Thursday 27 September 2012, MorningStar
But five days after the brutal 1973 military coup that crushed Chile’s democracy and killed the country’s constitutional president Salvador Allende, Chile’s most committed and much-loved singer-songwriter was silenced forever in the Chile Stadium.
On September 11 1973 Victor left his home, his English wife Joan and his two young daughters to go to his workplace, the Technical University. The next time Joan saw him was in the morgue – his hands broken by rifle butts and with 44 bullets in his body.
I met Joan on a sunny Santiago day last April outside the Victor Jara Foundation she set up to honour his memory and keep his life’s work in song and theatre alive.
Now in her early eighties, though still graceful and agile like the dancer she was, Joan tells me of her frustration that despite all the investigations into Victor’s death no-one has ever been brought to justice for it.
“I feel angry,” she says.
“Victor lived only half of what could have been his life. How many songs could he have composed, how many more plays could he have directed if he had lived?
“He could have seen his much-loved daughters grow up and could have been by my side for the rest of our lives.”
Why the ferocity of the coup which killed Victor and many thousands of others?
When Dr Allende, a socialist, was elected president in September 1970 US secretary of state Henry Kissinger remarked: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”
What followed over the next three years with the collusion of the US was organised sabotage, hoarding of foods and goods to provoke artificial shortages, and the creation of the fascist terrorist organisation Patria y Libertad.
They also saw a media onslaught against the progressive government whose Popular Unity programme was aimed at improving the lives of workers and peasants by nationalising Chile’s biggest resource – copper – and introducing land reform to curb the power of the “latifundistas,” the big landowners.
Victor had used his immense talents in support of the popular government. He sang to massive crowds in Santiago and other cities and he wrote songs urging people to take a stand, not sit on the fence, and fight for their government.
He was hugely popular among the young and among the millions who backed the government’s aim of closing the gap between rich and poor.
It was that aim that led reactionary forces in Chile and the US, which had always seen Latin America as its backyard, to decide to snuff out the Allende government in the brutal coup.
And it was Victor’s support for it that led the soldiers to break the bones in his hands and then mockingly demand that he play his guitar.
Between 40-50,000 people were held in stadiums, concentration camps and prisons in the months and years that followed, and around 1,500 people were “disappeared” between 1973 and 1990. Another 30,000 were sent into exile.
Joan has campaigned tirelessly for justice for her husband since his death. But even after Victor’s body was exhumed in 2009 on the orders of the judge investigating his case no-one has been tried for it.
“Many killers and torturers freely walk the streets,” she tells me. “They are approaching death now, after living their lives in peace, bringing up their children and grandchildren. They’ve never expressed remorse for the suffering they caused so many families.”
Leading human rights lawyer Eduardo Contreras, who back in January 1998 was the first to bring a lawsuit against General Augusto Pinochet, who led the 1973 coup, explains why justice has not been done, not only for Victor but for many thousands of other victims of the dictatorship.
“The slow pace of these legal cases is due in large measure to the total refusal of the armed forces to co-operate with the investigations,” Contreras says.
“But it’s also due to Chile’s old-fashioned and long-drawn-out legal system.
“At present 1,500 criminal lawsuits are pending. The vast majority of these are cases brought by the Group of Relatives of Executed Political Prisoners (AFEP) since 2010, and they include the cases of president Allende himself and his defence minister General Bachelet who died after torture in March 1974 after refusing to back the military coup.
“About 250 of the dictatorship’s criminal perpetrators have been tried and there are 69 in prison, mostly condemned to life imprisonment, including the top ranks of the dreaded DINA – the secret investigations arm of the dictatorship.”
More cases are in the pipeline. As for Victor’s case, the trial is ongoing but proceeding very slowly.
Two soldiers have been identified as his killers but it has so far proved impossible to identify who in the higher echelons gave the order to kill him.
The courageous lawyers pursuing lawsuits have come under all sorts of threats and even attempts on their lives.
In July 2000 Contreras and his wife Rebeca were returning by car to Santiago on their usual route when someone by the side of the road signalled for help.
They stopped to offer assistance and a huge lorry suddenly came at their car at speed from the opposite direction. It crashed into the vehicle and severely injured Rebeca, who, unusually, had been driving.
Contreras is sure it was a deliberate attempt on his life as it happened on the eve of a high-profile legal victory against Pinochet in the courts.
The fight for justice goes on and is part of today’s social and political struggle in Chile.
“The dictatorship has not been totally defeated,” Contreras says. “But much of the truth has come out and some justice has been done.
“General Pinochet was detained and put under house arrest for several months and although he died before he could be sent to prison he was condemned in the eyes of the world as a criminal.
“We have 1,300 lawsuits ongoing which I and other lawyers, working voluntarily, are pursuing and we are sure that we shall achieve more justice in the coming months and years.
“We also aim to try those civilians who were responsible for crimes against our people, like the owners of the media who together with DINA cooked up stories to justify their crimes.
“There’s still a lot to do.”
Readers might like Joan Jara’s autobiography Victor: an unfinished song and the recently published collection of his lyrics, His Hands Were Gentle is available from Smokestack Books at £8.95.