion. After giving an eloquent final speech over the radio as bombs rained down on him, Allende allegedly committed suicide in the government palace, choosing martyrdom over exile. Whitlam lost the subsequent election to Malcolm Fraser in a landslide. There wasn’t another legitimate election in Chile until the plebiscite which removed Augusto Pinochet in 1989.
If revolutions are history’s orgasms then the Chilean coup was history having a hernia. The number of tragic events, extraordinary in their symbolic intensity, pile up on each other to such an extent that they rupture the historical timeline. Victor Jara, singer, song writer and director, had his fingers crushed under the boots of soldiers who shot him in a football stadium and threw his body out on the street. Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize-winning poet, communist presidential candidate and friend of Allende, lay ill and heartbroken in his house by the sea as this all took place, dead two weeks later. Thousands more were tortured, raped and murdered over the next sixteen years under General Augusto Pinochet’s rule.
This coup matters. What is happening in Chile now matters. As has been documented by Naomi Klein and others, this event can be seen as the symbolic start of the global neoliberal counter-revolution. Young economists in Chicago, followers of Milton Friedman and von Hayek, devised a method to counter the social revolutions of the 1960s: they would dismantle the welfare state. Chile and other South American countries were used as experiment chambers for this system, before it was exported globally – and we are still experiencing this wave of privatisations and public service cuts.
While a solid minority supported Pinochet’s reforms, through its violence Chilean neo-liberalism has bred a new generation of militant anti-capitalists.
The image of the Moneda Palace being bombed remains etched on the nation’s collective eyelid. We have no visual equivalent in Australia. When I first saw the stately building, set back far from the road, it was as if the echoes of the bomb blasts were still faintly discernible overhead. Behind the palace I found a statue of Allende, with an excerpt from his final speech printed below:
‘I have faith in Chile and her destiny.’
Two avocado-shaped American tourists stood next to me in Salvador’s shadow. The blonde wife turned to the bald husband and in two sentences managed to summarise why the relationship between Latin America and the United States is still rather poor: ‘Oh look Austin, it’s a statue of Sal-va-daw Allende – he must be Isabel Allende’s father. She’s one of my favourite authors. I guess the whole family must be famous here!’
I wandered through the city on the way to meet Enrico, my Santiago contact. Through a cathedral door I glimpsed a wedding ceremony attended by silver-haired men in perfectly tailored suits. On the next street pink rose petals spilt out of a lopsided bin, the wilting memory of a failed romance. Several pro-choice posters had been smeared over a nearby bus stop. Under the silhouette of a foetus an uncompromising message was printed: ‘This will not become a human being.’
A Catholic anti-abortionist had countered by cutting the ‘not’ out of one of the posters. Someone else, their political allegiance unclear, had drawn a top hat and a moustache on the foetus, perhaps to restore some levity to the debate.
Enrico found me and we headed to C X, an occupied anarchist social centre that he runs with other activists. C X was in a well-to-do neighbourhood. First year uni students staggered through the streets, their hair hacked and spray painted, their clothes torn, in an initiation ritual that looked like a colourful parody of military violence. On a nearby street corner I looked through the cracked window of an ornate colonial era building to see a nurse feeding an ancient woman with a spoon. Already I had a feeling of spying on activities I could not fully understand, a peep show into other people’s lives.
C X was a constant hive of activity, with, when I first arrived, a campaign being organised against genetically-modified food when I first arrived (Monsanto has a vice-like grip on the agricultural market here). Some members welcomed outsiders, while others were understandably cautious. I won’t bore the reader with details of the particular sub-strand of anarchism prevalent at the centre, but it’s worth noting that anarchism – and socialist politics in general – are in a stronger state in Chile than in Australia.
In Chile, the anarchists condemn the communists for selling out to the socialists. The president of one of the largest university’s student union was an anarchist, and had criticised communist student leaders such as the internationally renowned Camila Vallejo for joining recently re-elected President Michelle Bachelet’s coalition.
