In Chile’s ongoing social rebellion, songs are ringing out through the streets. And one of the most prominent anthems of the masses of people marching in the city centres is legendary folk singer Víctor Jara’s “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” (“The Right to Live in Peace”).
At one huge protest on October 23, in Santiago’s Plaza Italia, thousands of people beat pots and pans in protest while spontaneously singing the song. On October 25, at an even bigger gathering of 1.2 million in Santiago, a mass of people played and sang the same song in an organised concert called “Mil Guitarras por Víctor Jara” – “A Thousand Guitars for Víctor Jara.” In another enormous cultural act in Parque O’Higgins on October 27, beloved national artists, including Illapu, sang the song accompanied by the crowd.
Why has Jara’s composition become so important to the protests of 2019? First, because the song – written in 1970, originally as an homage to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese revolution – has taken on a new meaning as a condemnation of the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, who ordered the militarisation of major cities to violently put down the protests. It was the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship that the military had been deployed to repress a social movement. The song has become a denunciation of the state of emergency, the military on the streets, the brutality of the security forces, and the military-controlled curfew (again, a first since the dictatorship). Second, the song has expressed the historical memory of the chilenos: the continuity of the struggles for social justice that have spanned the decades, and the living legacy of Víctor Jara, a symbol of the values of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Jara was a pioneering musician in the Chilean New Song movement in those years. After the coup of September 1973, he was tortured and killed in Chile Stadium in one of the military’s first and most infamous extrajudicial executions. The Chilean people have never forgotten Víctor Jara, nor the thousands of other victims of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Víctor Jara and the New Song movement
Chile is a country of musicians, and music has always been the soul of social struggles, especially since the 1960s. In those years, the New Song movement arose amid popular mobilisations and enormous political and social change. New Song became the heart of the massive movements demanding political incorporation for the excluded; the rights to education and decent living and working conditions; and an egalitarian society. In those years, Chile had a relatively open, if elitist, democracy, but the society was extremely unequal. Chile’s main export, copper, was controlled by a few US companies, and the working and peasant classes lived in miserable conditions. In the 1960s, new movements of peasants, workers, students, pobladores, and others began to organise for their rights, with assistance from political formations such as the Communist, Socialist, and progressive Christian parties, as well as the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria).
The New Song movement was rooted in these popular mobilisations and in the folklore of Latin America, especially the works of Violeta Parra and others who collected the disappearing folk music of Chile’s countryside. Violeta, with her socially aware songs, was a key influence on the new generation of musicians, including Víctor Jara, as were prominent poets such as Pablo Neruda. Soloists like Víctor Jara, Ángel Parra, Isabel Parra, Patricio Manns, and Rolando Alarcón and groups such as Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, Tiempo Nuevo, Huamarí, and Amerindios were the troubadours of the popular movement.
The new music blended the modern and the traditional, incorporating indigenous instruments such as panpipes, the charango (similar to a lute), and the quena (a bamboo flute). New Song renovated Latin American folk roots with original music, innovative arrangements, modern harmonies, and new chord progressions, along with socially conscious lyrics. As mobilised people demanded equality and a voice in the national destiny, the young artists articulated those convictions through their music. For example, Víctor Jara’s “Vientos del Pueblo” (“Winds of the People,” 1973) denounced the violence of the ruling classes and heralded the promise of a new society.
The son of Chilean peasants, Jara was a musician, theatre director, composer, and militant of the Young Communists, actively involved in the social and political movements of the day and dedicated to the struggles of the poor and working classes. His songs spoke movingly of the lives of the marginalised, denounced injustices and massacres, and communicated popular aspirations for a new, socially just future. Jara sang at the Peña de los Parra and worked closely with Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani, among other young artists. He authored dozens of memorable songs.
Charged with the spirit of New Song, the social movements of the 1960s succeeded in electing democratic socialist Salvador Allende in 1970, the first Marxist to win the presidency through elections in Latin America. He and his coalition Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, made up of six left to centre-left parties) took office that year. For three years the Allende government implemented measures to reduce inequality (for example, by nationalising the copper industry and providing a half-litre of milk to all schoolchildren) and change the antiquated structures that had perpetuated oligarchic rule.
Víctor Jara and other New Song musicians played a key role in these social and political transformations. They performed at innumerable political events and popularised Allende’s vision of a nonviolent Chilean road to socialism. Their music expressed deep political and social consciousness, decried political inequality, and celebrated the modest people who had been made invisible. Most important, the New Song movement voiced the possibility of a new future of social justice, inspiring and mobilising multitudes of people in Chile and elsewhere. The movement captured the spirit of the times: the music was committed and militant while simultaneously beautiful and moving.
The Right was increasingly hostile. Immediately after its election, the Allende government faced rising right-wing subversion at home and abroad. The Nixon administration organised a covert plan to encourage the armed forces to overthrow Allende (known as Track I and Track II), and Chilean elites, despising the new president and fearing the mass mobilisations and rapid changes in society, colluded with sectors of the military to undermine Allende’s government and sow chaos in the streets. On September 11, 1973, the armed forces moved, occupying the country and imposing a bloody coup to overthrow Allende (the president decided to take his own life in the presidential palace). Thousands of Popular Unity supporters were seized, tortured, imprisoned, and killed.
