The Chilean democratic and cultural revolution: music, art and film in the government of Salvador Allende

Nick MacWilliam, Santiago based writer and contributor to the Pluto blog (see, Forty years after the coup, the Chilean Right remains influential and powerful) has written a new piece exclusively for Pluto. We publish it today, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup which brutally terminated Allende’s Popular Unity government.

Nick discusses the role played by music, art and film in bringing Allende to power in 1970, and during its four years in power.

Check out Victor Figueroa Clark’s new book, Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat, available to purchase for just £11.50 from the Pluto website. 

“Throughout the 1960s, the CIA poured funds into Chile’s largest—and staunchly right-wing—newspaper, El Mercurio, putting reporters and editors on the payroll, writing articles and columns for placement and providing additional funds for operating expenses. After the paper’s owner, Agustín Edwards came to Washington in September 1970 to lobby Nixon for action against Allende, the CIA used El Mercurio as a key outlet for a massive propaganda campaign…”

–  Declassified CIA documents regarding clandestine US support for anti-Allende operations in Chile  

De pie, luchar, el pueblo va a triunfar.
Será major, la vida que vendrá
a conquistar, nuestra felicidad
y en un clamor, mil voces de combate se alzarán
dirán canción de libertad
con decision la patria vencerá.

Arise, fight, the people are going to win.

The life to come will be better.
To conquer our happiness,
and a clamor of a thousand fighting voices will rise,
speaking a song of freedom.
With determination the fatherland will win.

‘El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido’ (The people united will never be defeated) – Quilapayún, 1970

Fig Clark CoverThe political campaign that swept Salvador Allende to the Chilean presidency in 1970 was achieved against formidable odds. In the face of intense political and social opposition, foreign interference, and a hostile media campaign underpinned by clandestine external financing, Allende’s Popular Unity Party (la Unidad Popular) triumphed, confirming him as the first democratically-elected Marxist president the world had ever known. His socialist vision ruffled many feathers among the ruling elite in Chile, who were fearful of the consequences the election would have upon their hitherto tight grip on the country.

What Allende achieved was a democratic revolution. Whereas the success of the Cuban Revolution almost twelve years earlier had convinced many of the need for armed struggle in order to implement change, Allende remained true to his constitutional principles, finally winning the presidency at the fourth attempt. Yet it was by no means a landslide. Allende’s victory was achieved with 36.2% of the overall vote, only a slight majority over his rivals Jorge Alessandri (35.29%) and Radomiro Tomic (28.09%). But while Alessandri and Tomic had counted on significant support from the establishment, Allende’s desire to implement revolutionary reform meant his campaign had been conducted without the powerful backing typically enjoyed by presidential candidates. His campaign was built on the promise of change, a commitment to socialism that made him popular with the working class.

Popular Unity policies were anathema to those higher up the social ladder. Chile’s largest radio stations and newspapers like El Mercurio, controlled and owned by wealthy industrialists, firmly opposed the election of Allende and conducted a vehement propaganda campaign against him, refusing to carry publicity for the Popular Unity and infusing their coverage of the party and its candidate in pungent negativity. Unknown at the time, El Mercurio was also receiving CIA funding to wage an anti-Allende offensive. Faced with a national media unwilling to provide him with a platform, Allende had to look elsewhere for the support that would allow him to disseminate his message.

He found it in the mobilisation of a popular movement unparalleled at the time. Unable to conduct his promotional activities through standard means, Allende’s campaign was built on a mass social and cultural swelling of support, gaining momentum on the wave of the popular unity for which his party was named. Critical to the campaign was Chile’s artistic community, whose importance to the democratic revolution emerged in the ability to spread the socialist word through music and art. The Popular Unity organised huge rallies up and down the extraordinary length of Chile, events at which musicians promoted the party through song and activists would take to the stage to address the thousands in attendance.

