New Internationalist

Politics Out Of Tune

Issue 174

new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987

Musical performances offer an outlet for some of the young people of Santiago.
Photo: Peter Stalker
Politics out of tune
Many Chileans have lost touch with the political parties -
not surprising given that most political activity is illegal.
So popular politics have taken on more diffuse forms,
from street demonstrations to protest songs.

SANTIAGO has a whole new set of landmarks. 'That's the street where Carmen Quintana was set on fire.' 'That's the house where the American journalist in the movie Missing used to live.' No plaques commemorate the years of oppression but the city seems to be building up a collective memory in readiness.

Every bus journey passes through an 'historic' district. Jaime, who travels a lot around the city, is well qualified as a guide. 'That,' he tells me, 'is the National Stadium which was turned into a torture chamber after the coup. That's the park where they corralled everyone together during the raids in 1983.'

Jaime busks his way round Santiago on public transport. 'About 200,000 people make their living on the buses,' he says. Sounds a bit of an exaggeration to me, given there are only 8,000 buses, but there is certainly an incessant stream of vendors elbowing their way down the aisles.

Most of them sell candy. 'Tafi caramels, chocolate centres, two for ten pesos!'. But you also will be offered books of natural health remedies ('Learn how to cure your haemorrhoids'), study aids ('Give your children the advantages of knowing how to add and divide') and even be subjected to a form of 'inertia selling' where a small item like a Mother's Day card will be handed out to all passengers (you then have the option of buying it or handing it back and feeling a real heel).

Others simply ask for money. ('I am the father of five children. I don't want to disturb your journey. But I need your support to feed the family.) A solemn, well-practised speech is followed by a collection.

It is not an easy way to stay alive. But for the unemployed youth of the poblaciones the options are bleak. Boys with glazed looks on their faces lounge on many of the street corners. These are the voladores, the 'flyers', high on marijuana or glue and likely to accost passers-by.

I am constantly warned about the dangers of visiting the poblaciones. At the Campamento Fresno, one of the newer settlements, I was told I could expect to be stripped naked if I was attacked. On the basis of my previous experience I'm inclined to take such advice seriously, travelling with the minimum of cash, not to mention fresh underwear.

For some of the restless youth, music and dance offer a more productive outlet. Jaime also plays with a group of dancers and musicians in the north of Santiago. They call themselves a 'popular workshop', writing their own songs and reviving some of the traditional dances of Chiloe, a town in the far south of the country. This evening, however, there will be no music; this is to be a 'training' session.

Jaime points out a few more landmarks as we walk through the poblaci6n where the meeting is to be held, though now the memories become more personal: 'That's where the carabineros picked me up during the protests of 1986 - I finished up with ten stitches on my skull.' He also shows how the capo that grips the strings on his guitar can give a deceptively pistol-like glint on a dark night to deter more unofficial aggressors.

We climb to the second-floor of a small apartment block. A door is opened carefully to check the new arrivals. Most of the group are already there. A chart on the otherwise bare wall signals that the focus of this evening's self-education meeting is a significant forthcoming date: '1 May', Labour Day. This proves an education for me as well. As someone who thought that Labour Day had something vaguely to do with a march-past in Red Square it came as a surprise to discover that it was originally a homage to 'The martyrs of Chicago': US workers striking for an eight-hour day in 1886 who were fired on by police and 30 of whom were killed.

Learning the history of May Day.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Victor, a singer-guitarist, has been delegated to investigate and has drawn up a wallchart detailing the development of workers' rights - or lack of them - right back to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. A slide-tape show compares the events of Chicago with similar massacres of miners earlier this century in Chile.

Such a direct fusion of musical activity and popular education is unusual. Certainly most of the groups, at whatever function they play, will offer an eloquent political statement beforehand. It might be about the purpose of their songs and the need to support the working class whether at strike, or an olla, or on a significant date like Labour Day. But they don't usually take the learning process so seriously.

