Chilean fascism – an interview with Ernesto Leal

In the mid 1990s I worked on an anti-fascist pamphlet on trade unions that is now long out of print. One of the sections was on the fascist coup in Chile for which I interviewed Ernesto Leal, a Chilean exile then living in London.

Ernesto died in 2009 and there is very little about him on the internet. Although there is this obituary here.

At one point I spent a lot of time with Ernesto and other exiled Chileans in London who were all very active politically. Ernesto’s story was particularly inspirational.

The solidarity and internationalism of the British trade union movement, and the miners in particular, has real lessons for today.

Chile – An interview with Ernesto Leal

Ernesto Leal has witnessed fascists taking power first hand. He was a trade unionist in Chile in 1973 when a fascist military coup brought General Pinochet to power resulting in the persecution of thousands of trade unionists. Many disappeared never to see their families again. Imprisoned and tortured for his own activities, Ernesto told Steve Silver about his experiences.

Ernesto’s small stature belies his courage and as he talks, it is impossible not to be moved by his story. His father was a trade unionist, who during several periods of repression had been banned from working in various factories and exiled from his home town. It wasn’t until he was a teenager though, starting out working life in the navy in poor conditions, that Ernesto really understood what had motivated his father.

While he was in the navy, Ernesto attended evening classes where he was influenced by radical young people who were socialists and communists. His political development quickly led to activity and he became involved in preparing for a hunger strike in the navy for better working conditions. The secret service had infiltrated his group of activists and the strike was aborted. He was court-marshalled and expelled from the navy.

Ernesto’s first job after the navy was as a welder and his political activities developed when he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). In 1962, with another friend from Valdivia, the town of Ernesto’s birth, he organised a welders’ union for the first time in their region at a factory in Talcahuano. In 1964 the five hundred strong workforce occupied the factory because the American owner wouldn’t recognise the union; they were in occupation for three months before winning the dispute.

Ernesto became an official in the local TUC. He organised union activity across the region while at the same time serving on the central committee of the Young Communist League. In 1968 he transferred from the YCL and joined the Communist Party where he held various positions.

In 1970 Ernesto, along with the whole of the Chilean left, rejoiced when the socialist Allende government took power. He became a local organiser for the government’s food distribution programme and was involved with the government’s education programme which was set up to combat the high level of illiteracy among the population. Education courses were established and those who gained high grades were given the chance to enter university, making the programme very popular. Ernesto was in charge of organising in the port town of Tome; rather than trying to send factory workers to school they brought the school to the factory, organising classes during the breaks.

While the Allende government brought in sweeping social reforms, the extreme-right, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was organising to overthrow democracy. A major part of their plan was the organisation of a strike by the right-wing controlled truck drivers’ union. The strike made travel across the narrow country very difficult and combined with other destabilising measures the democratically elected government faced severe problems.

On the 11th September 1973 Ernesto set out for work as usual, getting a lift in a friend’s car. They found that the military had set up roadblocks. This was obviously a military coup, though they weren’t sure exactly who had taken power. Soldiers at the roadblocks told them to go back home but Ernesto continued on foot alone towards his factory so he could meet up with people and decide what to do. A passing lorry driver picked him up and together they carried on further.

They stopped when they saw that a train which had been carrying workers along the coast was surrounded by machine guns with the workers on the floor being searched. Continuing on foot again, Ernesto passed a factory where he saw more workers on the floor with the military searching the premises.

The military were stopping anyone from getting to the factories for work. Ernesto himself was searched but they didn’t recognise him and were only looking for weapons. He had many incriminating documents in his briefcase that he knew he would now have to destroy. These included names of all the teachers and students in the factory; it became exceptionally dangerous during this period to be associated with the government’s education programme.

About five miles from his factory, Ernesto passed a young woman in the doorway of her house. He enquired, “What is happening?” and she replied, “It is a right-wing military coup. The military have taken power and Allende is dead. They are detaining all the trade union leaders and important people from the Allende government.”

