chile, nicaragua and revolutionary democracy

salvador allende

One of the headline speakers in this year’s El Sueño Existe festival was Victor Figueroa Clark (see previous blog). Victor was in Machynlleth to talk about this new book, Salvador Allende, Revolutionary Democrat. Victor spoke in several sessions, including the main session on the first day. In a wide ranging contribution Victor made several important points about Allende. The struggles in Chile forged Allende’s nationalism, which led to anti-imperialism, which in its turn led to internationalism. Victor saw this same path followed by Hugo Chavez, who picked up Allende’s mantel in Latin America.

We caught up with Victor during the festival, to ask him some questions.

You recently launched your book. It’s forty years since the coup. Do you think there’s any relevance to the three years before the coup, 1970 to 73, for the Left in Latin America today?

I think there’s a clear relevance. If we look at the way that these processes have taken power, for example, they are following a similar, democratic road to state power, but also in the sense they want to achieve this social and economic transformation. We can see, for example, in Nicaragua you have a former guerilla movement, the Frente Sandinista, which took power originally in 1979 with an armed revolution, which then came back into power again a few years ago after losing in 1990. They did this through an electoral process using institutional democratic means to begin their transformation of Nicaragua. We’ve seen similar processes in Venezuela and elsewhere.

I think Chile forty years later also has another relevance which is perhaps more historic. It taught the Left in Latin America that politics is in many ways about how social conflict is channelled. Violence is one element of social conflict. It’s a method of social conflict. You see that Chavez, for example, when he talked about his revolution he said we are following in the road of Allende but this revolution is peaceful. I think that is something in Latin America today when you see transformations within the military realm as well as in the social, economic and political.

You mentioned Nicaragua. It’s a country you’ve studied and written about. What is your assessment of the Sandinista government since it came back to power in 2007?

This is potentially a slightly controversial view but my assessment is you have a Sandinista government in power now which, after being out of power for 16 years, has a real vision of the social problems, the economic problems and the educational problems Nicaraguan society faces today. What they’ve done is built a set of policies around those particular needs which are very practical without forgetting the mobilisation aspects which is to try and advance this model beyond capitalism.

Within Nicaragua we’re talking about the third poorest country or the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, after Haiti. You need to go to Nicaragua to see the poverty, to see the level of deprivation there to realise how far they have to come before they can even ensure the basics to the population. I think this Sandinista government is revolutionary because it is providing the basis of resolving those very practical problems for the population while also building the processes which will enable them in the future to move beyond dependant capitalism and move them towards something we would call socialism.

Over the past seven or eight years there’s been a lot of praise for the ALBA countries, the processes which are taking place in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, but as far as Nicaragua is concerned a lot on the Left have either ignored it or are hostile to the processes that are happening there. Why do think this is the case?

I think there’s a series of origins of this. One is that when people support a revolutionary process they feel they invest a lot of their time and their effort and their emotion into that process. This is something that you clearly see through the Eighties when there was such a large solidarity movement abroad with Nicaragua. When that movement is defeated there’s a kind of bitterness that arises. They feel betrayed by the revolution. That naturally brings out anger and sorrow and disappointment in people. That’s one of the reasons.

The second element is that the Sandinista movement was very broad when it took power. It integrated a lot of groups that were able to come in and take positions of government at very senior levels immediately. They held onto those positions through the 1980s. But when they lost power there was a series of debates – it happened at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union when socialism as an ideal was questioned – many of these particular leaders wanted to go in the direction of the Third Way, a Social Democratic direction for the Frente Sandinista. I can see at the time that could have been a logical conclusion to take from the situation in the world as a whole. The truth is the ones that held onto those revolutionary goals pushed the movement on to take power again at the end of 2006 with those ideals.

I don’t disparage the work and the lives and the efforts that were made by these people in the 1980s but I do think there has been a political mistake in understanding the Sandinistas today. You’ve seen a generational change, for example, in the Sandinista movement. When you go to Nicaragua and you meet Sandinistas you see that the overwhelming majority of them are people from poor backgrounds, they are dark skinned, peasant backgrounds, the urban poor. That wasn’t the case in the Eighties when many of these leaders were educated at university. I think from a class level the Frente Sandinista is more democratic than it ever was before.