Music played a key role in the Popular Unity campaign. Even prior to the sixties, Chilean folk music had a long history as a key weapon in the struggle for social justice, being used as a means of fomenting consciousness among rural peasant communities and urban workers. In the absence of radio and television, troubadours travelled around towns and villages using song and verse to raise issues of equality and human rights. Salvador Allende’s campaign channelled these musical protests into a clear political strategy, making the Popular Unity a natural bedfellow for Chilean folk music. Having long resonated with the same issues that were found throughout Allende’s manifesto, the folk scene’s attachment to the Popular Unity was an obvious and natural association.

Allende’s earlier, unsuccessful presidential campaigns had featured folk musicians, and by 1970 there were several actively participating in the Popular Unity. By performing at political rallies and benefit concerts all over the country, this wave of radical young musicians gave Allende the platform that the media denied him. The sheer scale of national events, staged to attract the largest possible crowds, made music a vitally important means of reaching out to the electorate. If El Mercurio would not provide Allende with the coverage granted to other candidates, the people would have to be addressed through other means. Song was a very effective medium, particularly as folk music was already highly popular.

Folk music’s social awareness was consolidated in the nueva canción (new song) movement, which arose in the sixties in southern Chile and identified strongly with left-wing principles and the empowerment of the socially oppressed. First and foremost in the nueva canción movement was the singer and artist Violeta Parra, a tormented character whose volatility transplanted itself into a prodigious output of music and artwork. A great deal of her work addressed the inequalities and hardships of Parra’s own background, the rural peasantry, and in songs such as ‘Arriba Quemando El Sol’ (The Sun Burning Above) and ‘Hace Falta Un Guerrillero’ (The Lack of a Guerrilla) she gave a voice to the dispossessed and downtrodden. Personal torment led Violeta to commit suicide in 1967, but not before her influence had ensured a potent legacy as many other revolutionary-minded musicians followed in her wake.

Bands like Quilapayún and Inti-illimani had emerged in the late sixties, blending issues of social awareness with Andean instruments and harmonies to create music that burnt with righteous indignation. The former’s album ‘Vietnam’ denounced the ongoing war in that country, while the Chilean Communist Party funded album releases. These groups were central to Allende’s populist vision as their songs resonated with noble demands for equality, peace and justice. Quilapayún and Inti-illimani became cultural ambassadors following the election of the Popular Unity, funded by the government to perform in Europe and elsewhere in Latin America as they promoted the cause of progressive Chilean socialism.

Quilapayún came to the fore in the sixties under the guidance of Victor Jara, who was slightly older and already an established musician. A fierce but controlled anger surged throughout Jara’s music, bristling with indignation at the social injustices that blighted Chile. His musical style and lyrical content made him a natural successor to Violeta Parra. Through songs such as ‘Plegaria a Un Labrador’ (The Worker’s Pledge), ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz’ (The Right to Live in Peace, written in solidarity with the war-ravaged Vietnamese people), and ‘Preguntas por Puerto Mont’ (Questions of Puerto Montt, which expressed the singer’s outrage at a police massacre carried out against peasants in the southern city of Puerto Montt), Jara channelled anger with aching melancholy and a celebration of the human spirit. Like his protégées in Quilapayún, Victor was a key figure at Popular Unity rallies and his music became emblematic of Allende’s calls for reform.

Music was not the only form of artistic expression utilised by the Popular Unity to promote party policy. The Ramona Parra Brigade was created as a wing of the Chilean Communist Party and was dedicated to spreading socialism by painting large murals in towns and cities. These were brilliantly colourful images of utopian ideals and national solidarity whose presence in urban areas advanced the Popular Unity’s cause. Street art became a fundamental aspect of political broadcast, allowing the Popular Unity to further reach out to the population, the majority of whom didn’t have televisions or radios (not that it would have made too much difference as most channels were refusing to promote Allende anyway). These striking murals burst with symbolic imagery of people and nature, and were endorsed by the likes of the Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda (who became ambassador to France under Allende) and the surrealist painter Roberto Matta, who painted a 25m x 4m mural entitled ‘El Primer Gol del Pueblo Chileno’ (The First Goal of The Chilean People) with the Ramona Parra Brigade.