For the first time Ernesto knew exactly what had happened that day. Before he could run into anyone else, he burned the documents which he was carrying.

Ernesto saw people being sent back from his factory. One of the women approached him and advised, “Don’t go to the factory because the army is looking for you and has already arrested three people. If you need a safehouse, go to one of these addresses.” The woman had been been instructed to find Ernesto and warn him.

Ernesto wasn’t sure where to go now. The military were organising the transport of people back to their home towns in convoys. He accepted a ride to Concepcion, the nearest large town, as he thought he might find some other activists to discuss what action to take. On arrival he became really frightened when he discovered that the local Communist Party headquarters had been searched and destroyed, the TUC building was sealed up and that the military had surrounded it and shot people. The local mayor, whom Ernesto knew, had also been arrested (he was later tortured and killed). Unable to make contact with anyone, Ernesto made his way home. On his journey he saw buses full of trade unionists whom he recognised being taken off by the army.

The fact that Ernesto had worked in Tome, some miles from his home in Talcahuano, had saved him for the time being. He went home and found his children there because school had been cancelled. His wife Sonia, a teacher and activist in her own right, was at a meeting. The 11th of September was traditionally ‘Teachers’ Day’ in Chile. On that day, many left-wing teachers were taken to prison while others were beaten or even killed in front of their pupils.

Ernesto carried on making a living by doing casual work in a factory and attempted to keep a low-profile. A couple of weeks after the military coup the army entered his factory and the workers were lined up. The factory owner pointed out trade unionists who were beaten and taken away. In the immediate aftermath of the coup many people Ernesto knew were imprisoned or killed by the military; he had a couple of lucky escapes himself, but in the early days escaped detention.

Ernesto and Sonia became involved with organising support for the o prisoners and their families, which was done through Catholic organisations. His own luck couldn’t last though. Early one November o morning Ernesto heard noises in the street and knew it was the tramping of military feet. People were not allowed out at night as they were forced to live under a curfew. As he heard the soldiers being instructed, he knew they were coming for him. They knocked at his door and held him against the wall while they searched the house. The commandant then asked Sonia to sign the papers that said they had searched the flat. She said she wanted to read it first which incensed the soldier. He pointed his gun at her, the atmosphere was very tense. She read it first, saying, “I am a teacher. I educated my children not to sign anything until they’ve read it, so I won’t either.”

Ernesto was taken to a van waiting outside and blindfolded before being put in the back. Sonia saw from the window that some people in the van were already dead.

After two or three hours of being driven around to disorientate them, the prisoners arrived at their destination. During the journey they were told if anyone moved or talked they would be killed. When they got out of the van they were told to walk in a direction which meant walking directly into a wall. Theywere then made to stand for a day, blindfolded, without food or water before being taken into a shack and instructed to lie down. “Any movement or sound and you will be killed,” they were told. It was 10 days before Sonia knew that Ernesto was still alive.

While waiting to be interrogated, Ernesto could hear people shouting and crying. Then came his turn. Still blindfolded, he was taken to a room and sat down. His blindfold was removed and he was allowed only to look straight ahead at a grille from which he could hear a voice. Ernesto’s past history of political activism was recounted to him by his captors. It became apparent that they only knew about his activities in Talcahuano. They were aware he had been active since but weren’t sure where. He was then asked questions about his comrades and about the organisers in his local area.

They claimed they had another prisoner who was telling them about Ernesto’s activities. He still refused to talk and was severely beaten, his fingers smashed with a hammer until he lost consciousness. When he came round they started to question him again. He was also given electric shocks in attempts to extract information. On three occasions they pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger in a mock execution. They were surprised he remained calm. Ernesto told them: “If you want to kill me, kill me now.”