Of course Bachelet’s party is hardly any more socialist than the Labor Party in Australia. Before the return of democracy in 1990, the dictatorship created a constitutional straightjacket to ensure that foreign and Chilean elites retained control of the economy. The main debate on the Left is how best to change this state of affairs: through reform or revolution. As is to be expected, the anarchists of C X rejected the parliamentary road. But unlike the Guevara-inspired guerrillas of the 1960s and 70s, they do not seek to seize state power. Instead they advocate for the strengthening of popular networks and institutions outside the state, a task that is equally difficult under the current repressive legal framework. The most obvious example of this was the case of C X itself: after a lengthy legal battle the household was about to be evicted so its owner could replace the building with a private school.
A fundraiser for the Mapuche rights movement was being held that weekend (the Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile). Two partygoers took me aside to explain the racial geography of Santiago.
‘On the Westside, people have brown skin and black hair. On the Eastside, you’ve got the blondes. They live up on the mountain slopes, above the smog.’
Young hip hop artists in baggy jumpers rapped about Pan-Latin American unity, followed by a middle-aged guitarist in a porkpie hat who gave a lively interpretation of some old anarchist songs from the Spanish civil war. This mixing of genres, the continuation of a radical Spanish language musical tradition, gives the movement a cultural vibrancy which is often lacking in Australia counter-culture.
The following day I was invited by Enrico’s friend Laura to a theatre performance in Villa Francia, a working-class barrio (neighbourhood) which had suffered heavy repression under the dictatorship. As my ostensible reason for being in Chile was to research radical theatre and performance, I took up the invite. Through the bus window I saw wall after wall covered with anarchist graffiti:
‘All politicians are liars.’
‘Don’t vote, revolt!’
‘You cannot kill us off. Every day a new youth combatant is born.’
My continued difficulties with Chilean slang limited my understanding of the play, but from what I could make out it could be interpreted as a proletarian version of Kath and Kim. Kath and Kim debate how to help Sharon, who has murdered her abusive husband (this section in particular got a lot of laughs), while their annoying bourgeois friend Pru tells the police, and Sharon goes to jail. In a comic side plot, Kim tries to hide her marijuana plant when the police arrive.
The audience attending the play ranged from toddlers to pensioners to Congolese Catholic priests, and they chanted revolutionary slogans in unison to bookend the performance. After the play Laura explained the current situation in Villa Francia: the older generation still voted, and were generally Marxists with a belief in the state as a mechanism for social change. Amongst the younger generation, the anarchists were dominant. Laura introduced me to a local high school student who was a part of ‘los pinguinos’ (the penguins), the student occupation movement. Along with her classmates she occupied her school for a year in 2011, when she was 14. Afterwards they made her repeat the grade. She said she learnt more when the students were running the school themselves. Now she has no chance of getting into university, which is prohibitively expensive. Outside of the upper middle class, most graduates have to take on second jobs just to pay off their loans.
We discussed national heroes.
‘I read on Wikipedia that –’
‘Listen, Gringo! You won’t read about our heroes in Wikipedia. Our heroes are Victor Jara and the Vergara brothers, shot just down the road by the military. Our heroes are the Mapuche who fought Spanish colonisation, the mothers who fought the dictatorship, the nameless masses, the disappeared.’
I asked more about the Vergara brothers, but the student cuts me off again.
‘Gringo, I hope you’re not just coming here to observe us. All the outsiders do that. The Blonde Chileans from the Eastern suburbs, the Germans, the French, they all want to come and research “the oppressed” of Villa Francia, but they never tell us anything about their countries, and they never come back. We don’t want you to study us, we want you to talk to us.’
I took on this very valid critique and responded as best I could. As my contribution to the intercultural exchange I stumbled through a rather dull explanation of the failure of the Australian mining tax, but trailed off as I saw the looks of bewilderment on their faces.
‘So are you going to come back? Next week there’s El Dia del joven combatiente (The Day of the Youth Combatants), to commemorate the death of the Vergara brothers. You should come along for that.’
‘Oh yeah, that sounds good. So is there, ah, much conflict with the police?’