Filmmakers, too, participated strongly in the Popular Unity. A new generation of young, politically-aware directors had emerged in the late sixties, the likes of Raul Ruíz, Helvio Soto, Miguel Littín and Patricio Guzmán. This emergent group had cut its teeth on low-budget films which reverberated with the same revolutionary zeal as the Popular Unity, and film became another key facet of government strategy. Raul Ruiz’s 1973 film Palomita Blanca examined Chile’s gaping class divide that the Popular Unity sought to narrow. Soto and Littín both occupied important media positions under the Allende government. Littín worked as General Manager of Chile Films, while Soto was appointed to a key role at TVN, the national television network. Meanwhile, in 1971, Patricio Guzmán made the documentary El Primer Año, which analysed the Popular Unity’s first year in power.

The military coup on the 11th September 1973 had dire consequences for Chile’s artistic community, as it did for all left-wing supporters and sympathisers. Allende died in the armed forces’ assault on the Moneda presidential palace in central Santiago as the socialist dream of popular unity was overthrown in a flagrant violation of the constitution that the military had sworn to defend. Thousands of government supporters were detained and tortured, many of whom were summarily executed without trial. Victor Jara was one of them, his bullet-riddled and broken body found a few days after the coup. Those who were able to evade Pinochet’s forces went into exile en masse, lest they suffer the same fate as so many of their murdered comrades. The establishment of military rule in Chile plunged the country into a cultural vacuum, the beautiful eloquence of its socially harmonious music, art and film eradicated in one fell swoop. Records, films and books were burned and then banned, with the likes of ‘Vietnam’ and Palomita Blanca not heard or seen in Chile for a very long time.

But the voices of protest continued to make themselves heard even in exile. Patricio Guzmán made La Batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile), one of modern cinema’s most groundbreaking political films, while he was living in France. The film documented the last few months of the Popular Unity, as a frayed and exhausted government fought to steady a country capsizing in social turmoil, and the bloody events of the coup. Guzmán’s cameraman on the film, Jorge Müller Silva, was one of the many who disappeared under Pinochet. Helvio Soto, who was also exiled in France, directed It’s Raining on Santiago, a scathing docudrama which lambasted the treachery of the military and lionised Allende. Raul Ruíz, yet another in France, examined the alienating circumstances of exiled Chileans in Diálogos de Exiliados. All of these films, unsurprisingly, were banned in Chile until after the 1990 restoration of democracy.

It was a similar story for the likes of Quilapayún, Inti-illimani, and the artist Roberto Matta. From exile they continued to campaign for justice for Chile and were regular presences at Chilean solidarity events in Europe. Yet for all the campaigning, international condemnation, and human rights protests, little headway was made against Pinochet as military rule became firmly ensconced in Chile. It was only in the late eighties, when state brutality and oppression had diminished slightly and there were growing calls for a return to democracy, that most exiles were able to return home. Even then, many stayed away until representative, elected government once again ruled in Chile.

Salvador Allende married politics with popular culture in a way that has rarely been seen before or since. His embracing of music, art and film was indicative of the inclusivity of his tenure, as his government’s cultural associations and embellishments allowed Chile’s artistic community to flourish in the pursuit of a vision of shared ideals. Although this was horribly cut short on 11th September 1973, the legacy of Allende’s mutually-beneficial cultural alliance is still evident in Chile today. New generations of the Ramona Parra Brigade continue to paint city walls with colourful imagery of political context. The folk scene is as strong as ever, as young singers like Evelyn Cornejo and Nano Stern take up the protest mantle from their illustrious yet humble predecessors, while newer forms of musical consciousness such as protest rap have emerged. And filmmakers continue to address Chile’s ongoing social concerns, whether they be massive student uprisings or Mapuche land struggles. The country is home to a vividly aware, cross-generational movement that merges cultural expression with political relevance. Allende may have died forty years ago but, symbolically and socially, the significance of much of what he represented goes on.

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