Vancouver writer and educator Carmen Rodríguez still remembers the final speech of former Chilean president Salvador Allende. He delivered it on September 11, 1973 as the Chilean military prepared to bomb the presidential palace and seize power in a coup that overthrew his democratically elected government.
At the time, Rodríguez was teaching literature and languages at Universidad Austral in the southern city of Valdiva. She listened to the deposed president speak through the crackling signal of Radio Magallanes. It was still broadcasting freely, unlike other stations, even though the military had bombed the antenna.
In this dramatic address, Allende insisted that he would not resign.
“Placed in a historic transition, I will pay with my life for the loyalty of the people,” the president declared. “And I say to them that I am certain that the seeds, which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, will not be shrivelled forever.”
Allende died from gunshot wounds that day. And Rodríguez was among the estimated 1.8 million Chileans who went into exile during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s ruthless rule, which lasted until 1990. The military junta executed thousands of people. It tortured tens of thousands of others.
Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean army until 1998 before becoming a senator-for-life.
Rodríguez tells Pancouver by phone that under Allende, the social and economic changes achieved through an election—and without any violence—could have been a model for the rest of the world.
“That’s exactly why they decided to kill him and kill the experiment,” she says.
Coup commemorated at Orpheum
Chile now has the second highest level of income inequality of the 37 industrialized countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The astonishing gap between the richest and poorest citizens is a legacy of Pinochet, who was assisted by neoliberal economists from the University of Chicago, including Milton Friedman.
On October 15, the Vancouver Latin American Cultural Centre will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coup at the Orpheum Theatre with Remembering the Future: Chile 1973-2023.
Rodríguez went on to become an award-winning author, university professor, and Radio Canada International journalist. She is artistic director of the event and will also sing with Sumalao, a 17-piece band led by composer and multi-instrumentalist Hugo Guzmán.
“This will be interlaced and intricately connected with poetry, art, and photography,” Rodríguez says.
She aims to tell a story about what was lost through the coup and celebrate the Chilean diaspora in other countries, and particularly in Canada. Remembering the Future will begin with a video. Then it will highlight the Chilean Nueva canción, a.k.a. New Song movement, which took off in the 1960s.
One of the giants in this genre was folk musician Victor Jara, an ardent supporter of Allende. Jara was also a talented theatre director as well as a poet. He met a tragic end when he was tortured and shot dead after being arrested and imprisoned at Santiago’s Estadio Chile, which hosted basketball games.
A few years ago, it was renamed and is now called Estadio Victor Jara. Thousands of other Chileans were imprisoned in a huge soccer venue called Estadio Nacional, which became the largest concentration camp in the country.
Musician Natalia Lafourcade gained fame in Mexico after her father fled Chile.
Event includes contemporary music
Rodríguez says that Orpheum Theatre screens will project photography and the work of Latin American artists. The screens will also carry translations of some lyrics as well as verses by giants of Chilean poetry, such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.
The second half of the concert will showcase contemporary music by composers from other parts of Latin America. They include celebrated Mexican musician Natalia Lafourcade. She is the daughter of a Chilean exile and an accomplished musician himself.
“Then, it will end with music by Violeta Parra, who is considered to be the mother of the New Song movement in Chile and Latin America,” Rodríguez says. “It will be a bit of an homage to her.”
Violeta Parra is a Chilean musical legend.
Rodríguez points out that Canada was among the first countries in the world to recognize the Pinochet regime. She maintains that if it weren’t for Canadian human rights and political organizations, unions, and churches advocating for Chilean exiles, the Pierre Trudeau government might never have allowed them in the country.
“In this event, we have the opportunity to say ‘thanks’ to all these people who were so key in our survival,” Rodríguez says.
Canadian whistleblower leaked cables
One Canadian who helped was Bob Thomson, then a junior bureaucrat in the Canadian International Development Agency in 1973. He leaked cables to an NDP MP that were sent to Ottawa by Canada’s coup-supporting ambassador to Chile, Andrew Ross.
“I was the guy who threw some gas on a fire and got burnt, losing my job at CIDA in the process,” Thomson wrote in the National Post in 2013. “But there were many, many other actors: Canadians and Chileans who also were angry at the Canadian ambassador’s perspective of what was happening in Chile.