I wondered how I could explain that I might not be the most effective of youth combatants. I’d been so physically incompetent as a child that my mother had put me in remedial gym classes with disabled kids.
‘Of course there’s conflict. Just remember to bring lemons for the tear gas, and a mask. That’s only if you stay after dark though. During the day it’s a big street party.’
By this time the buses back to C X had stopped, and the parents of my student friend invited me back to their house. However, after a wine fuelled discussion of the suffering they had endured under the dictatorship, things took a turn for the worse around 4 am.
‘Do you have ID on you?’ the mother asked casually.
‘Oh, no, I didn’t bring any, in case I got robbed –’
‘So how do we know you’re not a spy?’ she asked, only half-jokingly.
‘Well, I’ve got ID back at C X –’
‘The gringo’s probably working for the CIA!’ she exclaimed to the father, who had distrusted me from the beginning. I defused the situation by drawing a fake identification card for the ‘Marxist Republic of Villa Francia’, which the mother found amusing. On seeing the reference to Marxism the father became more impassioned.
‘All my life, I have worked with metal,’ he declared, slamming the table with his fist and making both my beer and wine glass tremble.
‘Gringo, can you tell me what Marxism is?’
Fortunately he ploughed on before I had another chance to say something wrong.
‘You see this table? This table is Marxism. You see this gunshot wound, this chemical spill?’
He revealed a scar above his heart and another on his wrist.
‘These are Marxism! My family, my life, my love is Marxism! Do you understand?’
I nodded, the room swayed, and I tried to ask the least offensive question I could think of: ‘So do you work alone or with others?’
The father stared into his wine glass, shook his head slowly, then stood up and walked to the telephone.
‘The gringo understands nothing,’ he murmured sadly, and called a taxi for me.
In the week following my deportation from Villa Francia I was wracked with uncertainty. I felt that if I did not return for El Dia del joven combatiente the following Saturday, I would confirm the worst of their suspicions. But if I went, I would probably be more of a hindrance than anything else. To make matters worse I had become addicted to condensed milk, and the sugar headaches only clouded my thinking further. On the day of the protest two German-Romanian violinists and a sociology student visited C X, and I invited them to come with me. We would stay for the day, then leave before things started getting too youth combatant-ish. The bus to Villa Francia took an unexpected detour just before our arrival, and as we were walking down the street, barely a hundred metres from the protest, Laura raced by on her bike and blocked our path.
‘You have to go back!’ she said. ‘The police deliberately target foreigners, they’ll accuse you of terrorism. My Mexican friend is still going through the court process. You can be deported and banned from re-entering the country for eight years’
Suitably chastened, we got back on the bus to go home. I was relieved I hadn’t become personally responsible for a few more musicians having their hands crushed and their visas rescinded. As we drove back an armada of vans filled with heavily armed police sped past us. The bus stopped and a dark skinned clown with a white blond wig got on the bus and sat next to us.
‘Do you want to get married?’ he asked one of the German-Romanians, ‘See, I’ve got blonde hair, I’m a good catch!’
We told him where we’d been and he pulled out a balloon twisted into the shape of a rifle and mimicked the sound of gunfire. I stared at the clown. In the window our reflections slid across one another, my skin as white as his hair and my hair as brown as his skin. Through the glass I saw a fresh piece of graffiti sprayed across an austere military monument:
‘Estamos en Guerra’.
The last ‘A’ in ‘Guerra’ doubled as an anarchist symbol. The translation: ‘We are at war.’
I was in a farce, while a few blocks away a tragedy was playing out. At day’s end, 31 young Chileans would be arrested. But what was this bravery achieving? Was The Day of Youth Combatants anything more than a ritual of anti-state resistance?
Across the world a class war is taking place. In most places, it’s only the rich fighting. Chile is one of the few countries where the un-moneyed masses are retaliating. Can we criticise their strategy when we have none of our own? Right now, we are sitting passively in a bus, letting someone else drive us towards a future designed by emotionally stunted economists. But what is the alternative? Do we jump out the window, into a war which we do not understand? I have no answer.
I stand as timid and hesitant as anyone else before this broken looking glass.