'We want,' says Jaime, 'to channel the energy of the young people into music, theatre and dance. And we also want to make them think; music is the tool with which we work.'

 Their brand of popular politics is firmly rooted in a socialist vision. It is also coloured, however, with a certain bitterness and rejection of Chile's current political parties - indeed with politicians as a whole, of left or right, whom they accuse of squabbling amongst themselves while leaving the main enemy unscathed.

'They are out of touch with what is really happening,' says Jaime, 'They just look out for their own interests.'

Since political parties have strictly speaking been illegal since the coup, it is hardly surprising that they have found it difficult to maintain contact. Formal meetings are impossible, as indeed are party headquarters. So the old guard has often remained in control, even leading their parties from exile. And such politicking that has taken place has produced innumerable factions. There are at least five Socialist parties now and only a few days ago the Radical Party split itself in two. By my reckoning there are at least 14 active political parties.

Chile's democratic tradition is at least partly responsible for this dispersal of energy. With a history of free elections dating back to the beginning of this century and a highly literate and urbanized population, Chile has had one of the most politicized electorates in Latin America.

But ideological niceties have proved no match for a monolithic authoritarian Government While most political parties agree that the number one task is to oust the dictatorship, in practice they begrudge the sacrifices either of ideology or personal ambition that this requires.

How have parties been able to operate if they are illegal? Well, things are not as cut and dried as you might expect. In fact all the parties have official representatives and I also spoke to several of them (see box).

Their disagreements are documented in detail (and with some glee) in the main Government-supporting newspaper, El Mercurio. One of the paper's cartoons has two businessmen agreeing that 'The clearest demonstration that our market economy is working well is that we have a choice of five Socialist parties.'

And despite the dictatorship there are elections. One symptom of the country's degree of politicization is that even the elections of officers for professional bodies have always been conducted along party lines. The College of Lawyers, for example, has just had an election in which the Christian Democrats took about 60 per cent of the vote while a left-wing grouping of socialists and others took 30 per cent. The right-wing parties made very little impression.

Top of this particular poll was Roberto Garret6n, who works at the Vicaria de Ia Solidaridad. 'Lawyers,' he says, 'have given a demonstration of civil disobedience. The candidates haven't hidden the fact that they are members of political parties which have not registered under the dictatorship's law.'

The law he refers to is the newly promulgated 'Law of Political Parties' which sets out the terms under which Pinochet will tolerate political organization. These include compelling each party to provide the name and address of every member as well as a prohibition on political debate. Parties have to confine themselves more or less to providing candidates for elections. Not surprisingly most parties are reluctant to register under such terms and prefer to take the risk of remaining illegal.

The musicians teaching themselves about May Day are suspicious of parties, legal or illegal. 'We are one of the few groups which have not been taken over by political parties,' says Jaime, 'and we want to stay that way.' And there are many people in Chile who believe the country's future will arise more from popular organizations, like the ollas, the youth groups or the human-rights groups, than from the present political parties. Certainly these are the people who take to the streets when there are demonstrations. But how this can be translated into effective action without political parties is not at all clear.

The 'entertainment' on the bus on the way back from the meeting was far from musical but it has many similar strains. A man of about 70 is hanging onto the same handrail as me. His tongue loosened by alcohol, he sounds off in all directions.

'I spent 40 years as a copper miner up in the North and now I get a pension of $l5 a month while a retired carabinero is given $140 a month. What has he produced for the country? Nothing! What kind of justice is that?'

The other passengers seem unwilling to join in this debate.

'This is the worst Government we have ever had.' And now he talks directly to me. 'Why,' he asks, 'do they keep on killing people?'

I say I'm a foreigner so maybe I shouldn't express an opinion.

'What about your country? Do they have a constitution that allows people to speak their minds?'

I try to explain about our constitution and I realize with a sinking feeling as I do so that I am way past my stop. But he has a lot more to say and I haven't got the heart to interrupt his flow.

Fifteen minutes later I finish up on the wrong side of town, in the dark, lost and somewhat confused.