“Church, union, NGO, human rights groups and a few sympathetic diplomats had a very different view of the coup than that of Ambassador Ross,” Thomson continued. “They worked hard to change Canadian refugee policies, and successfully organized to bring thousands of Chileans to Canada.”
Thomson recently told Rodríguez that the ambassador was in Buenos Aires buying a car when the coup occurred. Marc Dolgin, another senior Canadian diplomat in Santiago, allowed Chileans seeking refuge to stay at his own house. When he ran out of space, he took asylum seekers to Ambassador Ross’s house.
Dolgin also ensured the liberation of three Canadians who were being held at Estadio Nacional, including Vancouver native Bob Everton.
Rodriguez family members suffered
The first Chilean exile from Pinochet’s regime to make it to Vancouver was Rodríguez’s brother Nelson. He arrived in April of 1974 and died in 1995.
She says that Nelson was living in Valparaiso when he “was disappeared for quite a while” following the overthrow of Allende. She describes her brother as “quite a sensitive guy”—a poet who loved music—and he was quite broken by the experience.
“My mom and his wife were looking everywhere,” Rodríguez recalls. “He wasn’t anywhere to be found.”
Meanwhile, her older brother was fired from his job in the city of Concepcion.
Rodríguez’s story is also deeply troubling. She says that rumours about an ensuing coup had been spreading for months. So, when she heard Allende’s speech on the radio, she and her husband, José, wondered if this was actually a “real” coup or something temporary. They decided to go to the university where they both worked.
“But then, we heard about the bombing of the presidential palace,” Rodríguez says. “And the soldiers arrived shortly after that.”
Kissinger and CIA set stage for the coup
The soldiers took some university staff into custody.
“They were disorganized, still,” she relates. “I am sure they had a list that they had been provide by the right-wing people.”
Later that day, the junta declared a state of war and a curfew. This meant that Rodríguez and her family were housebound. The following Monday, they were instructed to return to work at 8 a.m.
“There were military everywhere,” Rodríguez says. “At about 10 or 11, they would come into the buildings with their lists and take more people to jail.
“We were not taken from the university but our house was raided by the military a couple of weeks later,” she continues.
Two weeks after this event, Rodríguez says that she was taken for interrogation but released a few hours later.
Rodríguez had a good friend in San Francisco who invited her family to stay as “tourists”. After arriving, she and her husband then enrolled as students at the University of California, San Diego. Later, they drove up north across the border with their two daughters to Vancouver, settling as refugees.
Transcripts of phone conversations later revealed that former U.S. president Richard Nixon and his then secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, took credit for creating conditions to make the coup possible. The CIA also worked behind the scenes to support military leaders who wanted to oust Allende.
Earlier this year, Kissinger celebrated his 100th birthday where he was warmly feted by members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite. Rodríguez says that it has made her feel really sick to see Kissinger receiving adulation over the years from the Obamas, Bidens, Clintons, and others, given that millions died when he was advising Nixon.
“I feel like screaming,” she declares.
Chilean exiles helped other Latin Americans
Rodríguez points out that Chileans were the first Latin Americans to come to Vancouver in large numbers. They were followed by others from Central America fleeing oppression in the 1980s and later waves of immigration from Mexico.
She recalls Chilean exiles putting on monthly events at the Ukrainian Hall and Russian Hall in the 1970s and 1980s, where they would boycott Chilean wines. She quips that they would drink Hungarian wine instead, which was quite good.
“I think what made our presence here different from other immigrants is that we were very politicized,” Rodríguez says. “We were very aware of what was going on not only in Chile and Latin America but everywhere.”
She was among those who founded the first Spanish bilingual program on Co-op Radio, America Latina a Dia, which is still on the air.
Many Chilean refugees could not work in their chosen professions because they lacked Canadian credentials. As a result, some made their living in social services, where they helped other immigrants, mainly from Mexico and Colombia.
“The Latin Americans who came later had somebody to talk with who could speak their language and understood what they were going through,” Rodríguez says. “That was quite instrumental, I think, in terms of welcoming the communities that came later.”
Remembering the Future: Chile 1973-2023 will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 15 at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are available through Eventbrite.