Political Prisoners in Chile
During her current tour of Australia, Victoria Torres spoke with The Guardian about the human rights environment in Chile today. Her activities in her homeland are centred on the plight of political prisoners and she hopes that, during her visit, what she has to say will inject new energy into the Australian arm of the international movement in solidarity with the people of Chile. Victoria is representing the Coordinador por la Libertad de los Presos Politicos (Coordinating Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners). What Victoria has to say may shock most Australians, who have been led to believe that democracy and respect for basic human rights were restored in Chile in 1989 after 16 years of the Pinochet dictatorship. Guardian: What brings you to Australia and to the city of Sydney? Victoria: I came to Australia at the invitation of the Comiti El Otro Once Septiembre (the Other September Eleven Committee) and the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union], which is part of this committee. The comrades here are aware of the work we do in Chile to secure the freedom of political prisoners. Sometimes there is confusion around the question of who the political prisoners are. Some people believe that they are prisoners from the time of the dictatorship. In Chile at present there are about 40 political prisoners from the "concertagion" or period of transition to democracy. They were arrested after March 11, 1990 in the initial stages of the transition to democracy. They were members of revolutionary left-wing organisations that played an important role in the struggle against the dictatorship. They are from the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, a grouping that declared itself autonomous of the Communist Party of Chile. Other comrades are from the Movement of the Revolutionary Left that was formed in 1966 while most of the others belong to a group called the Lautaro Popular Action Movement, which was formed during the years of Allende's Popular Unity Government and was part of that government. They have a concept of struggle that is anti-capitalist — for them the removal of the dictatorship did not mean the changing of the economic, social and political model. Their position is that the economic and political system of the dictatorship is still present nowadays in Chile. The economic program in Chile is neo-liberal. In recent years there have been free trade agreements signed between Chile, the United States, Canada and South Korea. We believe that these treaties will be detrimental to the interests of the workers of Chile — in terms of exploitation, in terms of security of employment, in terms of poverty, in terms of work. Struggle continues At the present time, the constitution of the dictatorship is still valid in Chile. That constitution was formally drawn up in the years of the dictatorship, in 1980. The struggle of the left in Chile has always been to change the constitution, to call a popular assembly to create a new constitution. As to the question of justice — a major problem for us in Chile — the transition to democracy has not meant that there has been justice for the torturers and others that committed crimes against humanity. In the past three years there have been three attempts to put laws in place that would end all the efforts aimed at getting some justice concerning these matters. There is now a fourth attempt before the current government to legislate to essentially guarantee impunity to those that have committed crimes against humanity and to release the military from any responsibility. At the moment we are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the coup d'itat against the Popular Unity Government. There is still a confrontation between the popular movement and the economic plans being implemented by the Chilean bourgeoisie and supported by imperialism. Contrary to what they think — that the class struggle has ended and that they can declare an end to history — there is no question that there is still a struggle between the two major sectors of society. There is no question, either, that the struggle for freedom for political prisoners is also part of the mass workers' movement. Solidarity We have solidarity with the political prisoners from the indigenous Mapuche people. Since 1990 they have begun to demand rights to their land and to defend their culture. They have been put into jail and we have been defending them. Obviously the laws that apply to the other political prisoners are applied to the Mapuche as well: the anti-terrorism laws, the laws against possessing arms and the laws relating to national security. We support the Chilean comrades detained in Peru. Recently they were condemned to between 15 and 25 years in prison. They were militants of the revolutionary left in Chile. We support the Chilean comrades detained in Brazil. We also support the five Cuban patriots being detained by the empire — in the United States. Guardian: What sort of work is your committee doing at the moment? Victoria: We work at different levels. We produce publicity, information about the situation of the political prisoners. We deal with some of the judicial and legal problems of their defence, including the referral of accusations the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. We create networks of support for the Mapuche people and their political prisoners. To carry on this work we have established many links with those with a passion for human rights: lawyers, human rights and popular organisations in Chile. Guardian: What can we do here in Australia? Victoria: In political terms I think it is important to speak out and say that in Chile there is not a broad democracy. For me this issue is difficult because, in the past, we have had mass solidarity in support of Chile. We have not been able to repay this solidarity by achieving justice and full democracy in Chile. We feel we have a debt towards international solidarity for that reason. However, we still need international solidarity to overcome the major problems that we have. There are many governments in the world that would like it believed that the problem of Chile has been completely resolved. They have links and carry on a lot of trade with the country. It is the duty of the Left to explain what is actually taking place in Chile. That is where we need solidarity so that it is clear in the minds of the people what is going on in Chile. Aside from the human rights issue, it is important to build solidarity with Chile's workers that been affected so badly by the neo-liberal agenda being applied in their country. Guardian: What are the social and economic conditions facing the Chilean people? Victoria: There can be no doubt that there has been a powerful propaganda campaign from the Chilean Government to tell the world that, in political terms, we have restored democracy and that we are at the point of launching into economic development. However, at the level of the workers' experience, the industrial law that we have is the same one applied by the dictatorship. It's difficult for workers to form their own trade unions, there's a lot of persecution that follows if you set out to create your own union. Neo-liberalism expresses itself in very low wages and great difficulty in finding and holding a job. Super-exploitation There's a lot of talk about further "flexibility" in connection with these labour laws and what this means is that workers would lose whatever conditions they have at the moment. There's a lot of work being delivered directly to your home — which basically means that there is the super- exploitation of workers going on. This means low wages and a total absence of rights to do with health or the pension. Often it is attractive to large companies to decentralise production and, by doing this, prevent the formation of trade unions. Manufacturing industry has been totally destroyed. The coalmines have been closed. These were the bastions of the trade union movement in Chile. There are many people that go looking for seasonal work in the countryside. They don't have the traditional outlook toward trade unions and, basically, they have no rights. The majority are women that work in orchards, for example, in conditions dictated by free trade agreements with Europe and the United States. A lot of trade union leaders were assassinated in the years of the dictatorship making it hard for us to form trade unions. There was a break in the continuity of the trade union movement. We need solidarity, as well, in the work of developing young trade unionists, the leaders for today. Guardian: Could you describe the effects of the anti-terrorism laws in Chile? Victoria: Chile basically has no tradition of political terrorism. Nevertheless the dictatorship approved an anti-terrorism law to use in its fight against the anti-dictatorship forces. These laws have been maintained. Some aspects have been altered but, overall, they are still in place. Basically they are used to carry on the social struggle. For example, the laws have been used against maritime workers and the Mapuche people. They are instruments of social control. Guardian: Are they similar to the laws in Australia where the government can proscribe organisations, individuals can be detained [by ASIO] without charge, interview them in secret and so on? Victoria: I think that this is an international phenomenon. This is because the capitalist system throughout the world is encountering more and more problems. It has been necessary to introduce these laws as tools to control movements for social change. At the present time there is a resurgence in informing. The military, the police and civilians are now taking part in an organisation to gather intelligence. This is dangerous because we know that the military hasn't rid itself of those violators of human rights, of torturers. There is a contradiction here in that Chile is considered one of the more secure countries of Latin America.