Si Vas Para Chile: The Struggle for Hope

Agua Para Cabildo

By the time I arrived in Santiago in 1972, these multiple battle lines had been drawn.  An epic and complex struggle was in progress – hardly a smooth path leading inexorably toward a socialist Eden.  To get involved I signed up for a Trabajo Voluntario de Verano – one of several sponsored by students’ organizations and the Allende government – with about 1500 technical high school students in a project to dig a mile long aqueduct to bring water to the semi-arid desert around the town of Cabildo, about ninety-miles north of Santiago.  A U.S. demographer told me later that infant mortality rate in this desolated area was so high that three hundred of every thousand babies die before they are a year old.  Water, known to run deep beneath the surface, could make the land fertile.  We dug with shovels, pick axes and pikes.  It was harder physical work than anything I’d done in my life.
We were put up in a high school that had been condemned as unsafe after the last big earthquake.  Despite the large red “X’s” scrawled across the walls, we bedded down on the concrete floors with our sleeping bags.   Though some of the youths had strong convictions and many were members of groups associated with left political parties, most didn’t relate other than superficially with the political import of the project.  It was more like summer camp for them – a chance to be away from home at a place with limited adult supervision.  Those who opposed Allende’s Unidad Popular took it seriously enough, on the other hand, repeatedly sabotaging our water supply.
If some volunteers took the task lightly, others worked hard and steady.  One such group was made up of sons of miners from the coal fields of Lota.  They weren’t associated with any political organization and never echoed political slogans, but they dedicated themselves strenuously to the arduous work.  I hooked up with them and we moved out of the school to an empty plot of land in the middle of the dusty flatlands, about a kilometer from town.  Materials were brought in:  sheets of fiberboard, two-by-fours, and nails.  While others just threw up four walls and flapped the sheets over the top, the guys from Lota planned out their structure like architects, with arches, openings for windows and roof that sloped to a peak like a miniature chapel.
By noon of most days we were exhausted.  We’d sit and eat watermelon in the plaza.  Over tinny speakers in the town square traditional cuecas segued into the social criticism and solidarity songs of Victor Jara.  Some afternoons there were rallies with ardent speeches in support of the new Chile we were building.  Chile’s most prominent and politically involved singing groups, Quilapayún andInti-Illimani,came to entertain us and lift our spirits.
The father of Pedro, the young man I grew to know best, had died in the mines of Lota.  Pedro explained to me that the mine shafts were called “dog tunnels,” because they went as far as a mile from the shore, under the sea, and were only a couple feet high, too small to stand up in.  For many years, the miners’ union was a stronghold, as was much of organized labor, of the Chilean Communist Party.  Though Pedro and his compañeros were not members of any party, they shared the hope for a more equal society, a society in which the sons of miners would have the same dignity as any other person’s son.
Pedro balked at the political formulas that flowed from my tongue.  He called me testarudo.  I had to look it up to find out it meant stubborn and bull-headed.  “You come here from the United States and you want to experience what it is like to be a Chilean and you try to tell us what we should struggle for.  You ask many questions, and that is good, but you think that you know all the answers and that is not good.  You cannot know what it is like to live la vida humilde, to want nothing only tea and bread when there is no tea and bread.”
After our month of work, water flowed from its underground source through the mile long trench we had dug to the fields it was designed to irrigate.  A few days later, Pedro and the other students from Lota visited me at my residenciál in a working class section of Santiago.  My place was nothing fancy, just a cheap place to stay.  To get hot water in the shared bathroom, you had to put a coin into the slot to fire up the propane gas that heated the shower water.  But my friends from Lota were not acceptable to the woman whose place it was.  Within minutes of their sitting around my room talking, she was in the room demanding that they leave the premises.  “What will people think,” she said, “if I allow people like that to come into my place!”  She was apoplectic.  Like the cab driver, she was an owner, aproprietario, and obreros, people on the bottom rung of the working class, had to be kept in their place.  It often struck me as ironic given the vehemence with which the conservative press –  El Mercurio(financed, it emerged later, almost entirely by the CIA) and its tabloid counterparts, La Prensa, La Segunda, La Tercera and Las Ultimas Noticias –  attacked the left for fomenting “class warfare.”
