Remembering Allende’s Unidad Popular and the New Song Movement as catalysts of change
September 4, 1970 marked the electoral triumph of Chile’s Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition led by Salvador Allende, despite the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) interference in Chile’s electoral process through the funding of right-wing political parties.
Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1 1959, the US’s greatest fear was that the socialist revolutionary influence would spread across the region and alter imperialism’s power and relevance. For the US, Chile presented a new predicament. Socialist governance was democratically chosen, thus signalling possibilities for Latin America in terms of liberating itself from dependence upon imperialist assistance. For the US to retain its importance, socialism in Chile was brutally dismantled by means of the CIA backing the military coup against Allende, which resulted in the dictatorial rule of Augusto Pinochet and the transformation of Chile into a perpetual neoliberal experiment.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UP’s inception. Speaking at an event by the UP’s Commemoration Committee, which is planning a series of activities in 2020 to mark the coalition’s electoral victory in 1970, the Secretary-General of the Chilean Communist Party, Lautaro Carmona, stated that the UP’s program is “the solution to the drama Chileans are living as a result of the neoliberal system.”
The UP program contained the framework for Chile’s sustainable development. It recognised the vast imperialist interference in Chile: from exploitation and usurpation of natural resources, to intervention in education, culture, media and the armed forces. In contrast to the prevailing political subjugation, the UP clarified the need for social mobilisation in order to maintain the masses’ participation in a democracy that works for the people. Its manifesto states, “The popular triumph will thus open the way to the most democratic political regime in the country’s history.”
Alongside national transformation, which included the nationalisation of natural resources and companies, as well as implementing a social program to eradicate poverty and render necessities such as education, health and housing accessible, the UP also proclaimed its aim to promote “a strong Latin America and anti-imperialist stance … through an international policy of the people rather than foreign ministries.”
The UP’s relevance 50 years later is due to the fact that its strategy comprised more than an agenda limited by timeframes. While Allende’s death is perhaps more widely acclaimed than the history of his political trajectory, vastly overshadowed by the uncertainties over whether he was killed or committed suicide, the years prior to his presidency witnessed an emerging social movement in which the people, through work, culture and politics, became active participants. Of notable mention is the role which the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) played in uniting the people behind Allende and the UP.
The Nueva Canción Chilena’s origins are traced back to the renowned Chilean folklore singer Violeta Parra, although its emergence as a movement is credited to her children, Isabel and Ángel Parra, as well as Victor Jara, Patricio Manns and Rolando Alarcón.
In its expression and dissemination of Chileans’ social and political needs in the 1960s, the movement gained popularity at a time when Chile’s political scenario was undergoing changes and the people needed a tangible link through which their demands could be voices and met. In the words of researcher and author Patrice McSherry, nueva canción “encapsulated the ideals and rebellion of a generation.”
Just as the Chilean people voluntarily rallied behind the UP and its promises, so too did the nueva canción movement. The song Venceremos, a musical collaboration between Victor Jara, Sergio Ortega and Rolando Alarcon, became known as the UP’s hymn.
The movement’s commitment to the UP resulted in their touring Chile. Horacio Salinas from Inti Illmani and currently forming part of Inti Illimani Historico following the group’s split, noted that their participation in Allende’s electoral campaign was voluntary and not limited to large demonstrations. Nueva canción musicians performed at the copper mines, unions and workers’ centres. Allende’s perceived victory, Salinas states, made the movement “turn to that utopia.”
One of Inti Illilmani’s major contributions to UP’s campaign was the production of an album titled “Canto al Programa”, in collaboration with Julio Rojas, Luis Advis and Sergio Ortega, at the request of the Communist Party. The album transmitted the UP’s electoral campaign in songs.
In Joan Jara’s moving book, “Victor: An Unfinished Song”, Victor described the movement’s involvement in UP’s campaign thus: “We have felt that, as human beings, we could work hard together for something that before was just a thought, an idea, a dream, but which now has been converted into a reality, a strong force in action.”
Allende’s victory signalled a new role for the nueva canción movement, and one that would, in the aftermath of the US-backed coup, highlight the significance it played in creating a socialist Chile. One popular quote attributed to Allende reads, “There is no revolution without songs.” As UP cultural ambassadors, nueva canción musicians travelled abroad as representatives of the cultural movement supported by Allende.
Indeed, so relevant and central was the movement to the UP, that the Pinochet dictatorship’s purging of Chile included the destruction of musical instruments, recordings and material pertaining to the nueva canción. Victor Jara was detained, tortured and murdered at the Estadio Chile. Angel Parra was tortured and later exiled. Other musicians who were abroad at the time of the coup were unable to return home and were offered refuge mostly in Europe. In Italy, Inti Illimani strengthened its base, as did Quilapayún in France. From exile, nueva canción became a symbol of resistance as well as an integral component of Chile’s collective memory, in particular of the brief revolutionary period under Allende which was pulverised by the US-backed dictatorship.
Fifty years later, the conditions for a socialist revival are ripe, yet the dictatorship legacy has prevented the emergence of a movement which emulates the principles embodied by the UP. Chile’s transition to democracy has been marred by the retention of right-wing politics and socialism’s dilution to the centre left.
The UP’s electoral campaign embodied the process of resistance in terms of the relationship between the leader and the masses. However, this process was the result of a long framework in which Allende acquainted himself with the people’s struggles through his years working as a doctor and observing the inadequacies and inequalities of those living in poverty and deprived conditions.
In its manifesto, the UP had declared it would “establish its strength and authority in the support provided by the organised people.” Decades after the dictatorship, Chilean socialist leaders have chosen to retain the Pinochet legacy over upholding Allende’s principles, to the point of alienating its voters, many of which are still contending with the state-imposed secrecy related to dictatorship-era crimes and disappearances. In 2017, Chile’s voter turnout was just 48.5%, indicating the people’s disillusion with the left, as well as facilitating, as a result, the election of right-wing President Sebastian Piñera.
On September3 1973, Chileans had gathered outside La Moneda to salute Allende and proclaim their loyalty to the President and the movement built upon close collaboration with the people, without realising it was a spontaneous farewell. Allende’s voice reciprocating the loyalty shown to him by the people reverberated on Radio Magallanes on September 11 1973, the day of the military coup: “The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either.”
For Chileans, Allende’s last words are proving to be a constant struggle against state-imposed oblivion.