Art as Resistance: Victor Jara and the Nueva Cancion Movement by Raul Alonzo

As for now, this is the broadcast network of the Armed Forces – Santiago, September 11th, 1973. Considering, first: the terrible economic, social and moral crisis destroying the country; secondly the government’s failure to adopt measures to prevent the growth of chaos; the Armed Forces and Police declare that the President must immediately transfer his powers to the Armed Forces and Police of Chile.


Augusto Pinochet Ugarte

Commander-in-Chief of the Army

On the day the Armed Forces of Chile staged a violent coup to overthrow the democratically elected president Salvador Allende, radio broadcasts across the country fell silent. Those taken over by the military were left on either a loop of martial music, military orders or broadcasts declaring the aims of the coup. By the end of the day, Allende would be dead and power would be concentrated in a military dictatorship composed of the heads of the Police, Navy and Air Force with General Augusto Pinochet, Commander of the Army, overseeing the operations.

As tanks and soldiers patrolled the streets and a curfew was imposed, folk singer Victor Jara tried to raise the hopes of those around him.

A teacher at the Technical University in the capitol, Jara sang to ease the minds of the students and faculty who had seen the tanks surrounding the campus and could hear the machine gun fire that pierced through the night.

He would sing the songs they had known when the music of Nueva Cancion (New Song) could be heard on the radios of Santiago.

Nueva Cancion

Nueva Cancion is a genre of music that emerged from Chile in the 1960s, drawing largely from the traditional music of the Andes as well as other Latin American song forms and styles, such as cueca. One of the defining characteristics of the movement were the socially-conscious lyrics, influenced greatly by working class issues, human rights, imperialism and poverty.

Many Nueva Cancion musicians, including Jara, who was a member of the Communist Party, would lend their voices to the presidential campaign of Salvador Allende – a Marxist and candidate of the Unidad Popular coalition of leftist parties. Along with Inti-Illimani, Jara composed “Venceremos,” the official song of the Allende campaign. The movement would also birth the song “El Pueblo Unido, Jamas Sera Vencido!,” a song that is still utilized by social movements internationally. It was this sort of commitment to social change that led American musicians, such as Phil Ochs, to regard artists such as Jara as “the real deal.”

Indeed, the American protest song movement had at that point become widely commercialized and stripped of its radical edge. As Jara said of the American scene:

“US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. With professional expertise they have taken certain measures: first, the commercialization of the so-called ‘protest music’; second, the creation of ‘idols’ of protest music who obey the same rules and suffer from the same constraints as the other idols of the consumer music industry – they last a little while and then disappear. Meanwhile they are useful in neutralizing the innate spirit of rebellion of young people.”

For Jara, with musical roots percolating through an indigenous foundation, Nueva Cancion provided an alternative to the commercialized “protest music” of the United States.

“The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song.'”

Apagon Cultural

“The military junta assumes the task of reconstructing the country morally, institutionally and materially. The supreme task exists of changing the mentality of Chileans.”

Allende would go on to win the 1970 presidential election, a victory that he hoped to use to alleviate the vast poverty of the country, as well as take steps to nationalize industries so that resources could be used to enrich Chile, rather than foreign business interests.

The election, however, would arouse the concern of one of the more hegemonic business interests: the United States.

As President Nixon vowed to “make the [Chilean] economy scream,” right wing military forces in Chile were in the process of determining how to undermine the new administration. While the U.S. has not been found to be directly involved in the coup, the support for the forces behind it and the subsequent engineering of the neoliberal economic model the military junta imposed hardly absolves the country. As Henry Kissinger noted after Allende’s election:

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Marxist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

As the junta consolidated its power, members of the opposition faced violent repression. Lists of suspected dissidents or subversives were summoned for trial over the military radio as death squads, such as the Caravan of Death, scoured the country – rounding up and executing suspects. In total, 3,197 citizens were murdered or “disappeared” in this period with thousands more subjected to torture, forced exile, or arbitrary incarceration. All institutions, including the universities and Congress, were taken over or suspended by the regime. Political repression was rampant and there was a genuine fear in receiving a knock at the door in the late hours of the night.

