VICTOR JARA’S HANDS: AN ANTI-FASCIST MEMOIR-FESTO AND BRIEF PERSONAL HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM ~ COUNTERPUNCH

JANUARY 1, 2021

BY DESIREE HELLEGERS

You can easily carbon date your friends on Facebook based on where they were during any major milestone in U.S. history. As a university professor teaching now for decades at what we euphemistically call a “land grant” university, many of my students these days were born after 9-11–into the U.S.’s seemingly endless “War on Terror.” It’s a war that some of their family members died in, but one that few of them seem to know much about.

Last month, older friends on Facebook who came of age in the 1960s were busy reflecting on what they were doing when they heard the news that JFK had been assassinated. Personally, I had only recently graduated from diapers to plastic pants and was likely occupied with important matters like trying to do the twist in front of the TV while my grandmother clapped and sloshed Scotch all over her TV table. But like most Americans who have not washed down decades of Rush Limbaugh with great swigs of QAnon Kool-Aid, I can’t help but wonder how we will look back at this moment in history. Is this the moment we turn the tide, or is it a brief respite from the country’s descent into full-blown fascism? The latter scenario would mean, of course, full speed ahead into climate collapse, given that the U.S. military is hands down the single largest carbon emissions machine on the planet, and our collective dust speck is already close to the boiling point.

May you live in interesting times. You got that right. These times are so interesting that we’ve had a lame duck president holed up in the White House consulting with his legal team from the Island of Malevolent Misfit Toys about the possibilities for declaring martial law to overturn the results of the election and it’s not the top story.

That stands to reason, I guess, when you’ve got a pandemic death count equivalent of a hundred 9-11s, and across the country bodies stacking up like cordwood in overstuffed mobile morgue units.

It’s hard to sustain the level of national alert so many of us felt during the run up to the election and the vote count, when Trump’s automatic-weapon-waving goon squads were busy battering on windows at voting precincts or sky-writing “Surrender Gretchen” over the Michigan State House. A meme was making the rounds at the time on Facebook: American politics as Night of the Living Dead. Personally, I was starting to feel like an insomnia-addled Lady Macbeth who’d been mainlining Halloween candy or days, and as in all things, I blamed my lovely spouse, who had shopped for Halloween candy like he was stocking up for Y2K.

Like me, my spouse knows how to brace for the worst, a skill we bonded over when we met organizing against the second Gulf War. One of the biggest misconceptions about the anti-war “movement,” if such a thing exists right now, is that peace activists somehow hate veterans. Since well before the war in Vietnam, the U.S. military has given veterans critical insight into the American war machine, along with heavy helpings of trauma and self-loathing. Some of my favorite peace activists are veterans, my spouse chief and foremost among them. We bonded organizing protests and staging a die-in in front of the Portland federal building. It was one of those “what are you doing after the die-in?” kinds of courtships.

I don’t remember exactly when I began thinking of Victor Jara’s hands and how they’d been crushed by Chilean soldiers in the early days of the U.S.-sponsored Chilean coup in 1973. I do know, though, that as my spouse and I took a left turn to drop our ballots off at our local library, Victor Jara had been on both our minds. It wasn’t a total coincidence, given that only a day or two before, on October 25, Chileans had voted overwhelmingly in favor of drafting a new constitution.

The referendum was a concession wrenched from President Sebastian Piñera following a year of street protests and civil unrest. The vote was a definitive kiss-off to the Chilean constitution of 1980, enacted under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

Living in the U.S., you’d never know that Chile had had its own national disaster on September 11, nearly three decades before the U.S.

Not many Americans can define neoliberalism, let alone know that on September 11, 1973, it was ushered into Chile by U.S.-made tanks and at the butt of U.S.-made guns—automatic weapons of the sort Trump’s “very fine” friends never seem to tire of waving. And not at all unlike the militarized Portland Police, and the BORTAC and Homeland Security armies that spent all summer pounding and traumatizing friends of mine in the streets of Portland, and spraying them with chemical weapons long ago judged too dangerous to use in war, the health effects being so severe and long term.

It was on September 11, 1973, that Richard Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger swept Pinochet to power as the front man for the U.S.-sponsored “experiment” in neoliberalism. A folksinger-songwriter, often referred to as “Chile’s Bob Dylan,” Victor Jara would be the most visible of more than 3,000 Chileans executed by Pinochet’s death squads in September, as the coup began. You can get a quick overview of the horrors that the U.S. helped unleash on Chileans in the 1970s by watching the 2019 Netflix documentary Massacre at the Stadium. 

Shortly after Pinochet’s reign of terror began, an estimated five thousand were detained at a Santiago stadium—then named Estadio Chile, and since renamed Estadio Victor Jara—and another twenty thousand at the Estadio Nacional across town. Professors, students, musicians, farm and factory workers were crowded shoulder to shoulder and sorted into lines to live or die, to be interrogated, beaten, tortured, and/or murdered. At Estadio Chile, more than seventy were executed on site, while others were “disappeared.” Today a quote painted on the back of the Estadio Nacional reads: “Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro” – “A people without memory are a people without a future.”

Jara grew up poor, in a family of farmworkers, but went on to become a theater director and teacher, and to achieve international visibility with songs like “Manifesto,” which speaks to Jara’s understanding of art as a critical tool in struggles for justice, as an instrument of decolonizing resistance, of spiritual, material, and ecological liberation.

“I don’t sing for the love of singing, /or because I have a good voice,” sang Jara, “I sing because my guitar/has both feeling and reason. It has a heart of earth/and the wings of a dove….”

