By Liz Peck
This autumn marks the 50th anniversary of the election victory of Salvador Allende in Chile. On 4th September 1970, he was swept to power as the first Marxist to become president of a liberal democracy in Latin America. It was an event that sent shock waves through a region dominated by US imperialism, causing panic in the White House and still reverberating in Chile and internationally half a century later.
Chile was an underdeveloped country in those days but its democracy had a long history that made it almost unique in Latin America. Elections were held and all political parties abided by the results. Communists and socialists even joined coalition governments, such as the Popular Front administration (1938-46), in which Allende had been Minister of Health. Throughout the 1960s, the US spent millions of dollars trying to destabilise Allende’s Socialist Party, bribing right-wing politicians and funding moderate parties like the Christian Democrats led by Eduardo Frei. However, when Allende won the 1970 election as leader of Popular Unity, a bloc of socialists, communists and dissident Christian Democrats, President Richard Nixon changed tactics and approved $10m in spending ‘to make Chile’s economy scream’.
Allende initially tried to maintain normal relations with Washington but, in 1972, his refusal to capitulate to the US onslaught prompted the CIA to fund a general strike. Fortunately, the unprecedented level of popular support for Allende’s government meant that thousands of workers and left-wing students stepped in to keep the wheels of industry and commerce moving.
This show of anti-imperialist defiance was the last straw as far as Nixon was concerned, and so the CIA began to organise a coup d’état in Chile, plotting with key military and police officers and a recently formed fascist organization, Patria y Libertad. On 11th September 1973, with the backing of the US secret services, the Chilean military under General Augusto Pinochet surrounded the presidential palace, La Moneda. An official announcement declared that Allende had committed suicide, using an AK-47 given to him as a present by Fidel Castro, but many Chileans believe he was killed by right-wing agents behind the coup.
Pinochet’s military junta dissolved congress and suspended the constitution. Thousands of civilians were arrested and murdered or just ‘disappeared’. Others fled the country but in spite of the military crackdown, Pinochet’s relations with London and Washington remained cordial. Declassified documents show that, in 1976, Henry Kissinger assured Pinochet that he should fear no sanctions from the administration of President Gerald Ford. In Britain, Edward Heath’s Conservative government deployed MI5 to infiltrate the Chile Solidarity Campaign, a movement backed by Labour MPs and trade unionists.
Sergio Requena Rueda is one of the survivors of Pinochet’s murderous regime. I met Sergio in the early 1990s at a party in Coventry given by a mutual friend, Christine Oddy, who was then a member of the European Parliament. Sergio was working for Marconi at the time, and was also the local secretary of the MSF trade union. He told me that he’d always been political. Aged 10, he was already writing left-wing articles for the school newspaper. He also organised a school strike on behalf of the oppressed Vietnamese, though he admits he couldn’t have placed the country on a map back then.
In 1966, Sergio enrolled at the notoriously conservative Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago. He attended lectures on liberation theology, a synthesis of Christian teaching and political analysis that was sweeping through the Catholic church in Latin America as a reaction to poverty and social injustice. However, becoming a priest wasn’t an option for Sergio. ‘I realised I liked girls,’ he told me.
At the end of the 1960s, he joined Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), a radical Chilean group that agitated for social change by means of armed struggle. ‘We didn’t believe in the electoral process. I always thought Allende was bourgeois. He never claimed to be a revolutionary,’ Sergio recalls.
Nevertheless the MIR saw Allende’s 1970 election victory as an opportunity. Sergio and other activists were sent to the shanty towns around the capital to help dig canals and connect electricity supplies, also to spread MIR’s analysis of the political situation. This activity brought him to the attention of Pinochet’s henchmen and, two years after the coup, on 12th December 1975, Sergio was arrested by three plain-clothes secret policemen.
It was a textbook ‘disappearance’ operation: ‘They had a car waiting. I saw a friend of mine already in it. He was in a very poor condition.’ Once Sergio got in the car, he was handcuffed, and tape was put over his eyes. He was informed that his wife, who was three months pregnant, and his three-year-old daughter had also been arrested.
Sergio was sent to the infamous Villa Grimaldi where he was tortured for days on end. Beaten, tied to a mattress naked, he had electric current applied to his eyelids, mouth and genitals, then he was waterboarded. In the course of six weeks of torture, he sustained serious spinal injuries that have left him in permanent pain. ‘One day, after being tortured, I was at my lowest point – beaten, bloody, covered in shit. I’d completely given up. But then I overheard the guards next door listening to a radio bulletin about Rolls-Royce workers in Scotland taking a stand against Pinochet.’
When the Labour Party came to power in 1974, it cut off arms sales and aid to Pinochet but existing contracts had to be honoured so trade unionists took matters into their own hands. About 3,000 AEUW workers at the Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride voted unanimously to stop maintenance on the Hawker Hunter engines that were being used by Chile’s air force. This act of solidarity, which lasted four years, grounded almost half the dictator’s air fleet.
‘When I first heard that story on the radio, lying there next to the guardroom, I got an indescribable injection of hope,’ Sergio recalls. ‘It boosted my morale and it gave me the will to continue with my life. If it weren’t for that moment, I have no doubt I would have given up and died in that prison. I knew then that I wasn’t alone – that there were thousands of workers across the world supporting us. The actions they took served no economic purpose for them – they did not gain from it. They did it all for us.’
Sergio was released in November 1976 but a return to normal life was impossible. Unmarked cars would suddenly appear outside his house. His phone was tapped. He wanted to stay in Chile to campaign against Pinochet but he felt that he was now a target. So, in 1977, Sergio and his family went into temporary exile in London. He only intended to stay for a couple of years but eventually he got a job with Marconi and settled in Coventry. He became involved with the union and served as a shop steward for decades. Almost 30 years after he was tortured in prison, he went to East Kilbride to thank some of the workers who had given him hope in his darkest hour.
That solidarity between Scotland and Santiago had always been acknowledged in Chile, but in Britain it was less well known until a few years ago when a filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, the son of a Chilean dissident, went in search of the heroes of East Kilbride. Felipe grew up in Belgium, where his father fled after the coup. ‘The Rolls-Royce boycott was like a legend to us,’ Felipe says. ‘At the end of Chilean Solidarity meetings, people would read out a list of solidarity actions, and they always listed the workers of East Kilbride.’
In March 2018, Sergio attended the premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival of Sierra’s documentary, Nae Pasaran, which moved him and the rest of audience to tears.
Liz Peck is a member of the AGS national committee