In the end, they brought in the other prisoner who was even more badly beaten than Ernesto. The prisoner claimed to recognise Ernesto, but even though Ernesto did remember him from some years before, he stuck to his story, pretending that he did not know him. After that their captors were furious that they had lost so much time with the interrogations and gained nothing. They took Ernesto out and pushed him down a staircase. In the meantime he heard the other man let out blood curdling screams as they tortured him.

Ernesto was then moved to a stadium on a navy base, where he experienced a relatively more liberal regime. After a couple of months he was set free, lucky not to be sent to another camp. For some time Ernesto was afraid to go out and really felt the shock of his experiences. Eventually he got a job in a factory as a welder and became involved in the underground resistance, producing leaflets against the fascist government. In the early days of the coup some small scale physical resistance had taken place. This included the occasional bombing or killing of soldiers. Now, all political activity was banned under General Pinochet’s dictatorship. Ernesto and Sonia became active with a church organisation that was helping political activists, and their families, who had suffered from persecution.

One day a comrade of Ernesto warned him to leave the country as there was going to be another wave of repression and the net was closing. On a couple of previous occasions Ernesto had been interrogated on the streets by the military who were becoming increasingly aware of his activities. In February 1976 he left Chile, telling people that he was travelling north for a better job. In fact, he went south to Argentina, but had to leave Sonia and their four young children behind.

Sonia followed him to Argentina with the children in April but was lucky to get out. She had bought bus tickets for the 30th April but travelled one day earlier, persuading the driver that she had accidentally bought the tickets for the following day. For years she didn’t realise what a fortuitous escape she had had. Recently Sonia visited Chile – her friends told her that the day after she left, the military came looking for her.

During that same visit she went to the local Communist Party offices where someone came up to her and said, “You’re really alive.” The man had been interrogated during the coup and shown pictures of Ernesto and Sonia. He was told that they and their children had been killed. When he saw Sonia and her son, he wept with emotion.

Ernesto and his family were in Argentina only a short time when the country suffered its own military coup. Chilean refugees who were found, were rounded up by the Argentine military or handed over to the Chilean secret police. It was too dangerous to stay in Argentina so the family had to leave. Their first choice was Canada but they came to Britain.

All over the world a great solidarity movement developed for the Chilean people. Campaigners, including trade unionists and Labour MPs, ensured that the Labour government allowed Chilean refugees into Britain.

In April 1977 Ernesto’s family arrived at Heathrow in a group of about 20, all political refugees. Some came from Argentina and others directly from jail. The following month, Ernesto and his family left London for Edinburgh from where they were to be taken to their new home. They were greeted by an official from the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers and taken by minibus to Fife. Their new home was in Cowdenbeath in Fife. When they arrived in the town Ernesto was handed a key and told “This is the key to your home.”

“I opened the door and found that everything was there including furniture and beds. The miners’ union and neighbours had done it. We stayed there for a year and I learned English. I was keen to work again as a welder and wanted to be active in Chilean solidarity work. Everybody was so friendly to me. People in the street said to me `Don’t worry, you are safe here’.”

Ernesto studied English at Stevenson College in Edinburgh and then eventually moved from Fife. Sonia already knew English but was keen to improve it. In Britain, Ernesto retrained as a welder and found work in the Edinburgh shipyards and later in Aberdeen and elsewhere. Ernesto’s trade union activities did not cease when he left Chile. He joined the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB) and later the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and participated in four strikes. He laughs and says proudly, “I was always the first to vote for a strike. My branch was in Edinburgh and I was on my branch committee. I was also a representative on Edinburgh Trades Council.”

In Chile the government today still rules under the Pinochet constitution. Despite recent advances, Pinochet is still a life member of the Chilean senate. Trade unionists are struggling to change the constitution to make the country more democratic and now seek support from their counterparts in Britain and elsewhere.

Ernesto has this message for trade unionists today: “We underestimated the fascists in Chile. We learned the hard way that you need to keep an eye on them, not only the open fascists, but those who conceal themselves and work in a hidden way inside democratic organisations.”

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