Jara’s music was inspired by his mother Amanda Martínez’s love of folk music rooted in her Indigenous Mapuche heritage; his music was also shaped by a Catholic education that included a brief period in the seminary. Jara’s music was embraced in the 1960s and ‘70s by American folk heavies like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Arlo Guthrie and Holly Near are among the American songwriters who have since written tribute songs. In the run-up to the election of Allende, Jara’s version of the song “Venceremos” or “We Will Overcome,” became the anthem of Allende’s Popular Unity Coalition, and also figured centrally in eyewitness accounts of Jara’s death. Pinochet’s U.S.-supported forces beat and tortured him, smashing his wrists.

At some point in the stadium, Jara reportedly sang to the other prisoners “Venceremos,” a song he’d adapted with new lyrics that had egged Allende on to victory. Before he was executed, shot more than 40 times by Pinochet’s U.S.-funded forces, Jara wrote his final song: “What horror the face of fascism creates!/They carry out their plans with knife-like precision./Nothing matters to them./To them, blood equals medals,/slaughter is an act of heroism./Oh God, is this the world that you created?”

No human cost was too high to pay to usher in neoliberalism, to eviscerate the gains that labor had made under Allende’s Popular Unity Coalition, and to maintain a steady flow of cheap copper, fruit and fish to the U.S. under the auspices of “trade liberalization.” The new constitution passed under Pinochet’s dictatorship rolled back the reforms instituted under Allende. It expanded the power of the presidency and enshrined private property and corporate profits over social needs; Pinochet rolled back taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and eliminated a host of government services. State-owned companies, public housing, education, health care, and pensions were all privatized, turned into profit centers for corporations and the wealthy. The constitution written under Pinochet limited reforms, and the gap today between rich and poor in Chile is one of the highest in Latin America.

Jara may be technically dead, but if you do a bit of digging around on the internet, you’ll see evidence of his long afterlife; hence the title of a documentary about his impact on musicians in particular: The Resurrection of Victor Jara. Tens of thousands of hands have gone on playing Jara’s songs in the nearly fifty years since his torture and murder in the stadium. Jara, says Chilean musician Horacio Salinas, in the documentary, “could create a ceremonial effect with his music.” On youtube, you can find countless videos of musicians playing Jara’s songs, and songs written in tribute to him, including my personal favorite, “Victor Jara’s Hands,” by Joey Burns of the Tucson-based indie-rock band Calexico, sung alternately in Spanish and English: “Songs of the birds like hands/ call the earth to witness/ Sever from fear before taking flight.”

And for the past year, as across the streets of the U.S. Black Lives Matter activists have demanded justice for George Floyd and the defunding of police departments that consume the lion’s share of city budgets across the country, Jara has been resurrected again and again–in an all-star Chilean studio recording–and on the streets of Chile. At an October 25, 2019 march in Santiago with a crowd estimated at more than a million, people sang together Jara’s anti-war anthem “El Derecho De Vivir En Paz,” or “The Right to Live in Peace,” while countless people played along on the guitar.

This past year, workers in Chile have risen up again to demand a world in which workers do more than just struggle to survive, one in which everyone has a right to not just bread, but roses, music, and art.

Over the past year, Chilean women have created their own distinctive, woman-centered actions on the streets of Chile, with thousands collectively performing the song “Un Violador en Tu Camino,” or “A Rapist in Your Path,” in a public rite of resistance to rape culture and femicide.

The song was inspired by the work of the renowned Argentinian-Brazilian feminist anthropologist/bioethicist Rita Laura Segato. The song calls out the role of police and the courts in perpetrating and perpetuating sexual violence that repeats, on a smaller scale, the systemic rape and torture of women that happened under Pinochet, and that is a central feature of fascism.

If the goal in Chile—as it would be later in Iraq—was, as Naomi Klein has argued–to disorient or “shock” the country into submitting to a radically different and patently exploitative economic system, the system that was imposed was also more rigidly patriarchal.  Sexual violence and degradation were integral parts of Pinochet’s fascist playbook. But as Chileans battle the legacy of Pinochet, this rite of feminist resistance, together with other longstanding organizing, is propelling Chile to break new ground internationally: Chile will be the first country in the world with a constitutional assembly comprised equally of women and men.

I turned twelve the month that Pinochet came to power, and I have no memory whatsoever of hearing about the murder of Jara, the mutilation of his hands, or the thousands of Chileans who were tortured or disappeared. Looking back, I find this fact stranger for the fact that I grew up within miles of the White House. And when I look back on growing up in two very white suburbs on the edge of Washington D.C., it might as well have been Apartheid South Africa, the lines of demarcation between the Black inner city; Georgetown, where my father was a professor; and the white suburbs, were so clear and stark.

My first inklings of the Chilean coup came in 1976, when the political violence of the Pinochet regime erupted in Washington, D.C. I was fifteen, and a friend of my older sister was dating Pablo Letelier, the son of Orlando Letelier, when the latter was blown to pieces in a car bombing, along with his co-worker Ronni Karpen Moffett. Orlando Letelier had been a close associate of Allende and remained until his death an outspoken critic of Pinochet, who was eventually pegged for the bombing, though a fat lot of good that did.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

One thought on “VICTOR JARA’S HANDS: AN ANTI-FASCIST MEMOIR-FESTO AND BRIEF PERSONAL HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM ~ COUNTERPUNCH

  1. Great account. Victor Jara’s death has always haunted me, just as the assassinations of both Kennedys. Thanks for posting

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