Víctor Jara, and hundreds of others at the Technical State University, were detained and brought to Chile Stadium on September 12. Jara’s last poem, named for the arena out of which it was smuggled, became known worldwide for its gripping condemnation of the horrors of the putsch. His body, thrown along with others into a ditch, showed forty-four bullet wounds and signs of severe torture.
For the next seventeen years, the Pinochet dictatorship would rule Chile with an iron fist. And despite the 1990 transition to elected rule, Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution (with some modifications) is still in effect – creating a “guardian system” in which the Right retained disproportionate power and democratic changes were deemed “unconstitutional.”
The protests today
The origins of the ongoing social explosion in Chile are now well-known. The crisis began when the government announced the fourth subway fare hike in recent months – a system upon which millions of Santiago residents depend. The increase was the last straw for workers who had faced constant increases in necessities such as light, energy, water, gas, food, and transport, while earning minimal salaries. Already, large protests had taken place decrying the crumbling public health system and the Pinochet-era privatised education and pension systems. The costly education system reproduces class inequalities, and the pension system leaves elderly people with a pittance. Then in mid-October high school students staged “mass evasions” by jumping over turnstiles, kick-starting the protests. People in Santiago and other cities began cacerolazos – banging pots and pans – and drivers honked their horns in solidarity.
The government responded by sending the militarised police (Carabineros) into the metro and gradually closing metro stations, disrupting traffic and people’s lives. If Chileans wanted to save money, the minister of economy declared in a TV interview, they should “get up earlier and take the metro at 7 AM for a cheaper ride.” This “let them eat cake” attitude further inflamed public opinion. A popular slogan began to appear: “It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.” The accumulated grievances since the end of the dictatorship had finally reached the breaking point.
A government minister called the students “hordes of delinquents who generate violence,” and on October 18, after clashes between the Carabineros and students in the metro, the government closed down the entire metro system. As thousands of people tried to find a way home, Santiago exploded in fury.
People set fires in metro stations and in the streets and damaged buildings, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. On October 19, the government declared a state of emergency, called in the armed forces, and set a military curfew – the first since the Pinochet dictatorship – stoking shock and outrage among Chileans. Men and women pounding pots gathered to peacefully demonstrate in the plazas of Santiago and other cities. Throngs of people defied the curfew. On October 20, surrounded by military officers, Piñera said in a news conference: “We are at war with a powerful and implacable enemy.” This blatant attempt to intimidate society and criminalise the protests further enraged the public.
A few days later, as massive demonstrations continued, Piñera changed his tactic, asking for forgiveness for not understanding the popular clamour for structural change. He backtracked on the fare increase and offered other concessions. But as videos and photos of police and military shootings and violence went viral on social media, the demonstrations expanded, taking hold not only in Santiago but in all of Chile, from Iquique and Antofagasta in the north, to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar in the central zone, to Concepción and Chiloé in the south. The enormous demonstration on October 25, bringing 1.2 million people out into the streets of Santiago, was perhaps the biggest gathering ever in Chile.
As mobilisations continued, reports of police and military violence grew. On November 1, the Institute of Human Rights reported that twenty people had been killed, over four thousand detained, and over 1,500 wounded, and the numbers continue to spiral. Eighteen women had reported sexual violence, twenty persons had disappeared, and over 155 people had eye injuries from projectiles shot by security forces. The violence was traumatic for Chileans, who remember all too well the ferocious repression of the Pinochet dictatorship. The local and international media, however, often focused on acts of violence by small numbers of vandals (some of whom were police infiltrators).
Gradually, the pent-up frustrations of Chileans have crystallised into a single demand: a new constitution. Labour and social organisations have called for people to meet in groups (cabildos) to discuss a new charter, and some one thousand are functioning. Pinochet’s constitution is widely seen as the major obstacle to authentic social, political, and economic progress in Chile.
‘A true and lasting peace is only possible with social justice’
Just as in the multitudinous student demonstrations of 2011, Víctor Jara is invoked in the protests of today among both younger and older generations. Protesters carry banners and paint murals with his visage, and his songs are sung en masse – they remain timely and moving, inspiring and uniting people. Víctor Jara, a martyr to the cause of social equality, is very much present, despite the years of terror under Pinochet’s dictatorship.
On October 30, the Workers’ United Center of Chile (CUT) and the Unidad Social, a coalition of some seventy labour and human rights organisations, stated, “Chile is not at war. Chile wants peace, but a true and lasting peace is only possible with social justice and with the defence of democracy, which cost us so much to recover.” Literally all of the country’s social and professional organisations, along with opposition political forces, have expressed their support for the popular movement and for a new constitution, with only right-wing parties opposed.
The Chilean people have awoken. And as Salvador Allende said, “There is no revolution without song.”
J Patrice McSherry is professor of political science emerita of Long Island University and a researcher in collaboration with Instituto de Estudios Avanzados (IDEA) of the University of Santiago. Her most recent book is Chilean New Song: The Political Power of Music, 1960s-1973.
This article was first published by Jacobin.