With a political instinct

Print edition : August 27, 2004

With President Salvador Allende in Santiago. - PUNTO FINAL/AFP

PABLO NERUDA became a trade union activist after joining the Communist Party of Chile in 1945, and is known as much for his political participation in the anti-fascist struggle during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and his struggle against the Gonzalez Videla dictatorship in Chile (1945-1950) while defending the rights of mine workers, as for his poetry.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 with a military coup led by Francisco Franco against the Republican government, Neruda got involved in the heroic resistance against the fascist forces. He was dismissed from his consular post for his involvement and his poet friends became targets of fascist attacks. Rafael Alberti's house was torched and Garcia Lorca was assassinated. Neruda's outrage against the events is reflected in his collection of poems Spain in my Heart (1936), which also changed him as a poet.

This collection of poems was printed under extraordinary circumstances. Amidst the roar of guns, the Republican soldiers learnt to make paper and printed the poems in an old mill. They used all kinds of materials to make paper, from an enemy flag to a soldier's bloodstained tunic. Neruda describes in his Memoirs how the book became "the pride of these men who had worked to bring out my poetry in the face of death". Many soldiers carried copies of his book in their sacks instead of food and clothing. When the war was lost, the last copies of the book were confiscated and burnt in a bonfire as Spanish refugees reached France.

Neruda returned to Chile soon after, determined more than ever to play an active part in changing the destiny of his people. In 1945 Videla, who came to power on a democratic agenda with the support of the communists, was under pressure to find solutions to alleviate the appalling conditions in which the miners and the working class lived. These measures were not acceptable to the old feudal oligarchy and to the big American corporations such as the Chile Exploration Co., The Anaconda Cooper and Anglo Chilean Nitrate, which had full control over the Chilean mining industry. The influence of these forces were so great that Videla gradually sidelined the Communists, using the argument that since war between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States was inevitable, Chile would have to support the U.S. in order to safeguard its economy. He sold mineral-rich land to foreign monopolies for a pittance, did nothing to better the economic and living conditions of the workers, and began hounding the Communists under pressure from the Americans.

The economic situation in Chile was heading towards a catastrophe. There was no money to pay salaries to government employees, the currency had been devalued and inflation was spiralling. The President, who had earlier presided over innumerable anti-fascist and anti-Francoist committees in order to woo the electorate, began to persecute these very groups and even Spanish exiles. Nazi provocateur groups, in connivance with American military agents and Videla, became more active.

Meanwhile, the deepening economic crisis and the miserable working conditions of the miners in Lota and Coronel - the carbon mines - led to a general strike. In his Memoirs, Neruda describes life in the mines, in the harsh cold weather with the mining corridors stretching to 8km under the sea. It is impossible to imagine such working conditions. Videla decried the strike call, denying the prevalence of bad working and living conditions, attributing the unrest to international complots, and treating the strikers with a cruelty only known in Nazi concentration camps. He sent in the Army to crush the rebellion, declared himself dictator with full powers and unleashed unprecedented repression on the workers. Cordoning off the entire area, the Army and the Police were sent in to arrest thousands of workers and their families were persecuted and expelled from Chilean territory. Two concentration camps in the island of Santa Maria and in Pisagua (where many intellectuals and political leaders were taken) were set up, and the Police were called in from Argentina to help repress the strikers.

In subsequent years, there was complete censorship of the press and radio, and individual rights were withdrawn. An atmosphere of terror and intimidation reigned. People could be imprisoned without reason or charges. The press was forced to report only the Presidential declarations containing lies and propaganda. Neruda stood by the miners and fervently campaigned against Videla's policies by writing - the most powerful tool that he could use. He wrote a piece called "I Accuse" in the Venezuelan daily El Nacional on November 27, 1947, denouncing Videla's actions. Soon after, Videla pushed for Neruda's expulsion from the Senate. In 1948, Neruda was forced to leave the country clandestinely and remained in exile for about two years.

WHEN Neruda was asked to contest for the presidency in 1969, he agreed but later pushed Salvador Allende's name as the Popular Unity candidate. He campaigned actively in the elections, seeing in Allende's victory a new hope for the Chilean people. Neruda was appointed ambassador to France in 1970, but returned to Chile owing to ill health in 1972. He received the Nobel Prize in 1971.

On September 11, 1973, Pinochet took over the Presidential Palace in a military coup and Allende was killed. Nine days before his death and 72 hours after the fascist coup led by Pinochet, Neruda started writing the last chapter of his Memoirs in which he described the coup as a criminal putsch against the people of Chile. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, heartbroken by what had happened to his friend Allende and his country. His funeral became the first massive protest meeting against the military dictatorship.

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