The Socialist
German Correa, President of the Popular Democratic Movement (MDP) - a coalition of socialist and communist parties - and a leader of the Almeyda faction of the Socialist Party.

[image, unknown] People abroad ask why the Chileans are so stupid, why are they so simple? With a ferocious dictatorship which has persecuted everybody, why don't you all get together and get rid of him?

'What we have here is the famous problem of 'hegemony', of who is going to determine the character of the regime that will come after the dictatorship. Will it be a bourgeois formal democracy or a much more profound one? The future power balance will be shaped by the strength which different politicians and parties acquire during the struggle against the dictatorship.

'The MDP is a better coalition than Popular Unity was. The Popular Unity parties just came together to win an election; they had fewer real points of consensus. There were even divisions within the parties. Nowadays in the MDP there is a greater level of agreement and a stronger and more centralized leadership.

'We in the Socialist Party have local organizations but they are persecuted by the regime. The work is clandestine or semi-clandestine apart from a few public leaders like myself.

'One political group is not going to be able to kick Pinochet out. Only a great National Democratic Accord, even if it is not strictly a coalition, will cut short the days of the regime. And I believe that it is possible. In this country there are many problems - like housing or health - the solutions to which are not strictly socialist or capitalist, if they have solutions at all. That's why I think we can have an accord between the forces of the left and of the centre.

'People ask what real socialism is. The answer is: there are many socialisms and they are all real. We in Chile do not want the Soviet model or that of Nicaragua or that of Cuba. They have different traditions and different histories.

[image, unknown] 'Besides, we already have our own experience of government. We know which of our models were unsuccessful in the past - or didn't work out as planned. The healthiest socialist attitude is to keep an open mind: to do what real life shows you have to do. '

The Christian Democrat
Jose Ruiz de Giorgio, a Vice- President of the Christian Democrat Party and President of the Federation of Petroleum Workers.

[image, unknown] Chile today has 'laboratory politics'. About 90 per cent of most politicians' time is spent in high-level meetings, national and international, with other leaders, or with political scientists. It's theoretical: not seated in the reality of the country.

'That's not because the politicians are mad or bad; the system makes it practically impossible to have contact with the people. Meetings are difficult because you have to overcome a state of fear. This is all clandestine, It's illegal. People are worried that their houses will be stoned, that they will have their windows broken. No political activity takes place more within the youth groups, in the universities, within trade unions.

'Pinochet has shown over 14 years that he isn't going to leave just like that. If a plebiscite does take place there is going to be a gigantic fraud so that he comes out having won it. He is probably the most astute dictator that Latin America has had. He's not going to risk an election if he's not certain that he's going to win.

'So we are looking for an alliance that can drive forward the campaign for 'free elections' and reject the plans for a plebiscite in 1989. And it is important that the Socialist parties form a united front so we can join up with them. Of course there are other Christian Democrats who don't think like me. They think that we should make alliances with the Right because the Government is more likely to offer more things to a centre-right movement

'But Pinochet will offer nothing at all until he sees a strong civilian opposition - capable of paralyzing the country.

'And Pinochet is unlikely to lace much opposition within the military. They will not act against him because he has absolute power. They also fear that if the Government falls they will go to jail and many would be assassinated; it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that some people will want revenge.

'So the opposition needs something that isn't just an attack on the armed forces We want the military to leave with dignity and, where necessary, to submit to justice. But we are not talking about 'popular tribunals'. The military have to be reassured there are some safeguards: even if they have committed crimes they should be confident that they are going to be judged impartially, that they have a right to a defence and that their lives would be respected.

[image, unknown] 'It's not easy to see the opposition unifying around this kind of platform in the short term. For one thing there is a problem of human weakness People think that this Government is coming to an end. And if a new political era is coming they want to be the candidate. Personal ambition is a part of human nature - and of democracy. But although ambition might be acceptable in a democratic regime it can be a real obstacle when struggling against a dictatorship.'

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Politics Out Of Tune

Leave your comment