Chile — New Struggles, New Hopes

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Eric Chester

TANKS RUMBLING THROUGH narrow downtown streets, as tear gas saturates the air. Troops in combat gear, carrying loaded machine guns, with their cheeks and foreheads blacked so as to reduce their chances of becoming the target of snipers. A war zone? No, the standard response of the Chilean government to a peaceful protest.

Despite the fierce repression, Chile is a highly-politicized country, and indeed I was surprised by the extent to which the left is organized at every level. As it was, the two weeks during May that I spent in Chile, I joined two major demonstrations involving thousands of people in direct confrontations with military units.

In 1973 the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup. Thousands of radicals (one estimate is 30,000) were killed by the military during the first few years of the dictatorship. The impact on Chilean society was traumatic. This had been a country which had democratically elected its government for years, and which had a strong tradition of defending the rights of political dissidents. All of this was junked by a fascistic military, bent on destroying every vestige of leftist politics.

In addition to its appalling human rights record, the junta has pursued an economic policy of laissez-faire. Its advisors have been conservative economists trained at the University of Chicago. The internal market was opened up to foreign competition and the state tried to tum over to the private sector every productive enterprise. The result of these policies has been an economic collapse, leading to 40% unemployment, poverty for millions and small children roaming the downtown streets begging for a few pesos to stave off starvation. Another success story for Reaganomics.

Despite the repression, and despite the demoralization that inevitably arises in an economic collapse, the Chilean people continue to insist on an immediate end to the dictatorship. Three years ago the junta began to relax its total control over society. As oppositional forces began to operate above ground, a new and younger generation of militants began to assert itself. In Chile, a country of 11-and-a-half million inhabitants, there are tens of thousands of socialist and communist activists and a level of political awareness which is truly astonishing to a North American visitor.

Although the government has conceded some space to the opposition, for instance there is a weekly newspaper which is highly critical of the military, there remains a total refusal to accept democratic elections. In response, a wide array of organizations, ranging from the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church in the center to the revolutionary left, have organized a series of protests against military rule.

One of the high points of this series was the march called for May 20 by the National Workers Confederation (CNT), the largest and the most militant of the trade union federations. The plan was to proceed down the Alameda, the main street of Santiago, starting about a mile from downtown and then passing through the center of the city.

To General Pinochet and his cronies, the CNT’s call, which was supported by the entire opposition, represented a direct challenge. The government banned the march, and in Chile this is not an idle gesture. By early afternoon, traffic on the Alameda was being diverted and the normally jammed streets of downtown were rapidly emptying. At 5:00, when the march was to have started, hundreds of soldiers in combat gear were parading through the streets, sealing off the staging area. Tanks stood by, awaiting the order to move.


Undaunted by the show of force, about two thousand protestors, most of them young, broke down into small groups and began to move toward downtown. Army buses transported soldiers along the Alameda, trying to seal off the entire route of about two miles. A group of demonstrators would move on to the next area.

Within an hour the tear gas was so heavy that, blocks away from the confrontation zone, most people were coughing with tears running from their eyes. As it got dark, I finally got back to the downtown area, just in time to hear a group of demonstrators approaching.

About a hundred activists had managed to get to the Alameda and started marching toward the center of the city. They had just reached the comer directly across from me–the Alameda is a wide street–when a busload of soldiers arrived and formed rank. One of them fired a cartridge of gas through the air, which lit the sky on its trajectory and then exploded at the feet of the demonstrators, who scattered and ran. I quickly discovered that the military had switched from tear gas to the far more noxious CS or nausea gas.

For several hours more pockets of protestors gathered at street corners to voice their defiance. Soon hundreds of soldiers, armed with machine guns, were stationed throughout the downtown area. With tanks, armored personnel carriers, and a helicopter overhead, the demonstration was finally suppressed.

Next day brought the news that the army had not just threatened fatal force, it had used it. A nineteen-year-old student, Ronald Wood, had been shot twice in the head by soldiers, a few blocks from where I was gassed. Wood died three days later. Unaware of this, I decided that night to venture from downtown and go to one of the poor and working-class poblaciones, barrios of wood shacks. Military repression has been especially severe in these areas, since many of them are also focal points for socialist politics and militant resistance. Santiago has a new and modern subway, one of the very few accomplishments of the military junta, so off I went.

