More than forty years after the murder of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, his killer may finally be brought to justice, but the struggle goes on to do the same for other victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
A few days after General Pinochet’s military assault on Chile’s socialist government of Salvador Allende, Joan Jara went to the Santiago mortuary to identify the body of her husband, folk singer Victor Jara.
In her book, An Unfinished Song: The Life of Victor Jara, she writes:
‘The morgue is full of bodies overflowing to every part of the building, including the administrative offices. A long corridor, with several doors, and on the floor a long line of bodies, these ones with clothes, some of them look like students, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty … and there in the middle of the line I find Victor … his eyes were open and still seemed to look ahead with intensity and defiance, in spite of a wound to his head and terrible bruising to his cheek … His chest was riddled with holes and an open wound to his abdomen … but it was Victor, my husband, my lover.’
Victor Jara was a renowned musician and theatre director who believed that popular culture could help foster a broader revolutionary consciousness. Through his commitment to social struggle and political activism, he played an important role in Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, which governed Chile for three years until the 11 September 1973 coup.
The singer was one of many Chileans arrested, tortured and killed that September. For over 40 years, Joan has campaigned to win justice for her husband. That moment has finally arrived.
On 27 June 2016, a civil law suit in Florida found former Chilean army officer Pedro Barrientos Nuñez liable for Jara’s death. Barrientos commanded death squads during the coup and later bragged about killing the musician. The verdict concluded a four-year legal battle and raises the possibility that Barrientos will be extradited to Chile to face murder charges.
As Barrientos obtained US citizenship several years ago, extradition depends on US cooperation with Chilean investigators. Considering the United States financed destabilisation strategies during Allende’s presidency and supported Pinochet throughout his regime, it is not surprising that Washington has not jumped to help. No doubt, the US government would rather forget the whole thing.
Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, represented Joan Jara and her daughters Manuela and Amanda in the case. ‘If the extradition is granted, it shows the United States is acknowledging what happened in Chile,’ she says. ‘These people think the United States was an accomplice in this and is never going to collaborate. The real transformation will be if we can bring this guy home.’
In 2012, Barrientos came to public attention thanks to an investigative TV programme called ¿Quién Mató a Victor Jara? (Who Killed Victor Jara?). Journalists traced Barrientos to his Orlando home, where he gave an interview in which he denied involvement in Jara’s killing but admitted to handling detainees and involvement in the coup.
‘That resonated in the community, and people started calling,’ says Bernabeu. ‘It was very powerful and well-handled. Sensational, yes, but the interviews with the conscripts were pretty compelling.’
The conscripts in question were young men drafted into the military. According to Bernabeu, many committed human rights violations against their will. ‘Some of them were active and participated in criminal acts, and others were scared to death,’ she says. ‘The case was based on their testimony. We needed to reconnect with those conscripts, to ask them to trust us and testify in our case.’
In 2013, one soldier, José Paredes, told the courtroom that ‘Lieutenant Barrientos decided to play Russian roulette, so he took out his gun, approached Victor Jara, who was standing with his hands handcuffed behind his back, spun the cylinder, put it against the back of his neck and fired.’
Bernabeu says, ‘We couldn’t prove that Barrientos shot Victor Jara but we were able to prove that, more likely than not, he was responsible for the crime. He was an army officer at the Chile Stadium and was involved in torture and killing. It was a matter of bringing it close enough to Victor Jara.’
Verdicts like this feed the hope that lower-ranking military personnel will speak out. Like other Latin American countries that endured repressive regimes in the 1970s and 1980s, Chile has struggled to prosecute human rights abuses committed under military rule.
According to Cath Collins of the Centre for Human Rights at Santiago’s Diego Portales University, the Barrientos decision reflects a wide movement making headway. ‘It should not be imagined that these external cases are the only or the principal motor of what is now a very active, if belated, justice scenario for dictatorship-era crimes.’
‘Most if not all of these developments owe much to the persistence of human rights activists and lawyers, who have managed to prod a previously reluctant judicial system into action and are now fighting similar battles against official indifference in the areas of truth and reparations.’
The Centre wants a national plan to find and identify the remaining disappeared as well as active state support for the rights of survivors. Campaigners are currently investigating more than a thousand potential human rights violations under military rule.
On 8 July 2016, Chile’s former commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Juan Emilio Cheyre, was arrested for participation in the notorious Caravan of Death military squad, which, in the weeks following the coup, conducted a nationwide assassination programme of leftists, killing at least 97 people.
In 2001, retired general Joaquín Lagos Osorio described these atrocities. ‘They cut eyes out with daggers,’ he said. ‘They broke their jaws and legs. They shot them to pieces, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart, all with machine guns … They were no longer human bodies. I wanted to at least put the bodies back together again, to leave them more decent, but you couldn’t.’