I think the final issue is the leadership of the Frente and the turbulence and corruptions that have alledged to have occured with people like Ortega, for example. We don’t know what happend with the criminal allegations against Ortega. It’s inarguable that democratic transitions in the leadership of a movement are a positive thing, and perhaps in Nicaragua you haven’t seen that. But you need to understand that public loyalties are towards people as well. If Daniel is seen as a revolutionary by the majority of the people it’s because he never left them. This was something that was said to me by an old man in Masaya. He said Daniel was there from the Seventies, he went through prison and torture; he was there in the Eighties and in the 1990s when no one gave a shit about us he was there. So I think he’s earned that loyalty and it’s not fair for those of us outside to suddenly say he’s a dictator. That lends itself to be used by people who just want to overthrow the process.

I don’t think that anyone has to support them. For me, if you analyse what the government is doing on the ground, the way people react to that government, then you see the essense of the process and the rest, well that’s for history and the courts to judge, but let the Nicaraguan people decide.

Dr Victor Figueroa Clark lectures at the London School of Economics and is the editor of (see here)


One Comment on “chile, nicaragua and revolutionary democracy”

  1. Thank you, compas. Good stuff as usual. May I share an article I wrote to honor one of the unsung heroes of Chile, Joan Jara? She doesn’t get the credit she deserves for a) saving much of Victor’s music, and b) slogging away for justice and to disseminate his songs over these long, long, 40 years. In solidarity. Paul.

    A MAGNIFICENT WOMAN ϟ by Paul Baker Hernández

    Chile’s great – greatly-loved – singer, Victor Jara, is legendary. His music, with its wonderful melding of fierce passion and great beauty, is unparalleled. 40 years after his appalling martyrdom, his songs continue to be seminal for committed musicians the world over, from Billy Bragg to Silvio Rodriguez, from concert halls to downhome neighborhood bars. Their exquisitely-crafted demands for justice make them irresistible, eternal, echoing out the very soul of humanity in its longing march to freedom.
    However, the widespread recognition of songs such as ‘Te Recuerdo, Amanda’ and ‘Ni Chicha ni Limona’’ is also due to the courage and decades-long dedication of one remarkable woman. In late 1973, Joan Jara and her two small daughters were airlifted to safety from the catastrophic tragedy that Chile had abruptly become, leaving Victor dead. Without her British passport, she, Manuela and Amanda would almost certainly have been disappeared as well, to be thrown onto the growing heaps of disfigured dead or sold as ‘adopted’ daughters to friends of the military. And, with them, much of Victor’s music would also have perished; for the precious luggage they clutched so close was heavy with the original masters of his songs.

    Born in London, Joan grew to become a fine dancer; to marry Patricio Bunster, an exotic fellow-member of the Ballet Joos; to return with him to his native Chile. There, she taught dance at the national university; there, Manuela was conceived; there, Patricio abandoned her to court a contestant for Miss Chile. And there, one of her most gifted students, a certain Victor Jara, with his wonderful smile, gently came to her, helping her survive her depression and lifting her out of her loneliness. Although he was several years her junior, they lived together happily until his death, with Manuela as much Victor’s daughter as their own physical child, Amanda. And after a while, they even collaborated creatively with Patricio – in Joan’s words, ‘largely thanks to Victor’s extraordinary bridge-building skills’.
    Indomitable at 85, even after decades of fruitless searching for justice both for Víctor and so many more victims of the Kissinger/Pinochet horror, Joan launched the ‘Justicia Para Victor/Justice for Víctor’ campaign to mark 2013, the 40th anniversary year of their murder. After Víctor was recognized and set aside for ‘special interrogation’ during the coup that destroyed Dr. Salvador Allende’s elected government and shredded the West’s pretensions to democracy forever, he disappeared. Eventually, Hector, a young student pressed into service in the Santiago morgue, risked his own life to bring Joan and her family the terrible news – that his body had been found stacked among dozens of others, waiting to be flung into a common grave.
    “I’ll never forget it,” Joan told me once. “It didn’t look like Víctor at first, he was so pale and thin, as though they had sucked all the life out of him before killing him. And his hands and wrists were all wrong. They’d been smashed with rifle butts. But I knew it was Víctor, my husband, my lover, my only love.”

