He Died Giving a Voice to Chile’s Poor. A Quest for Justice Took Decades.

The activist folk singer Victor Jara was murdered in the days after a 1973 coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. A quest for his killers led to a Florida courtroom

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How A Folk Singer’s Murder Forced Chile to Confront Its Past
Victor Jara was a legendary Chilean folk singer and political activist, whose brutal killing following a military coup in 1973 went unsolved for decades. Now, his family may finally get justice. Published On Credit Antonio Larrea


My guitar is not for the rich

no, nothing like that.

My song is of the ladder

we are building to reach the stars.

Those were among the last words Víctor Jara ever wrote, for a song called “Manifiesto.” Mr. Jara was a popular Chilean folk singer who dwelt on themes like poverty and injustice. He was, in no particular order, a poet, a teacher, a theater director and a Communist Party activist — and all that was enough to get him brutally killed at age 40.

He was murdered by men under the command of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, leader of the 1973 military coup that, with America’s assent, overthrew the leftist government of Chile’s elected president, Salvador Allende, and imposed a ruthless dictatorship. During the Pinochet regime’s 17 years, some 2,300 people were known to have been killed or “disappeared.” About 1,000 others were unaccounted for and presumed to have died. At least 27,000 were tortured.

Mr. Jara, sometimes described as the Bob Dylan of South America, was one of the earliest victims and the most famous. His life, death and political afterlife shape this video documentary from Retro Report, whose mission is to examine major news stories of the past and show how they inform the present.


This arc stretched 45 years. But four months ago, the Chilean judge, Miguel Vázquez, sentenced each of eight retired military officers to prison terms of 15 years and a day for the murders of Mr. Jara and of a former prisons director, Littré Quiroga Carvajal. A ninth man received a five-year sentence for helping cover up the crimes.

And in Florida another former officer, who found refuge in the United States, has been declared liable in a civil suit brought by Jara family members, and ordered to pay them $28 million in damages. A court in Chile has asked for the extradition of this man, Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, but the request remains unfulfilled. Mr. Barrientos, 69, remains at liberty in Florida, where he insisted to Retro Report that he was innocent of wrongdoing and felt “like a victim of political persecution.” Still, the arc may not be done bending.

Víctor Jara grew up poor, and made his own way from age 15. At one point, he studied for the priesthood, but lost interest amid a political awakening that steered him decidedly leftward. He gravitated toward theater and music, becoming part of a movement known as nueva canción, or new song, which infused traditional Latin American folk music with politically and socially inspired lyrics. “Song has great power to create awareness in the face of today’s challenges,” he said.

His activism, popularity and ardent support of the Allende government made him a marked man once the military seized power on Sept. 11, 1973. The next day, soldiers rounded up students and professors at State Technical University in Santiago, where Mr. Jara had taught theater. He and hundreds of others were led to the indoor Chile Stadium (renamed Víctor Jara Stadium in 2003).

He was quickly recognized and taken to the bowels of the arena, there to be tortured. Soldiers crushed his fingers with their rifle butts, and told him mockingly that he would never play the guitar again.

Testimony in the Florida civil case revealed that an officer identified by several witnesses as Lieutenant Barrientos was a commander at the stadium and was giving orders while Mr. Jara was held there. Several days later, the singer’s corpse was found, along with those of several others, dumped outside a Santiago cemetery. He had been shot twice in the head and 44 more times elsewhere. His wife, Joan, a British-born dance instructor, managed to recover the body and bury it. Then she fled to Britain with her young daughters, Amanda and Manuela, and did not return to Chile for a dozen years.

“I am one of the lucky ones” Joan Jara, 91, told Sean Mattison, director of the Retro Report video. “So many people here in Chile, so many families, they still don’t know the destiny of their loved ones. That is the worst fate.”

In death even more than in life, Mr. Jara became an iconic figure for artists around the world who found him a source of political and cultural inspiration. Bruce Springsteen gave a concert in Santiago in 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup, and sang “Manifiesto,” a song that Mr. Jara himself did not live long enough to perform in public. “It’s a gift to be here,” Mr. Springsteen said to the audience, “and I take it with humbleness.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

2 thoughts on “He Died Giving a Voice to Chile’s Poor. A Quest for Justice Took Decades.

  1. thank you, jerry. this is HUGE. i listened to and bought Victor Jara records before the Pinochet coup. and i have an art piece dedicated to him on my front porch, as I have for over 30 years. ¡Longa vida Victor Jara!

  2. from my book As If the World Really Mattered (La Alameda Press, 13006)


    “El que no comprende el amor
    no sabe nada sobre el pueblo.”
    -Oswaldo de la Vega

    Allende slain. Cut down by machineguns.
    They call it suicide, but the world knows

    better. And Neruda doubles up. He too dies,
    his heart broken, the revolution in ashes.

    Even the stones of Machu Picchu are helpless
    as the tanks of the Junta trample Santiago.

    Repression floods in under the poet’s feet.
    His last works ruined. River diverted

    from their banks. Companeros tortured
    in the makeshift prison of a soccer stadium.

    They chop off the folksinger’s fingers,
    but he still sings. Victor Jara,

    blood weeping from his palms. His voice
    booming fearless & defiant. So they shoot him.

    In Spain they sent Lorca to the firing
    squad. In Russia Mayakovsky shot himself.

    But in Chile, Neruda, Neruda, red windmill
    of the Andes. He is all heart & it crumples

    at the news. Allende slain. The revolution
    in ashes. A lifetime’s work turned to

    rubble. But not washed out. No. Never!
    For the mountains, wind & rivers go on

    grinding wheat between stones, struggling
    as the people struggle to match the rhythm

    of his outstretched arms & even in death
    he still sings. Neruda. Neruda!

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