Chilean essayist and critic, Soledad Bianchi, has referred to the period of military rule under Pinochet as one of apagon cultural or cultural blackout. As in other Latin American countries that fell to dictatorships during this period, popular musicians faced persecution.

Nueva Cancion groups that were touring abroad at the time of the coup, such as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun, were forced to remain in exile. The government referred to Andean music as “subversive” and banned traditional instruments such as the quena and charango. Nueva Cancion albums were burned along with the films and literature deemed to be a threat to the power of the new regime.

In the later years of the dictatorship, Nueva Cancion would take on a more diminished form, now known as Canto Nuevo, with socially-conscious lyrics referenced only through metaphor and performances generally taking place in the underground cafe’s of the opposition.

Estadio Chile

Fear, sensation, bombardment and powerlessness. The walls of the Technical University crumbled beneath the big guns of the military’s tanks. Soldiers entered the buildings, whipping up a herd of terrified faces before them with their rifle butts and forcing them to lie on the pavement – hands on their heads.

After an hour on the ground, the soldiers marched them to the Estadio Chile, a stadium that was serving as a massive holding area for political prisoners. The stadium had also been a venue for Nueva Cancion artists, including Jara, just months ago. It was here that Jara was recognized by one of the non-commissioned officers. The officer knocked him to the ground, proceeding to violently kick him in the stomach and ribs.

He was cordoned off to a part of the stadium reserved for high profile prisoners. Enduring further beatings at the hands of soldiers and officers over the next few days, Jara finally had an opportunity to record what he had seen when a friend was able to give him some paper and a pencil. With this he would pen his final poem, unnamed but commonly referred to “Estadio Chile.”

There are five thousand of us here

in this small part of the city.

We are five thousand.

I wonder how many we are in all

in the cities and in the whole country?

As the soldiers came for Jara, he slipped the poem to a friend who hid it in his sock. The hands of Victor Jara were smashed – his bones, broken on the soldier’s rifles, never to strum the hopeful songs that were being purged from the people’s poet. Soldiers who mocked and jeered him to play threw his guitar to him. In stark defiance, Jara began to sing a few lines from “Venceremos”:

We shall prevail, we shall prevail…

It would not be until the morning of Sunday, September the 16th, that the body of Victor Jara was found among six others – lying in an orderly row in the neighborhood of one of the working class districts. His face was beaten and bloodied beyond recognition, and a violent barrage of 44 bullets riddled his corpse, like craters.

The legacy of Victor Jara is not so much simply the tragic contrast of his message of peace and humanity with the brutal way he was murdered. His music may have died with him if it had not been for his wife, Joan, who smuggled the recordings out of the country. The stadium he was murdered in has been renamed the Estadio Victor Jara, and towards the end of last year eight retired army officers were charged with his murder.  Pedro Barrientos, one of the officers responsible for Jara’s death, lives in Florida currently evading trial.

Jara’s story also stands as an example of the role culture and the arts can play in revolutionary movements – and the threat they present to authoritarian regimes, so much so as to provoke severe repression when power is consolidated.

As with all musicians of the past who could be called truly revolutionary, Jara lives on in his music. The tender, sometimes haunting, sincerity Jara sang with was fueled by his love for people and his confidence in the future of humanity.

In many ways, his vision never died. Today, Chile has not only seen the resurgence of a popular student movement challenging neoliberalism, but South America as a whole has seen a region-wide shift to reclaim the legacies established before the dark years of colonialism, imperialism and military dictatorship gripped the land.

“I may die as one, but I will come back in millions.”

The determination of the peoples of Latin America to forge their own future is the foundation on which the words of Victor Jara will continue to be sung –  whistling on the winds blowing down from the Andes, carrying with them the spirits of the past and the visions of the future.