Victor Jara was tortured, then murdered while a prisoner of the Chilean armed forces on September 16th 1973..
‘First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.’
Pastor Martin Niemöller
Victor Jara was born in 1932 to peasant parents in southern Chile: his mother was a folk singer. By luck, hard work, privation and talent, Victor qualified in 1960 as a theatre producer at the University of Chile. His plays were taken on tour throughout Latin America and the US. In 1968 he came to the UK, invited by the British Council.
Folk songs and his guitar were always close to his heart. He converted into song the struggle for social justice in Chile, accusing those guilty of maintaining misery and injustice, fighting against the ‘potted’ imported culture then invading the country. In 1970 he began to dedicate his time and energy to singing and composing, communicating with peasants, miners, factory workers, students and children. Deeply rooted in folklore, his songs became a symbol for life, for people to choose their own destiny.
The new Chilean song movement, Nueva Canción Chilena, played an important part in the growth of the progressive Popular Unity (UP) movement and the election of Salvador Allende as Chilean President in September 1970. During a cultural renaissance between 1970-73, the song movement flourished. Victor sang to miners, in shanty towns, at student gigs.
Until 1970 the country had been organised for the benefit of the landowners, industrialists and money men. Destabilization of the coalition UP government by reactionary forces began immediately, instigated and encouraged by the US.
‘It is the firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. Please review all your present and new activities to include propaganda, black operations, surfacing of intelligence or disinformation, and personal contacts.’ Secret message to US station chief, Santiago from CIA HQ on 16th October 1970.
Edward Korry, the US ambassador in Santiago, reported to Henry Kissinger, the foreign strategist of President Richard Nixon: ‘With Allende elected, we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.’
On September 11th 1973, (Thatcher’s friend) General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a brutal military coup. Chilean air force jets bombed the Government’s radio station and La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. President Allende committed suicide during the attack.
Victor was due to sing at the opening of an exhibition highlighting the horrors of civil war and fascism. Trapped inside the Technical University with the students as the coup unfolded and soldiers machine-gunned the building, he was arrested and singled out for special treatment. A prisoner of the armed forces in Santiago’s National football stadium, Victor sang, surrounded by suicide, bloodshed and torture. On September 16th an army lieutenant put a pistol to Victor’s head in a game of Russian roulette, twirled the chamber and shot him. Then he ordered a group of conscripts to fire machine gun bullets into his corpse.
“We had been fearing that there might be a military coup. On that morning, Víctor and I listened on the radio to President Allende’s last speech and then we heard military marches. Víctor was due to go to the technical university, his place of work, where Allende was due to speak to announce a plebiscite, and Víctor was to sing there. He went out that morning. It was the last time I saw him. I stayed at home, heard of the bombing of the Moneda Palace. I heard and saw the helicopter’s machine gun firing over Allende’s residence. Then began the long wait for Víctor to come back home” – Joan Jara
The coup brought Pinochet’s junta to power – a dictatorial regime specializing in the tactics of terror, torture, massacre and tyranny. 2,300 people disappeared between 1973 and 1990, many sent to concentration camps: 40,000 citizens were tortured. One million Chileans were forced into exile.
The US continues to destabilize popular governments in Latin America – Venezuela 2002, Haiti 2004, Honduras 2009, Paraguay 2012..
Victor’s songs concern the many different facets of the life of ordinary people – love, work, laughter and a deep faith in human endeavour and common effort. He raised a voice against injustice, foreign imperialism and poverty. He will go on singing: his voice cannot be silenced. It contains the voices of all who were murdered with him.
In Florida, a jury has found former Chilean army officer Pedro Barrientos liable for the murder of legendary folk singer and activist Víctor Jara. Barrientos has lived in the United States for more than two decades and is now a U.S. citizen. The Jaras sued him under a federal civil statute known as the Torture Victims Protection Act, which allows U.S. courts to hear about human rights abuses committed abroad. The Guardian newspaper called the verdict “one of the biggest and most significant legal human rights victories against a foreign war criminal in a US courtroom.”