    It was only when Víctor’s remains were exhumed in 2010 that she also learned he had been killed by a single shot to the head. Apparently some officers decided to take revenge on him for his songs championing those impoverished by the unjust system they supported, so, having smashed his hands and demanded that he still sing, they played Russian Roulette with him for God knows how long before they felled him with that one fatal bullet; then machine-gunned him where he lay. “Víctor is one of the well-known victims,” Joan says. “If we can get justice for him our hope is it will open the floodgates for all those others destroyed and disappeared in that terrible time, those whose names are known only to their loved ones.”
    Eight men were involved, most of whom are today awaiting trial in Chile. However, one of the ring-leaders, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, now a US citizen, has lived in Florida for decades. The Chilean courts have issued a request for his extradition to face trial, but the process is being delayed because the document is ‘in translation’. Thus the primary focus of the Justice for Víctor campaign is that Barrientos be returned to Chile to face trial, that the chains of military impunity be broken, and that true justice be done for all the victims and their families.

    Despite the campaign being taken up with eagerness, Joan is not sanguine of its outcome, she knows it’s still an uphill fight. For if the judges dare to set justice truly free, not only will the lowly Barrientos and his friends have to face judgment but so too will the lordly Kissinger and his accomplices in the US government. So she, together with all the families of Chile’s unsung victims, is appealing to us for help. They stress that, in the spirit of Victor’s own lapidary phrase, we’re workers, not ‘Stars’, our solidarity should be something creative wherever possible. So, how about a wee gathering September 11th to remember all the victims of that terrible date, North American and Chilean? It could be filled with music and dance, children’s games and Chilean wine. Here in Nicaragua we’re organizing a great festival, entitled, Víctor Jara Sings Forever. On the smaller personal scale, if I can scrounge up the airfare, I’ll be going to Chile to take Víctor’s songs back home, so honoring the Chilean exiles who brought them to us in Scotland in the first place; to thank Joan in person for the wonderful gift she has guarded so faithfully and shared so humbly for so unutterably long; and to offer in exchange my own composition, I Thought I Heard Sweet Víctor, Singing in the Night, conceived in the very garden of the house she shared with Víctor in Santiago. Then, let’s talk to news media about the anniversary, ask them to play a song or two, or to read from Joan’s own book, Victor – An Unfinished Song. How about a special ceremony in your community of faith, or a special motion in your trade union? … the possibilities are as unlimited as love itself.

    In this rare video clip, from a television interview given just months before his death, Víctor himself talks about the importance of love in music and the struggle for justice, singing of course, but also emphasizing the vital role of other magnificent women: his mother, market worker by day, folksinger by night, and the tragic Violeta Parra, who, although she killed herself shortly after writing her beloved Gracias a la Vida, Thanks to Life, played a vital role in the development of his own music.

    Again, in love, please send a message of loving support to Joan, her family and the Fundación Víctor Jara through their webpage:, thanking them all for all their tireless work, and, through them, reaching out to all the doubly-tragic ones searching for their loved ones even still.
    I caught a clip of Joan speaking at the opening of the Justice for Victor campaign the other day. My memory of what she said is, “Deja la Vida Volar (Let Life Fly) is my favorite song today. We are determined to find justice for Victor and for all those who died or were disappeared in those terrible times. But, above all – after forty long, long, years – it’s time to celebrate the beauty of the legacy Victor left us.”

    In Joan’s honor then, and that of all the magnificent women to whom humanity owes so much, let courage, justice and beauty have the last word.

    Singer, songwriter and organizer, Paul Baker tries to follow Victor’s dictum: ‘We artists are workers, not stars’. Passionate lover of snow, solitude and silence, the songs somehow brought him to searing, chaotic, clamorous Managua, Nicaragua. ‘And I love it!’, he says. ‘Talk about the power of music!’ In Nicaragua, Paul works in music/ecological projects, with the ‘Víctor Jara Sings Forever’ movement, writes singing English versions of his best-loved songs, and has just completed ‘Pensé oír al dulce Víctor, en la noche cantar’ (I Thought I Heard Sweet Víctor, Singing .. ), an original song begun in the Jara’s Santiago home while working with them reclaim the stadia where Víctor and so many others suffered and died. He tours USA/UK yearly with house/stadium concerts, workshops, lectures, sermons, festivals, picket lines – bookings:

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