Allende’s Poet

Victor Jara was tortured and killed for being the musical voice of Allende's Chile. Now his murderer may finally be brought to justice.

Víctor Jara's grave in the General Cemetery of Santiago. The note reads: "'Till Victory!," July 13, 2006. Lion Hirth / Wikimedia

A few days after General Pinochet’s military assault on the socialist government of Salvador Allende, Joan Jara went to the Santiago mortuary to identify the body of her husband, folk singer Victor Jara.

In her book, An Unfinished Song: the Life of Victor Jara, she writes:

The morgue is full of bodies overflowing to every part of the building, including the administrative offices. A long corridor, with several doors, and on the floor a long line of bodies, these ones with clothes, some of them look like students, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty . . . and there in the middle of the line I find Victor . . . his eyes were open and still seemed to look ahead with intensity and defiance, in spite of a wound to his head and terrible bruising to his cheek . . . His chest was riddled with holes and an open wound to his abdomen . . . but it was Victor, my husband, my lover.

Victor Jara was a renowned musician and theater director who believed that popular culture could help foster a broader revolutionary consciousness. Through his commitment to social struggle and political activism, he played an important role in Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, which governed Chile for three years until the 1973 coup.

The singer was one of many Chileans arrested, tortured, and killed that September. For over forty years, Joan has campaigned to win justice for her husband. That moment has finally arrived.

On June 27, a civil lawsuit in Florida found former Chilean army officer Pedro Barrientos Nuñez liable for Jara’s death. Barrientos commanded death squads during the coup and later bragged about killing the musician. The verdict concluded a four-year legal battle and raises the possibility that Barrientos will be extradited to Chile to face murder charges.

But because Barrientos obtained US citizenship through marriage several years ago, extradition depends on US cooperation with Chilean investigators. Considering the United States financed destabilization strategies during Allende’s presidency and staunchly supported Pinochet throughout his regime, it’s not surprising that Washington hasn’t jumped to help. No doubt, the US government would rather forget the whole thing.

Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability, represented Joan Jara and her daughters Manuela and Amanda in the case. “Chile previously attempted to extradite a couple of military guys who were found in the United States,” she explains, “but the [George W] Bush administration never permitted their extradition, because of US involvement over the years.”

But Bernabeu still hopes for a positive decision from Washington. “If the extradition is granted, it shows the United States is acknowledging what happened in Chile and is taking action,” she says. “These people think the United States was an accomplice in this and is never going to collaborate. The real transformation will be if we can bring this guy home.”

Revisiting Atrocity

In 2012, Barrientos came to public attention thanks to an investigative TV program called ¿Quién Mató a Victor Jara? (Who Killed Victor Jara?). Journalists traced Barrientos to his Orlando home, and he gave an interview in which he denied involvement in Jara’s killing, but admitted to handling detainees and involvement in the coup.

“That resonated in the community, and people started calling,” says Bernabeu. “It was very powerful and well-handled. Sensational, yes, but the interviews with the conscripts were pretty compelling.”

The conscripts in question were the young men drafted into the military. According to Bernabeu, many committed human rights violations against their will. “Some of them were active and participated in criminal acts, and others were scared to death,” she says. “The whole case was based on their testimony. We needed to reconnect with those conscripts, to ask them to trust us and testify in our case.”

In 2013, one soldier, José Paredes, told the courtroom that “Lieutenant Barrientos decided to play Russian roulette, so he took out his gun, approached Victor Jara, who was standing with his hands handcuffed behind his back, spun the cylinder, put it against the back of his neck and fired.”

Bernabeu says, “We couldn’t prove that Barrientos shot Victor Jara, but it was very clear to all of us that he has been lying . . . He was an army officer at the Chile Stadium and was involved in torture and killing. It was a matter of bringing it close enough to Victor Jara.”

Verdicts like this feed the hope that, as senior dictatorship officials die off, lower-ranking military personnel will speak out. Like other Latin American countries that endured repressive regimes in the seventies and eighties, Chile has struggled to prosecute human rights abuses committed under military rule. Yet there have been notable successes, including the case against the chief of Pinochet’s brutal secret police, Manuel Contreras, who was sentenced to multiple life sentences.

According to Cath Collins of the Center for Human Rights, the Barrientos decision reflects a wide movement suddenly making headway. “It should not be imagined that these external cases are the only or the principal motor of what is now a very active, if belated, justice scenario for past dictatorship-era crimes.” She explains:

Most if not all of these developments owe much to the persistence of human rights activists and lawyers, who have managed to prod a previously reluctant judicial system into action and are now fighting similar battles against official indifference in the areas of truth and reparations.

The Center wants a national plan to find and identify the remaining disappeared as well as active state support for the rights of survivors. Campaigners are currently investigating more than a thousand potential human rights violations under military rule.

Focus now falls on Juan Emilio Cheyre, who served as commander in chief from 2002–6. On July 8, he was arrested for his participation in the notorious Caravan of Death military squad, which, in the weeks following the coup, conducted a nationwide extermination program of leftists, killing at least ninety-seven people.