I went down to Lota a few days later and stayed with one of the group.  When I visited Pedro’s family, I felt better when I heard his mother call him testarudo with great affection.  Pedro and his friends lived in clean and neat, but tiny homes.  Full-grown brothers shared cot-sized beds while younger siblings slept in make-shift beds in the kitchen.  Packs of wild dogs roamed the streets and coal dust blackened everything with a layer of soot.
All the young men from Lota’s Cabildo contingent joined Pedro and me as we walked around the area.  I was shooting Super8 footage of Chile, trying to capture the dramatic contrasts between the life of the relatively well off classes and the vast majority of Chileans.  Torrential rain had recently inundated the area and the difference in effect on the poorer segments of the population and the so-called middle-class could not have been more dramatic.  (The recent devastation of the poorer sections of New Orleans revealed a similar disequilibrium in U.S. society.)  In the more privileged areas, there was little or no evidence of the recent storm.  The poorer sections, row upon row of shacks made of thin wood planks cobbled together sat in thick mud or, for the many “homes” along the Bio Bio River, in foot deep stagnant water.  We walked down from there to a still poorer población, Pueblo Hundido (“Sunken town”) as it was aptly called.  In many places in Pueblo Hundido, nothing had survived the storm but the skeletal remains of what had once been their homes.
But in Lota I saw something else too.  The boys took me to a verdant park where once only the family and guests of the wealthy wine-making and industry-owning Cousiño family could stroll down the lush promenades that looked out over the cliffs to the sea shore below.  Now, the park was free to all children of miners and only a few pennies to everyone else.  The young men of Lota saw that now the park was their park – theirs because it was part of their nation’s patrimony, not the private property of a rich family.  They did not see themselves as intensely political, but they felt the thrill of dignity, the sense of common ownership by all.  There was an intense sense of pride in the young men as we strolled through their park.
Through all the turmoil of those years, that sense of pride and dignity infused ordinary Chileans.  Across nearly every large, long wall giant letters proclaimed Chile’s independence from the domination of the United States.  “¡Yanqui, Ladrón!  ¡El Cobre es de Chile — Kennecott No Pasara! (Yankee, Thief, The Copper is Chile’s, Kennecott Will Not Get Away with It!)” the walls proclaimed.  Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets to support Allende and the goals of the Unidad Popular of real agrarian reform and an end to imperialist exploitation of Chile’s natural resources.  In opposition, thousands also filled the streets to call for “democracy,” evoking the specter that Allende’s true goal was Stalinist totalitarianism.  This mantra was repeatedly in endless variations as justification for disrupting every attempt to move forward with the Unidad Popular’s agenda of giving land to the people who work it; factories to a combination of workers and owners; and natural resources to the nation as a whole.  The class differences between marches of Allende’s supporters and those demanding his removal from office could not have been more pronounced.  I filmed manifestations by left and right from identical locations.  Allende’s supporters were, by and large, rough-hewn, lively working people, bouncing in rhythm down Santiago’s broad avenues.  His opponents were mostly well-dressed and well-coiffured, their faces stern and imperious as they demanded that Allende’s democratically elected government be overturned.
The so-called free press was called upon to re-paint the picture to meet the desired image.  In the years following Allende’s presidency, the CIA was forced to acknowledge that it had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Chile’s largest and most “respected” newspaper, El Mercurio, for the specific purpose of presenting a distorted version of the reality under the guise of a “neutral” presentation of the facts.  This kind of interpretation and re-interpretation continues in each “historical” review of the period.  While it usually takes only a few moments to recognize the political stance of each author who claims to present a thoroughly impartial description of Allende’s presidency, some works are subtle enough that their bias is harder to uncover, undoubtedly convincing some of their veracity.  A carefully annotated work called Facts on File, for example, claims to be a purely objective culling of newspaper reports of the time of Allende’s presidency.  But it reports the marches of the right in full while ignoring or minimizing the massive marches of the left.  Facts of File omits entirely the marches in support of Allende that I witnessed and filmed, while mentioning only a far lesser events, attended by a only few hundred Allende supporters.  How can anyone grasp the significance of this time if the historical record is so carefully obliterated?

