Joan Jara died of natural causes on November 11, in her bed in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Victor Jara, her husband, was murdered on September 16, 1973 in an indoor stadium in Santiago. On December 1, Pedro Barrientos landed in Santiago, deported from the US to face trial for the kidnapping and shooting of Victor, whose corpse bore 44 bullet wounds.
For five decades, more than half her life, Joan pursued her husband’s murderers relentlessly and just three weeks too early she died, unable to witness the return to Chile of the man who, according to a key witness, killed Victor after torturing him.
Yet her achievement resonated around the world and her death was widely mourned. What lies ahead for Mr Barrientos is the result of one woman’s steadfast dedication to a cause, one in which culture is the weapon and justice is the target.
In life, Victor was a popular folk musician, poet, university professor and dramatist in Chile. In death, his wife turned him into the most famous internationally recognised victim of the infamous rule of General Pinochet and the driving force behind demands for justice.
Pinochet replaced President Salvador Allende in a bloody coup d’etat on September 11, 1973 that ushered in 17 years of brutal repression and the disappearance of over 3,000 Chilean citizens.
In the 1970s and early 80s Victor’s music burst onto the British social, political and cultural scene after Joan managed against all the odds to retrieve his music, rescue recordings and smuggle them out of Chile. Victor’s voice and music became the soundtrack for the anti-Pinochet Chile Solidarity movement, which was as ubiquitously supported as the nuclear disarmament movement was.
The concerts, held in large UK venues, were always packed out. The spare sound of his acoustic guitar and melodic voice telling stories of Chile’s peasants and working people and their efforts in that disturbed but transformative period of the last century, touched souls.
Then in 1984 Joan’s book An Unfinished Song: The Life of Victor Jara was published, offering an insight into President Allende’s socialist, political work and the right-wing coup that ended it. It was also very personal and showed how Victor’s poems and songs concerned themselves with social issues that were influenced by his mixed European-Mapuche origins. It bolstered her campaign.
Also in 1984, despite Pinochet still being in power, Joan returned with her two daughters to Chile to live, having fled in 1973 to her native Britain.
Her work abroad clearly supported the internal efforts of former fellow members of the Chilean New Song Movement, in which Victor was a lead member, and which over time had become a source of quiet cultural rebellion. A recording label helped spread his music in Chile and it began to be performed in clandestine bars and cafes.
To sing Victor’s music became an act of resistance against the powerful regime, and in 1987 the communist youth league, working under the radar, produced the first annual Victor Jara Festival which has sprouted mini editions in foreign countries. In 1993, Joan and friends established the Victor Hugo Foundation and she also founded the Espiral modern dance school in a poor part of Santiago to continue Victor’s cultural work among the poor.
Joan was not alone in her desire to hold Augusto Pinochet to account. In 1998, when Pinochet was in London for medical treatment, he was indicted for human-rights violations by a Spanish magistrate (among the many murdered during the coup was a Spanish diplomat) and arrested under an international arrest warrant. Joan ramped up her activism, calling for an investigation into her husband’s death to be reopened, and demanded that all culpable military officers be identified and tried.
Although Pinochet was never convicted or punished, two months ago an appeal court confirmed prison sentences for seven now elderly, retired military officers of up to 25 years for Victor’s kidnapping and killing.
Barrientos had escaped in 1990, but he was traced to Miami, where he had acquired US citizenship through marriage, but Joan pursued him. The jury in her 2016 civil suit against Barrientos found him liable for Victor’s death. He was ordered to pay damages of US$28 million to the family, and his citizenship was later revoked for not revealing his Pinochet connection in his citizenship application. He was recently arrested during a routine traffic stop in Florida and finally expelled to Chile.
Joan achieved what she set out to do 50 years ago. She made Victor the symbol of state repression and dedicated her life to seeking justice. She will not learn who mangled Victor’s fingers and wrists so that he would never again strum his guitar, but she died knowing that his song
El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (The Right to Live without Fear) is an anthem for peace, especially in Chile.