In 2001, retired general Joaquín Lagos Osorio described these atrocities. “They cut eyes out with daggers,” he said;

They broke their jaws and legs. They shot them to pieces, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart, all with machine guns . . . They were no longer human bodies. I wanted to at least put the bodies back together again, to leave them more decent, but you couldn’t.

The charges against Cheyre come from the caravan’s activities on October 16, 1973, when fifteen political prisoners were summarily executed in La Serena.

At the time, Cheyre was serving as an aide to local regiment commander Ariosto Lapostol, who has also been arrested and charged over the massacre. Lapostol himself was under orders from General Sergio Arellano Stark, who died earlier this year at the age of ninety-four. In 2008, Arellano Stark was convicted of four murders, but he served no prison time due to apparent ill health.

Allende’s Cultural Revolution

The Pinochet dictatorship empowered the Chilean right to unleash vengeance on all those who had challenged its longstanding political and economic hegemony. Allende’s programs of nationalization, land reform, and redistribution of wealth — which incorporated previously marginalized social sectors into the body politic — earned him the national oligarchy’s wrath. Further, the possibility that his democratic socialist model could inspire other Latin American countries made him a threat to the United States.

With the capitalist-owned media unwilling to provide balanced analysis, popular culture became key to bridging the divide between the people and politics. Free concerts, street murals, and community theater bypassed conservative media elites to engage mass audiences. Musicians like Jara and his protégés in the collectives Quilapuyún and Inti-illimani — as well as Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda and the painter Roberto Matta — led this radical movement.

Jara’s songs combined the language of revolution with references to work, family, land, and even religion, all of which mattered to Chile’s devoutly Catholic populace. “Plegaría a un Labrador” (“The Worker’s Pledge”) brought these themes together in a rousing anthem for the unification of workers, peasants, and other marginalized Chileans that supported Allende’s coalition. Songs like “Que Alegre Son las Obreras” (“How Happy the Workers Are”) or “En el Rio Mapocho” (“In the River Mapocho”) fused everyday social contexts with radical collective agency.

But Jara’s activism rankled Chilean conservatives. The song “Preguntas por Puerto Montt” references the 1969 police massacre of landless peasants who had occupied private farmland near Puerto Montt in southern Chile. On orders from Interior Minister Eduardo Pérez Zujovic to remove the squatters, police opened fire and killed ten, including a baby. Dwellings were burned, and the other peasants evicted.

Jara addressed the minister in the song:

You will have to answer, Mr Pérez Zujovic,

why defenseless people were answered with guns.

Mr Pérez, your conscience is now buried in a coffin

And all the southern rains won’t clean your hands.

In 1971, leftist militants assassinated Pérez Zujovic. Although Jara had no connection to the group, right-wing extremists scapegoated him, and he became a marked man.

The military coup of September 11, 1973 ended the socialist project. Allende died in the presidential palace, choosing to fight to the death rather than surrender. The army went on a killing spree. Thousands were imprisoned in makeshift concentration camps, and anyone associated with the Left was targeted.

Chile’s official 1991 investigation into human rights violations determined that

[Jara] was detained by soldiers on September 12, 1973, in the Technical State University. He was taken to the Chile Stadium, where he was tortured by army officers . . . his body was found, with signs of torture, in the vicinity of the Metropolitan Cemetery, with forty-four bullet wounds.

But the military failed to silence Jara even in death. In his final hours he summoned the clarity and strength to denounce what was happening to his people, composing the poem “Estadio Chile” (“Chile Stadium”).

Like Patricio Guzmán’s defining documentary The Battle of Chile we only know about Jara’s poem because of the courageous individuals who smuggled it to safety. Today, “Estadio Chile” testifies to the terror perpetrated by Chile’s extreme right and its American backers.

The Solidarity Movement

Chile’s 9/11 established a military regime whose domestic authority was derived from systematic state terror, while its international legitimacy came from pioneering neoliberal economic structures that could only be implemented under totalitarian conditions. Many Chileans went into exile, where they introduced Jara’s music to international solidarity campaigns.

Jara demanded respect for humanity. During the American bombing of Vietnam, he saw not war, but indiscriminate slaughter. In “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (“The Right to Live in Peace”) — from the 1971 album of the same title — he praised Ho Chi Minh as a “poet” and expressed solidarity with the Vietnamese people, singing “Indochina is the place beyond the far sea, where the flower bursts with genocide and napalm.”

Jara recognized parallels between the Vietnamese and the Chilean people. Both lived in the Global South, repressed by an economic imperialism that condemned them to poverty while exploiting their labor and resources to enrich its own closed societies. Moreover, Jara’s peasant upbringing in southern Chile caused him to identify strongly with Vietnam’s rural society, where around 80 percent of the population tried to survive in a countryside subjected to chemical warfare.

Although the right to live in peace was taken from Jara and thousands of other Chileans in a cataclysm of violence rooted in the same economic and geopolitical forces as in Southeast Asia, his music would continue to inspire social movements across Latin America and beyond.

With some degree of justice now achieved for the Jara family, the struggle continues to do the same for many others like them.