About halfway to the end of the line, the subway came to a halt and everyone was told to leave. As I got to street level, I saw that the only lights still shining came from the headlights of cars. The Communist Party underground had blown up fourteen electrical towers, disrupting the electrical system serving much of Chile. On a bus back to the downtown area, I could see a city which was entirely blacked out, with tanks and soldiers everywhere. In several working-class areas, bonfires had been set in the streets to hinder the army from moving in troops.

Five days later, on the next Sunday, Ronald Wood, the demonstrator who had been shot, was buried. At the church where mass was held, about two hundred young people, mostly Young Communists, surged into the streets, shouting slogans denouncing the government. Quickly several busloads of soldiers arrived and tear gas grenades were lobbed to clear the area.

The tension level was somewhat lower than the previous Tuesday, with none of the soldiers in combat gear, although some still carried machine guns. After about an hour of stalemate, the service ended and the casket emerged from the church. By now, the crowd was at least two thousand, and growing.

The cemetery is located about two miles from the church, and everyone there was eager to march the distance. About a block from the church, the street was blocked by military buses and soldiers.

The officer in command was adamant that no one was going to march to the cemetery, thereby forcing the marchers to find rides on the few available vehicles. The few buses were so jammed that people rode by precariously clinging to the formed a caravan, which was finally allowed to pass through the line of soldiers.

The officer in command was adamant that no one was going to march to the cemetery, thereby forcing the marchers to find rides on the few available vehicles. The few buses were so jammed that people rode by precariously clinging to the sides of the buses. A long line of cars formed a caravan, which was finally allowed to pass through the line of soldiers.

Some of the original group were unable to find a place in the cars and buses, and tried to walk past the soldiers. To stop this, half-tracks and armored personnel carriers were brought up to the line, tear gas began to spread through the street, and soon armored vehicles were shooting powerful streams of water at those on the sidewalk.

I was lucky to be in one of the cars, and eventually, choking from the gas, we got through the barrier and were on our way. As the caravan of cars wended its way through working-class neighborhoods, hundreds of people of all ages lined the streets, waving handkerchiefs and flashing victory signs. In spite of the repression, the funeral had been transformed into an impressive display of solidarity. Even the conductor of a train hooted his horn as the train passed by our route.

Once in the cemetery, four thousand mourners packed into an arcade and listened to a priest give a eulogy. Then both one of the leaders of the CNT, the trade union federation, and the spokes­ person from the Community party, gave speeches bitterly denouncing the junta and demanding that the killers of Ronald Wood be brought to justice. For a country still under military rule, the entire funeral service was an act of defiance and con­ tempt. The army held back outside of the cemetery, but, as the crowd tried to leave, the soldiers once again lobbed tear gas.

Politics After Pinochet

My two weeks in Chile were an incredibly intense experience. Against a backdrop of massive unemployment and abysmal poverty, militant protests against the dictatorship continued to escalate. The level of force which the government was prepared to employ against peaceful demonstrators was remarkable. Even in Poland, which I visited soon after the introduction of martial law, the government did not dare to prohibit a funeral march.

Chile is at a crossroads. To truly stifle dissent the junta would have to return to the mass terror of 1973-75. Given its very narrow base of support, and international pressure, this seems highly unlikely, but without employing terror the dictatorship will collapse, and soon. Most Chilean leftists believe that the U.S. is planning to pull the plug on Pinochet in 1989, but no one is prepared to wait.

When the military regime falls, a broad centrist coalition will probably assume office, with the Christian Democrats at its core. For the United States, this would be the ideal solution to a giant headache, and behind the scenes U.S. officials are working hard to ensure just such an outcome. (In its covert campaign to overthrow Allende, the CIA under the Nixon administration heavily funded the Christian Democrats. There is considerable reason to believe that substantial sums are again being distributed through these same channels.)

Nevertheless, for all the power of the U.S., a liberal capitalist government will not find it easy to retain power. With the economy in total disarray, and Chile nearly bankrupt, the Christian Democrats will have little to offer a determined and militant working-class opposition. Socialism is not a matter for abstract conversation in Chile today. It is a realistic prospect.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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