The Chilean Song Movement had become so identified with Popular Unity, it had been such a strong factor, emotional, cohesive, inspiring, that the military authorities found it necessary to declare ‘subversive’ even the indigenous instruments, whose beautiful sound had become so full of meaning and inspiration. Together with prohibiting even the mention of Victor’s name, they banned all his music and the music of all the artists of the New Chilean Song Movement….

It was a mystery to me how Victor was remembered. Since the coup his very name had been censored, his records prohibited. But in spite of that I heard his songs being sung in poor community centres, in church halls, football clubs and universities, with whole audiences of young people joining in the singing as though his songs had become part of Chilean folklore (from Joan Jara, Victor, An Unfinished Song, Bloomsbury, London, 1998).

Victor Jara, The Voice of the People

In a powerful biography of the life of Victor Jara, his wife captures the deep political and cultural roots her husband planted in the soil of the working people of Chile. He committed his life to celebrating and popularizing the songs and stories of the Chilean people, recognizing that his cultural project had to be intimately connected to the political project of Salvador Allende’s socialist and democratic Popular Unity coalition. Allende in October, 1970, was the first elected Socialist president of a Latin American country.

The Nixon Administration and the Chilean military found the people’s choice unacceptable and set about undermining Allende’s government. On September 11, 1973 the military launched a coup, killed Allende, rounded up thousands of his supporters, and brought them to a huge soccer stadium, and tortured and shot their cultural icon, Victor Jara.

The United States Crushes Revolution in Chile

The United States had supported the Christian Democrats in Chile with official assistance and CIA financing since the 1950s. The Christian Democratic candidate in 1970 was opposed by Marxist Salvador Allende, who, as the head of a coalition of six left parties, won a plurality of votes.

From the time of the election in October, 1970, until September, 1973, when a bloody military coup toppled Allende, the United States did everything it could to destabilize the elected government. First, the United States pressured Chilean legislators to reject the election result. When that failed, energy and resources were used to damage the Chilean economy and build a network of ties with military personnel ready to carry out a coup.

Allende developed policies to redistribute land, nationalized the vital copper industry, and established diplomatic relations with the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Popular culture stimulated by artists such as Victor Jara flowered and grew. All these moves exacerbated tensions with the United States, since its investments in copper, iron, nitrates, iodine, and salt were large.

The Nixon administration formed a secret committee, “the 40 committee,” headed by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to develop a long-term plan to destabilize and overthrow the Allende government. The CEO of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company, a major foreign influence in Chile, was enthusiastic about the Nixon plan.

 Among the policies utilized by Washington were an informal economic blockade of Chile, termination of aid and loans, International Monetary Fund pressure on the government to carry out anti-worker policies, the engineering of a substantial decline in the price of copper on the world market, fomenting dissent in the military, and funding opposition groups and newspapers, particularly the influential Santiago daily, El Mercurio. Despite growing economic crisis and  protests by the rightwing spurred by U.S. covert operations, the Allende-led left coalition scored electoral victories in municipal elections throughout the country in March, 1973. 

Since Nixon’s directive to make Chile’s “economy scream” had not led to Allende’s rejection at the ballot box, the Kissinger committee and the right-wing generals decided to act. On September 11, 1973 the military carried out a coup that ousted the Allende government, assassinated him in the Presidential Palace, and established brutal rule under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet. A year after the coup, Amnesty International reported that some 6,000 to 10,000 prisoners had been taken. The new regime banned all political parties, abolished trade unions, and initiated programs to assassinate pro-Allende emigres, including former Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier, who was blown up in an automobile in Dupont Circle in Washington D.C.

The spirit of the brutal U.S. policy in Chile was expressed by Kissinger in 1970 when he declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” One year later President Ford (who replaced the discredited Richard Nixon) defended the coup as being in the “best interests of the people of Chile and certainly in the best interests of the United States.” A different assessment was provided by a distinguished diplomatic historian, Alexander De Conde who wrote that the United States “had a hand in the destruction of a moderate left-wing government that allowed democratic freedoms to its people and to its replacement by a friendly right-wing government that crushed such freedoms with torture and other police-state repressions.”

Chile is one example of the way the United States has sought to control and influence the internal affairs of nations. But the spirit of resistance planted in so many different ways in so many places by cultural performers and revolutionaries such as Victor Jara lives on.

As long as we sing his songs,
As long as his courage can inspire us
to greater courage
Victor Jara will never die.

Pete Seeger

“Singout Magazine” 1975