by Peter Lazenby, Morning Star, 15.05.2012 Carlos Carrillo was 17 when they came for him. It was 1974. He was active with the MIR – Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement.
The elected government of Salvador Allende had been overthrown in a US-backed military coup. Universities and colleges across the country were raided by the armed forces. Thousands of left political activists were imprisoned, and many killed, including hundreds packed into Santiago football stadium.
The coup, and the murder of opponents by the military, created an international outcry. It brought threats to trade with Chile from some countries, including Britain.
Britain’s Labour government was among several who negotiated the release into exile of hundreds of political prisoners.
In 1978, after four years in prison, Carlos was one of them. He and around 100 Chilean activists ended up in Leeds. Almost 40 years after the 1973 coup, Leeds is still home to a Chilean community of about 40, a mixture of original exiles and descendants.
Carlos, now 55, is going home. He returns with memories of his imprisonment, but also of the international solidarity which almost certainly saved his life.
“I was based in Osorno province in the south,” he says. “I was involved in union activity. After the coup we went underground. Then I was caught. They raided all the universities and arrested the activists. I was put in an army prison. Thankfully one of the conscripts was a friend. He let my parents know I was alive.
“I was one of the youngest political prisoners because I was 17. There was a lot of pressure from outside, like the UK, demanding we be allowed to be visited by the Red Cross.”
Carlos was tortured.
“The favourite was that they tied your hands and feet to a metal bed, threw water on you, then put electricity into your ears, your head, genitals, toes. It just went on and on.
“I was sentenced to 25 years, but they said do you want 25 years behind bars, or to choose exile. They didn’t do this for themselves, it was the pressure from outside.”
He was 21 when he landed in Britain.
“We came on Air France. It was very strange. It was snowing and the sun was all red. Everybody came to London. There was a big mansion in Notting Hill Gate. The GLC [Greater London Council] hired that to let us live there.”
He discovered that activists from his home region had been welcomed to Leeds, while others had gone to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. He was taken to Leeds.
In Leeds the city’s highly active trades union council was at the forefront of welcoming and helping the Chileans. Condemned council houses were released and renovated to provide homes. Unions in the city found jobs for the Chileans.
Trade unionists Sue Buckle and her then partner Barry Cooper were involved – Barry became secretary of Leeds Chile Solidarity Campaign. Geoff Driver, who recently retired as a Leeds Labour councillor, was treasurer.
Sue remembers: “The first Chileans arrived at Leeds Trades Club in Chapeltown on a bus. They each had one suitcase or a bag. It was a foul, wet night. We welcomed them into the steward’s home – Roy and Cathy Rix. Some of the Chileans had guitars. They started singing. Later they were located in various places.”
Carlos first learned English.
“I went to college then a skill centre to learn a trade. I didn’t go to university. I went to work because I was told we needed people in the unions.”
He got a job at Yorkshire Copperworks, an engineering factory with a high level of union organisation.
“I was in the AUEW [Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers],” he said.
Carlos married but the marriage ended after seven years. Then he met Clara, a Colombian who came to Britain to teach Spanish. Their daughter Camilla is now 22 and studies at Brighton University.
Carlos became a social worker.
The Pinochet junta fell in 1990. Nine years later Pinochet visited Britain where an attempt was made to arrest him and charge him with war crimes. He was supported and embraced by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She thanked him for “bringing democracy to Chile.” Pinochet died in 2006.
The end of the junta meant the exiles could return to Chile. Many went back for good. Others, with children born and brought up in Britain, remained.
Carlos visited Chile regularly, but Leeds remained his home as his daughter grew up. Now he’s decided to go back for good. He intends to resume political activity there.
“The biggest political party there is the Communist Party,” he says. “I will do my little bit.”
Carla is moving to Spain where her family lives. Camilla is completing university. She is planning a year out to join her father in Chile.
“There are parts of Chile my dad hasn’t been to and we want to go together,” she says. “I’ve lots of cousins, aunts and uncles I’ve never met.”
For Carlos the international solidarity he experienced, his welcome by trade union activists in Leeds, will remain with him forever.
“The international solidarity today is as important as it was then, because we have globalisation and international capital,” he says. “If they are globalised why aren’t we? People around the world are fighting the multinationals. The multinationals have no regard for indigenous people. There are global corporations who don’t allow unions. Look at Walmart. They swallowed up Asda. Internationalism is more than ever important now.”
During his time in Britain, Carlos went into universities and colleges talking about his experiences, passing them on to new generations of students. It was as a student activist that he had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured.
“Today there are new movements, like Occupy in the United States, the Indignados in Spain,” he says. “There’s a lot of good things happening in Chile, particularly with young people. When I visited, my nephew and niece were on strike. I thought: ‘Oh my God’!”