American Dream, Chilean Nightmare

Pedro Pablo Barrientos came to the United States in 1990 to make a new start in life. Leaving his native country of Chile in South America and arriving in the U.S. southern state of Florida with little money and a broken marriage behind him, he managed to get a job in landscaping at first, then worked at a few restaurants and eventually ran his own pizza joint — a sure sign that you have made it in the USA.

His most recent job, as a restaurant cook, was one he had held for about a decade. He is retired now, and at age 67, he lives in Deltona, Florida and is still struggling financially. He manages to survive thanks to his social security welfare payments from the U.S. government.

“I came looking for the American dream like everyone else,” Barrientos reminisces today. “I was not running from anything.”

But something was chasing him just the same: his own sordid past as a military officer and reputed killer. It was a past Barrientos seems to have told few about — not even U.S. immigration officials when he applied for, and received, U.S. citizenship in 2010.

Barrientos’ sordid past finally caught up with him last month when a jury in Florida found him guilty in a civil lawsuit for the death of a fellow countryman. That countryman was Víctor Jara, the much-loved Chilean singer-songwriter and theater director who was imprisoned, tortured and executed during the Chilean military’s coup of the government of that country on September 11, 1973. That coup led to the ouster, and death, of democratically elected president Salvador Allende of Chile and put the Yankee-supported psychopathic army general Augusto Pinochet in power for the next 17 years.

That day of infamy is still known by the Chilean people as the “first 9-11” terrorist attack — a brutal military takeover of a legitimate government that was sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Jara was just one of thousands of Chilean citizens at the time who got caught up in a bloody rampage by the Chilean military that still stands as one of the worst acts of political repression in modern times.

Víctor Jara was a popular Chilean figure in those days, and the U.S. poodle press likes to call him “The Bob Dylan of Chile”. But that description is nowhere near accurate. Jara was far more revolutionary in his outlook and in his wide body of artistic work than Dylan ever was. Unlike Dylan, Jara was very much a People’s Poet and a champion of the common working person in his country. Jara went down into the Chilean mines (which, by the way, were dominated by U.S. multinational corporations) together with the Chilean miners. Jara wrote songs about love, about life under extreme poverty in a población (slum), about people joining together in a common struggle for a more equitable society. No disrespect intended at all to Mr. Zimmerman and his many fans in North America, but Bob Dylan’s musical output and social activism simply pale in comparison with that of Víctor Jara. And that’s why Jara was killed by soldiers of his own country during the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile in 1973: He was despised by them and by the elite class of Chilean society.

In the recent trial, Barrientos was accused by some of the former soldiers under his command as being the one who pulled the final trigger and executed Víctor Jara in the inner bowels of the Estadio Chile [Chile Stadium], a multipurpose sports and concert complex in downtown Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Barrientos denies that account and says he knew nothing about Jara’s execution during the 1973 coup — in fact, he says, he didn’t even know what Jara looked like. A dubious claim, to be sure, since Víctor Jara was one of the most recognizable public faces in all of Chile at the time.

The lawsuit was brought against Barrientos by the San Francisco, California-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf Víctor Jara’s surviving family members: wife Joan Jara, a British expatriate in Chile, and their two children Manuela and Amanda. The legal victory is a landmark case and sets a solid legal precedent for bringing well-protected killers to justice many years after the crime has been committed.

But who was Barrientos being protected by? The U.S. government, it would seem, though that protection apparently did not come up as an issue in the recent court case against Barrientos. And it would not be the first time: There have been other known cases of Latin American killers hiding out on U.S. soil with help from the American government and never having to face justice for their crimes, of which Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles are just two.

So, what happens next? The verdict by a Florida court against Barrientos will probably be appealed, and since it is a civil lawsuit and not a criminal one, there is no rush for the U.S. government to extradite Barrientos, a wanted man, back to Chile, where he was convicted in absentia four years ago in connection with the death of Víctor Jara. But that is exactly what the Obama administration must do, and soon — extradite Barrientos back to Chile once and for all to face the music.

The music of Víctor Jara, that is, which is as socially relevant and timeless today as it was four decades ago. Let the people of Chile decide how Barrientos and other such cowards in the Chilean military must be dealt with. And if an abrupt extradition back to Chile interrupts Sñr. Barrientos’s “American Dream” in a safe, comfortable Florida suburb, then so be it. True justice is a small price to pay for the nightmare that the people of Chile were put through back in 1973 and which they have been suffering all these years.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for a documentary film in progress titled The Resurrection of Victor Jara, which will cover his life and work, and show just why he is still so beloved in Chile, throughout Latin America and indeed around the world all these years later. His story continues to be told and his songs are still being sung by people anywhere seeking hope and a way forward in bleak and trying times.

Víctor Jara vive!

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