The charges against Cheyre come from the Caravan’s activities on 16 October 1973, when 15 political prisoners were summarily executed in the city of La Serena. The Caravan of Death was under orders from General Sergio Arellano Stark, who died earlier this year at the age of 94. In 2008, Arellano Stark was convicted of four murders, but served no prison time owing to apparent ill health.
Allende’s cultural revolution
The Pinochet dictatorship empowered the Chilean right to unleash vengeance on all those who had challenged its longstanding political and economic hegemony. Allende’s programmes of nationalisation, land reform, and redistribution of wealth earned him the national oligarchy’s wrath. Further, the possibility that his democratic socialist model could inspire other Latin American countries made him a threat to the United States.
With the capitalist-owned media unwilling to provide balanced analysis, popular culture became key to bridging the divide between the people and politics. Free concerts, street murals, and community theatre bypassed conservative media elites to engage mass audiences. Musicians such as Jara, his protégés in the collectives Quilapuyún and Inti-illimani, and the siblings Isabel and Ángel Parra (whose mother was the hugely influential folk singer Violeta Parra) – as well as Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda and the painter Roberto Matta – led this radical movement.
Jara’s songs combined the language of revolution with references to work, family, land, and even religion, all of which mattered to Chile’s devoutly Catholic populace. ‘Plegaría a un Labrador’ (The Worker’s Pledge) brought these themes together in a rousing anthem for the unification of workers, peasants, and other marginalised Chileans. Songs like ‘Que Alegre Son Las Obreras’ (How Happy the Workers Are) or ‘En el Rio Mapocho’ (In the River Mapocho) fused everyday social contexts with radical collective agency.
But Jara’s activism rankled Chilean conservatives. The song ‘Preguntas por Puerto Montt’ (Questions for Puerto Montt) references the 1969 police massacre of landless peasants who had occupied private farmland near the city of Puerto Montt. On orders from Interior Minister Eduardo Pérez Zujovic to remove the squatters, police opened fire and killed ten, including a baby.
Jara addressed the minister in the song:
‘You will have to answer, Mr Pérez Zujovic,
why defenceless people were answered with guns.
Mr Pérez, your conscience is now buried in a coffin,
even all the southern rains won’t clean your hands.’
In 1971, leftist militants assassinated Pérez Zujovic. Although Jara had no connection to the group, right-wing extremists scapegoated him, and he became a marked man.
The military coup of 11 September 1973 ended the socialist project. Allende died in the presidential palace, choosing to fight to the death rather than surrender. The army went on a killing spree. Thousands were imprisoned in makeshift concentration camps and anyone associated with the left was targeted.
Chile’s official 1991 investigation into human rights violations determined that:
‘[Jara] was detained by soldiers on 12 September 1973, in the Technical State University. He was taken to the Chile Stadium, where he was tortured by army officers … his body was found, with signs of torture, in the vicinity of the Metropolitan Cemetery, with 44 bullet wounds.’
But the military failed to silence Jara even in death. In his final hours he summoned the clarity and strength to denounce what was happening to his people, composing the poem ‘Estadio Chile’ (Chile Stadium).
Like Patricio Guzmán’s defining documentary The Battle of Chile we only know about Jara’s poem because of the courageous individuals who smuggled it to safety. Today, ‘Estadio Chile’ testifies to the terror perpetrated by Chile’s extreme right and its North American backers.
The solidarity movement
Chile’s 9/11 established a military regime whose domestic authority was derived from systematic state terror, while its international legitimacy came from pioneering neoliberal economic structures that could only be implemented under totalitarian conditions. Many Chileans were forced into exile, where they introduced Jara’s music to international solidarity campaigns.
Jara demanded respect for humanity. During the US bombing of Vietnam, he saw not war, but indiscriminate slaughter. In ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz’ (The Right to Live in Peace) – from the 1971 album of the same title – he praised Ho Chi Minh as a ‘poet’ and expressed solidarity with the Vietnamese people. ‘Indochina is the place beyond the far sea, where the flower bursts with genocide and napalm,’ he sang.
Jara recognised parallels between the Vietnamese and the Chilean people. Both lived in the global south, where economic imperialism condemned them to poverty while exploiting their labour and resources to enrich the closed societies of the wealthiest nations. Moreover, Jara’s peasant farmer upbringing in southern Chile caused him to identify strongly with Vietnam’s rural society, where around 80 per cent of the population tried to survive in a countryside subjected to chemical warfare.
Although the right to live in peace was taken from Jara and thousands of other Chileans in a cataclysm of violence rooted in the same economic and geopolitical forces as in Southeast Asia, his music continued to inspire social movements across Latin America and beyond. With some degree of justice now achieved for the Jara family, the struggle goes on to do the same for many others like them.
A version of this article was previously published by Jacobin magazine