Fifty years ago today, I was packing to take an afternoon flight to Santiago, Chile. I was on vacation on Bowen Island, it being summer here and winter there. I had been living in Chile for a year, working as a freelance print and photo journalist. Word was that Allende was going to make a key speech on September 18th, calling for a referendum and I wanted to be back by then. I had the radio on and there was a brief news item- “The Chilean army has given President Salvador Allende five minutes to surrender!” and then on to sports. That’s what I remember. It was like a physical blow.
I tried to call a friend in Chile. I actually got through and was told- “Don’t come back; they’re shooting people in the street. It’s over!” My thoughts of somehow getting back through Argentina or Peru to fight in some kind of civil war- like Spain in 1936- vanished. Here, my associates on the far left were calling me to help found a solidarity committee. The Chile Solidarity Committee started up the next day. By that Saturday, September 15th, we had organized the first demonstration.
That fall there were endless meetings, some demonstrations and public events. Two events stand out. The first was the occupation of the Immigration office in Vancouver in November. It was a combined effort between solidarity committees in several Canadian cities including Toronto and Montreal. We figured that simultaneous occupations demanding the government let Chilean refugees in would be effective. We were going to occupy the passport office but the night before I got a phone call at home. The voice on the phone said “I am a police officer, and we know you are going to occupy the passport office tomorrow. I think Salvador Allende was a good guy and I am a socialist.” He then hung up.
We had a problem. Several of us went for a walk- and then a drive to find an alternative site- the head office of Immigration on Georgia. The next day when our group of twenty or so assembled only the drivers were given the address in writing. We arrived at the Immigration office, and they were taken by surprise. We sent one of ours to the passport office and she reported the place was full of big, burly guys reading newspapers. We got lots of coverage including a live national interview on CBC’s As It Happens. Finally, we were arrested and dragged out of the office. I was chosen by the cops to be the test case. I was charged with assault for resisting being moved. I hadn’t resisted and eventually I was acquitted. We had made a deal. If I was found guilty everyone would plead guilty. If I was acquitted the police would drop the charges and that’s what happened.
The second event was a series of meetings with Hortensia Allende- the widow of Salvador Allende. She did a Canadian tour, and our committee organized the Vancouver meeting with other groups. The Vancouver meeting was a big success. It was at John Oliver High School. The auditorium holds around a thousand folks, and it was packed. We brought in a video feed and broadcast the meeting to several hundred more in the cafeteria. There were meetings at the campuses as well.
In the months after the coup, I was a full time volunteer solidarity activist. I felt I was giving back a fraction of what Chile had given me. What was that? Well… I saw that socialism could be a real thing- I had seen workers running factories, peasants taking over the land they farmed and much more. That experience stays with me today. I had seen the possible. Mavis Staples wrote a song about the civil rights movement in the United States- My Own Eyes, and it rings true in my memories of Chile- “My own eyes, I saw it with my own eyes…” I also discovered a world of music I had never heard, the Parras, Daniel Viglietti, tango, Victor Jara, Quilapayun, Inti Illimani, Illapu… an important part of the soundtrack of my life. Plus, pastel de choclo, empanadas… the language, the humour a lot of sounds, tastes, and feelings. Fifty years after the coup it remains an important part of who I am.
The solidarity work went on for years in one form or another. We saw Chilean and other Latin American refugees get in. We supported various resistance activities inside Chile. One thing is for sure. Vancouver changed with the arrival of Chilean and other Latin Americans who were able to come here in small part because of the work we did, and Vancouver is a better place for it.
To learn more about Gary Cristall, please visit https://www.garycristall.com/