Hope throughout the land

Pursuing my own personal “investigation,” I traveled south and east from Lota through the network of bus routes that connect Chile’s towns and villages.  Like most buses throughout Latin America, the vehicles I rode in were old, battered, springs and shocks non-existent, so overcrowded sometimes that, if I lifted up my foot, there was no room to put it back down.  I worked my way toward thecordillera of the Andes around Lake Villarica and then down the central highway as far south as you can go by road within Chile, to Puerto Montt and the virgin forests of Chiloe.
Wherever I went, whoever sat next to me talked to me.  Each found out quickly I was a Norte Americano – gringo – and wanted to tell me what they thought of how Chile was changing now that Allende was president.  Everyone, right or left, was involved, had an opinion, cared about the direction their country was going.  For the few who feared the changed, who feared that Marxism would control their lives, there were ten who felt the change gave them new hope.  I particularly remember an old man in a remote village in the foothills of the Andes.  He worked in a paper mill there that had been taken over by its workers; the patrón, the boss and owner,had fled.  There was an incredible dignity in the old man’s voice as he spoke with pride that now the factory was theirs, owned by those who did the work.  He wasn’t versed in political philosophy, he didn’t know anything about “controlling the means of production,” but he knew what it meant to be free, to not be exploited, to work for himself and his coworkers and not for the owner.

Struggling for health

When I returned to Santiago, I wanted to do what I could.  As I had a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I was asked to teach a course at the university.  Most of my students in this advanced course were relatively well off and not intensely political, but they were honest and curious and taught me a great deal about the Chilean experience.  At the same time, I joined a small unit of the National Health Service that was involved in community organization.  Tasked with mobilizing the community in support of crucial UP initiatives like providing half a liter of milk a day for every child and the struggle for a unitary health system to replace the fragmentary system that favored some workers over others and the privileged classes above everyone else, the Centro de Antropología Medico-Socialstruggled to organize itself.  Spirited discussions paralleled the national discourse:  Was Allende and the UP moving suicidally slowly or was the MIR playing into the hands of the momios of the far right by demanding arms for the people and UP support for farm and factory takeovers?   As painful as the increasingly dark situation was, it was elevating to participate in open discussion what was needed to move the process forward.
As a member of the Centro, I worked most closely with a group Mapuche panificadores, men and women who worked all night to provide Santiago with bread each morning.  Drawn by desperation and the illusion of a better life from their indigenous roots in south central Chile to the lowest echelon of work in the urban centers, the majority of Mapuche retained their intense pride, although many lost themselves in alcoholic oblivion.  They resonated to the UP’sprograms, especially the health and basic nutrition programs theCentro was advocating and responded enthusiastically when I spoke before their assembly, urging them to come an upcoming rally in support of the UP.
And though hundreds of thousands marched to stand with Allende and the UP, as the year progressed, the situation was deteriorating with the right continually taking more bold actions against the government.  In October of 1972, truck owners supported financially by the CIA mobilized a paralyzing strike choking the Panamericana, the solitary north-south highway that unites virtually all Chile’s cities as well as connecting farms to urban markets.  Only the entrance of the military into Allende’s cabinet alleviated the crisis.  The upper middle class housewives were back in the street banging their pots.  As I walked down the street one evening, carrying my guitar in one hand and a bag in the other, one of the “protesters” hauled off and slugged me in the mouth for no reason.  Curfews were imposed and the tension was extreme.

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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning