“The Battle of Chile” (1st part) screened in London

On August 20th, 2008, the film season Venezuela: a revolution on film, organised in London by Hands Off Venezuela in association with the Venezuelan Embassy, attracted more than forty people again to the screening of the first part of The Battle of Chile.

On August 20th, 2008, the film season Venezuela: a revolution on film, organised in London by Hands Off Venezuela in association with the Venezuelan Embassy, attracted more than forty people again to the screening of the first part of The Battle of Chile.  As usual, Pablo Roldan (HOV) introduced the screening in Bolívar Hall. This documentary is a fantastic video document on the Chilean Revolution and its defeat, shot during the course of the events by Patricio Gúzman and his team.

The first part covers the period of time spanning from March 1973, when the left-wing coalition Popular Unity gets 43.7% of the votes, preventing the Right from legally impeaching the Socialist President Salvador Allende, until the first coup attempt, less than four months later. The title of this part is, significantly, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie.

In fact, the failure of the right-wing parties (the US-supported Christian Democrats, National Party and others) to obtain a two-third majority comes as a completely unexpected result to the middle-class supporters of counter-revolution. While documenting the last skirmishes of the electoral campaign, the film-makers visit the luxurious house of a right-wing family, immerge into a proletarian crowd at a Popular Unity event asking what has changed in their lives since Allende came to power, and interview drivers of expensive cars while the cameraman explores details of their vehicles or outfits. Using such effective devices, the film illuminates for the supporters of either side, their class position and their political opinions. You cannot help appreciating how the latter strongly correlates with the former.

Even more than the plebeian determination to support the Socialist government in the hope of a decisive change in society, something else instantly brings to mind contemporary accounts of the situation in Venezuela or Bolivia, viz the arrogance and class hatred of the most dreadfully outspoken supporters of the Right. While most rich right-wingers declare that they are in favour of the legal path to get rid of “the Communist, Marxist bastards”, several, especially when the early electoral results seem to confirm the predicted right-wing triumph, assert more ruthless intentions: “And now he’ll have to leave the country!” It is exactly this language which is used by those who oppose Chávez, Morales or Correa today – at least, when they do not expressly demand the execution of those left-wing presidents.

This is just the beginning of a whole series of striking resemblances between Chile 1973 and the reactionary conspiracies trying to stop the current revolutionary processes in Latin America. As in Bolivia, Ecuador or Venezuela, the Chilean opposition explored all possibilities in order to overthrow the elected government that was menacing the domination of imperialism and the profits of the national bourgeoisie.

First of all, they tried to use their narrow majority in the parliament to paralyse the government’s action. Reforms promulgated by the government were unfunded or cancelled by the right-wing MPs (Christian Democrats and Nationalists alike). Ministers appointed by Allende were recalled. “Enquiries” were set up to investigate the actions of the bodies created by the revolutionary process, like the neighbourhood committees against hoarding and speculation (Juntas de Abastecimiento y Precios). Allende’s obsession with a pedant respect of parliamentary and constitutional procedures resulted in a standstill: as Marx and Engels wrote about the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.

The plan of the ruling class was to create a situation that could justify a military intervention, as the film explained. This plan implied different kinds of manoeuvres.

The transport strike combined with the US embargo to disrupt food supplies and the whole economy of the country. Shopkeepers and other middle-class sectors joined the struggle against Allende with lock-outs. The film shows a conference of an association of taxi and truck owners during the organisation of the strike, followed by scenes from the daily life of thousands of working-class families who organised to resist the sabotage.

Right-wing and moderate students’ associations also had their share of participation in the conspiracy. A progressive reform of education was blocked by the protests of those students’ groups, often involving violent street fights with Young Socialists and Young Communists. The students of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile were mainly the sons and daughters of the oligarchs and supporters of gremialismo, a conservative Catholic university movement close to Fascism. The film-makers sarcastically underline how suddenly they all became very interested in supporting strikes, inviting right-wing trade unionists to their meetings, collecting money for them etc. Hands Off Venezuela has already explained that the nature of the Venezuelan “democratic students’ movement” is not much different – and they also started to mobilise in opposition to a progressive reform of the university system, using private universities for the rich as their strongholds.

The strike by a relatively privileged section of copper miners, the workers of the huge mine of El Teniente, nationalised by Allende, is also described in the film. In a very impressive, albeit sad, scene of the documentary, a pro-Allende trade unionist is given the opportunity to speak to a massive meeting of right-wing miners in a stadium. Just before him, the leader of the right-wing miners has said that “Our interests come first, then Chile’s”. When he starts to explain why he does not support a strike with the demand for a special increase in the wages of El Teniente miners only, called with the clear purpose of paralysing the country’s economy and destabilising the government, the crowd starts to whistle and boo, and the whole stadium chants the appalling slogan “No politics! No politics!” As if they could ignore politics in Chile 1973! (Their leaders ignored politics so much that they managed to have a brilliant career in the official dictatorship-backed trade unions after Pinochet came to power.)

Nevertheless, not all workers at El Teniente approved the strike. This reminds us of the role played by the workers of PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company), in preventing the bosses’ lock-out from destabilising the country in December 2002. The film-makers interviewed several left-wing workers that refused to go on strike and managed to sustain the vital copper production until the majority of miners came back to work. The friendly approach of Allende towards these misled workers is also clearly shown in the documentary.

At the same time, an increasing number of Allende supporters start to question his ultra-gradualist approach and his soft hand with the Reaction. They are not only the more extreme left-wing groups like the MIR or the MAPU, but also average Socialist and Communist workers. Fascist groups like Fatherland and Freedom (Patria y Libertad) raise their heads more and more, openly calling for the violent removal of Allende and the reversal of all his reforms. The United States are clearly manoeuvring behind the scenes, assisting the Right both financially and by providing CIA agents as “instructors”. During a mass demonstration in support of the government, a man is killed by “Christian Democrat” sharpshooters on the roof of the party building. His funeral turns into another large scale event.

The first part of The Battle of Chile ends with the shocking images of the first coup attempt, known as Tanquetazo because the right-wing officers who assaulted the presidential palace used tanks. The coup failed, after taking some innocent lives – one of them being Leonardo Henrichsen, an Argentinean cameraman who filmed his own death. The film terminates with the terrible scene of a military aiming at the camera and shooting.

At the end of the screening, there was some time for questions and debate. Roberto Navarrete was introduced to the audience: he was a political prisoner under Pinochet and he now lives in the UK. He explained how the events in Chile were connected with the international situation and how the hand of the United States was behind each counter-revolutionary manoeuvre at least since Allende arrived second in the presidential elections of 1964, a loud alarm bell for the Department of State. He also underlined the similarities between the Venezuelan revolutionary process and the Chilean one – and the significant economic difference consisting of the fact that copper prices were at a low in Allende’s times while oil, Venezuela’s main export, has reached record-high prices during Chávez years; this, combined with the strengthening of the Left on a continental scale, creates a more favourable context for Socialist policies, giving the Bolivarian Revolution a certain breathing space that Chile could not enjoy.

There was a question about stockpiling and the black market. A similar problem with food speculation exists in Venezuela at the present time. Pablo Roldan explained that it is the result of  both a conscious sabotage of the oligarchs and an automatic reaction of the “invisible hand” of capitalism against any form of strong state intervention in the distribution of commodities. In Venezuela very few capitalist companies control food production and distribution, which gives them a powerful tool to sabotage price control and try to starve the Revolution to death; at the same time, price control in a capitalist framework reduces profit and therefore encourages capital to be invested elsewhere. The only solution lies in the expropriation of the big monopolies and the involvement of the workers not only in neighbourhood committees but in the running of the nationalised companies. The same applied to Chile at that time.

Several questions focused on why the Chilean Revolution did not manage to fight back against the violence of the reaction. Allende and the Left had millions of supporters, why were they not given arms? A comrade from the audience recalled how mass demonstrations were actually demanding weapons but Allende refused to deliver them to the workers; in his opinion, this reformist attitude was the main reason for the defeat. We will see in more detail in the next part of the movie what kind of tactics was chosen by the government to deal with the unreliable officers of the Chilean army after the first coup attempt.

Roberto Navarrete said that this is a highly controversial issue within the Chilean Left and there are different evaluations. Clearly, Allende and the more moderate wing of Popular Unity (a wing of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Radical Party and others) favoured the idea of a peaceful and legal path to socialism.

In his intervention, Rob Sewell (editorial board of Socialist Appeal) explained that for him it was necessary to study and also criticise the role of Salvador Allende in the Chilean Revolution, but at the same time we have to remember that Allende honestly believed in the constitutional path to socialism, which is shown by his own heroic sacrifice, when he committed suicide while the presidential palace was surrounded by Pinochet’s troops. Our criticism against his reformist mistakes is therefore of a comradely and fraternal character. What prevented the Chilean Revolution to go all the way was not just a military issue – basically, it was a political one. Popular Unity did not go all the way in and this created the political conditions that, together with economic chaos, weariness and disillusionment, paved the way for the Reaction until its final revenge on September 11th 1973.

The army ranks themselves are made of working-class people. Victorious revolutions have always managed to split the army along class lines, thus neutralising its counter-revolutionary potential. Therefore arming the people is correct but it is not a panacea in itself and cannot be separated by other political tasks. Chile shows that the ruling class will never give up its power without a struggle, and it will use all possible ways to remove a government that is arousing the workers and consciously or unconsciously inciting them to take power, and therefore it is necessary to spoil them of their economic power by expropriating the commanding heights of economy. The bourgeois state apparatus will refuse to serve the opposite purpose to the one for which it was created and perfected decades or centuries ago, and therefore it needs to be smashed and replaced with a different system, based on workers’ democracy and self-organisation. This is not just a Chilean thing, because the same can apply to any other capitalist country, including Britain. (The novel A Very British Coup and its TV adaptation were also mentioned by Rob).

For those interested in watching the next two parts of the film, Bolívar Hall is at 54 Grafton Way, Fitzrovia. The closest tube station is Warren Street. The next two parts are going to be:

  • September 10th, 6:45 pm: The Battle of Chile II – The Coup d’Etat;
  • November 5th, 6:45 pm: The Battle of Chile III – Popular Power.

Entry, of course, is free.

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