There were many approaches to resisting dictatorship in Chile that contributed to its demise. One of them owed much to Ghandi’s thinking about how to overcome powerlessness and fear
For the last few years I have been curating exhibitions of quilts and arpilleras (pronounced "ar-pee-air-ahs") - three-dimensional Latin American appliqué textiles, originating in Chile - that depict the impact of political violence in everyday life. They also show how local people responded. Ending the dictatorship (1973 -1990) was the goal, and the struggle so many of us had in common. But groups and individuals who shared that aim relied on different approaches to bring it about. Non-violent action, armed struggle, international solidarity and pressure, loss of political support and credibility, economic crisis, persistent public protests by the victims of the dictatorship: these are just some of the strategies that contributed to our advance. These efforts, as they intermingled, grew more powerful making it possible to have a plebiscite that said NO to Pinochet’s dictatorship. The positive outcome, a shift into a transitional democracy, was achieved after 17 years of extremely difficult, unsettling and violent times full of acknowledged systematic violations of human rights.
As I work with these arpilleras, I often think about these strategies and my own choices living under dictatorship. In this brief piece feeding into the debate that Diana Francis has opened, I want to share the experience of my former life in Chile. I acknowledge that the other forms of struggle that took place at the same time had an impact as well as my chosen course. But I want to concentrate on the path I took. In the very act of choosing what to do, some of us wondered: “Could Gandhi’s insights about the power of non-violence inform our struggle against the dictatorship?”
Non-violence refers to a philosophy and strategy of conflict resolution, a means of fighting injustice and - in a broader sense - a way of life, developed and employed by Gandhi and his followers all around the world. Non-violence, by this definition, is action that does not commit or allow injustice.
To mark International Day of Non-violence, the Irish School of Ecumenics and INNATE sponsored a public meeting in Belfast on 1 October 2009. One of the speakers was Tony Kempster, long an activist in the peace movement. He said:
“Gandhi was one of the few men in history to fight simultaneously on moral, religious, political, social and economic fronts. His life and thought have had an enormous effect both within and outside India, and he continues to be widely revered as one of the greatest moral and political leaders of the twentieth century.
He was an inspiration for the leaders of many peoples’ struggles during the 20th century and here I ask how relevant his heritage is to the world of the 21st century, facing a perfect storm of threats, many exacerbated by the actions of western nations?
The two oldest questions in politics – ones with which he must have wrestled often - are still relevant today: to whom do we owe obligations and with whom do we feel solidarity.”
These thoughts resonate with the issues we faced in Chile. When trying to answer those questions I would say that I have always identified with ordinary people and felt a deep obligation to act in the face of injustice.
Crying out the truth
A group of us decided to try to inspire others to speak up against the dictatorship by “crying out the truth”. Not to do this, while those we loved were killed, tortured, and disappeared, had become unendurable. Clandestine pamphlets and leaflets were printed. Slogans denouncing human rights violations were painted on walls at night at great risk to personal safety. Underlying these actions was the principle of active non-violence. The first requirement to fight injustice is to report it; otherwise we are accomplices. These clandestine actions helped spread the principle: tell the truth and act on it. Yet, despite the risks, we needed to move beyond clandestine protests: we needed to move into the public arena, stand up and be counted.
The State of Emergency provisions decreed by the junta were designed to terrorize the population. Our actions needed to openly defy them. We needed to break through our own sense of powerlessness, isolation, and fear. Many of us did so and paid the consequences of forced unemployment, bullying and even torture.
José Aldunate, a Jesuit priest who became the leader of the Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture in Chile, says in his memoirs:
“A comrade came to us with evidence (of torture). We educated ourselves about torture and about the dynamics of non-violence. We watched a film on Mahatma Gandhi. I was more motivated [to protest against] poverty, but I responded to the discipline of the group. We deliberated and decided to undertake a non-violent demonstration to denounce torture... to break the barriers of silence and suppression with regards to torture. We had an obligation to denounce it in public. We needed to awaken the population’s conscience.”
On September 14, 1983, ten years after the regime took power, the anti-torture movement was born in an action in front of the headquarters of the National Investigation Center, 1470 Borgoño St., in Santiago. Around 70 people interrupted traffic, unfurling a banner which read “Torturing Done Here”. They shouted their protest and sang a hymn to liberty. The group returned to this scene to denounce the regime’s crimes against humanity at least once a month until 1990. The arpillera that accompanies this article shows one such protest.
We did not realise at the time that these actions, amongst others, would put Pinochet under pressure to sign the international Convention Against Torture in 1984, which in turn would lead to his detention in England in 1999 while awaiting the result of the request for his extradition to Spain.
I started by mentioning arpilleras. I will finish by showing one to you that was made in around 1985 that depicts exactly what I have described. It portrays an action by a group of women in front of a prison in Chile. They are holding a banner that reads: “Freedom to the Political Prisoners”.
Arpillera, courtesy of Kinderhilfe Chile-Bonn, Germany. Photo by Martin Melaugh
Almost thirty years later, these memories still determine my being, and they make it possible for me to share these experiences. Curating the arpillera exhibitions is one means by which I do this.