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While the media watches the miners,Chile’s ghosts are not being rescued

The media swarmed as 33 copper miners were winched to safety from their underground prison in Copiapo; but what of Chile's more troublesome ghosts?

The rescue of 33 miners in Chile is an extraordinary drama filled with pathos and heroism. It is also a media windfall for the Chilean government, whose every beneficence is recorded by a forest of cameras. One cannot fail to be impressed. However, like all great media events, it is a façade.

The accident that trapped the miners is not unusual in Chile, but the inevitable consequence of a ruthless economic system that has barely changed since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Copper is Chile's gold, and the frequency of mining disasters keeps pace with prices and profits. There are, on average, 39 fatal accidents every year in Chile's privatised mines. The San José mine, where the men work, became so unsafe in 2007 that it had to be closed - but not for long. On 30 July last, a labour department report warned again of "serious safety deficiencies", but no action was taken. Six days later, the men were entombed.

For all the media circus at the rescue site, contemporary Chile is a country of the unspoken. At Villa Grimaldi, in the suburbs of the capital, Santiago, a sign says: "The forgotten past is full of memory." This was the torture centre where hundreds of people were murdered and disappeared for opposing the fascism that Pinochet and his business allies brought to Chile. Its ghostly presence is overseen by the beautiful Andes, and the man who unlocks the gate used to live nearby and remembers the screams.

Heirs of the dictator

I was taken there one wintry morning in 2006 by Sara de Witt, who was imprisoned as a student activist and now lives in London. She was electrocuted and beaten, yet survived. Later, we drove to the home of Salvador Allende, the great democrat and reformer who perished when Pinochet seized power on 11 September 1973 - Latin America's own 9/11. His house is a silent white building without a sign or a plaque.

Everywhere, it seems, Allende's name has been eliminated. Only on the lone memorial in the cemetery are the words engraved, "Presidente de la República", as part of a remembrance of the "ejecutados políticos": those "executed for political reasons". Allende died by his own hand as Pinochet bombed the presidential palace with British planes and the US ambassador watched.

Chile is now a democracy, though many would dispute that. In 1990, Pinochet bequeathed a constitutionally compromised system as a condition of his retirement and the military's withdrawal to the political shadows. This ensures that the alliance of broadly reformist parties, known as the Concertación, is permanently divided or drawn into legitimising the economic designs of the dictator's heirs. At the last election, the right-wing Coalition for Change, the creation of Pinochet's ideologue Jaime Guzmán, took power under President Sebastián Piñera. The bloody extinction of true democracy that began with Allende's death was, by stealth, made complete.

Piñera is a billionaire who controls a slice of the mining, energy and retail industries. He made his fortune in the aftermath of Pinochet's coup and during the free-market "experiments" of the zealots from the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago Boys. His brother and former business partner, José Piñera, a labour minister under Pinochet, privatised mining and state pensions and all but destroyed the trade unions. This was applauded in Washington as an "economic miracle", a model of the new cult of neoliberalism that would sweep the continent and ensure control from the north.

Today, Chile is critical to President Barack Obama's rollback of the independent democracies in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Piñera's closest ally is Washington's main man, Juan Manuel Santos, the new president of Colombia, home to seven US bases and an infamous human rights record familiar to Chileans who suffered under Pinochet's terror.

Living in the shadows

Post-Pinochet Chile has kept its own enduring abuses in the shadows. Families still attempting to recover from the torture or disappearance of a loved one bear the prejudice of the state and employers. Those not silent are the Mapuche people, the only indigenous nation the Spanish conquistadors could not defeat. In the late 19th century, the European settlers of independent Chile waged a racist war of extermination against the Mapuche, who were left as impoverished outsiders. During Allende's thousand days in power, some Mapuche lands were returned and a debt of justice was recognised.

Since then, a vicious and largely unreported war has been waged against the Mapuche. Forestry corporations have been allowed to take their land, and their resistance has been met with murders, disappearances and arbitrary prosecutions under "anti-terrorism" laws enacted by the dictatorship.

In their campaigns of civil disobedience, none of the Mapuche has harmed anyone. The mere accusation of a landowner or businessman that the Mapuche "might" trespass on their own ancestral lands is often enough for the police to charge them with offences that lead to Kafkaesque trials, with faceless witnesses and prison sentences of up to 20 years. They are, in effect, political prisoners.

As the world rejoices at the spectacle of the miners' rescue, 38 Mapuche hunger strikers have not been news. They are demanding an end to the Pinochet laws used against them, such as "terrorist arson", and the justice of a real democracy. On 9 October, all but one of the hunger strikers ended their protest after 90 days without food. A young man, Luis Marileo, says he will go on. On 18 October, President Piñera is due to give a lecture on "current events" at the London School of Economics. He should be reminded of their ordeal and why.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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Chrissie longed to be one of the boys. Unlike us, she didn’t have riot grrrl

Chrissie Hynde has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age.

I keep thinking about Chrissie Hynde’s memoir Reckless, and the controversy that has swirled around her apparent blaming of herself for a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager. The whole sad story says so much about what it used to mean to be a rock fan and a rebel in the Sixties and Seventies. Chrissie tells her tale in a style of swaggering bravado, eulogising her male rock heroes – “I wanted to be them, not do them” – and the biker gangs she idolised (“I loved the bikes and I loved the way they talked about honour and loyalty and brotherhood”).

I heard Chrissie interviewed on the radio about the book and squirming through a line of questioning that accused her of having the wrong attitude to her rape. Hang on, she objected, I never used the word “rape”. And it’s true, she never does, describing the assault instead in a tone which implies that she regarded it more as some kind of awful initiation. She says getting her “comeuppance” was her fault for failing the code, for being too mouthy. All she wanted, it seems, was to be respected by the bad guys, to be admitted to their ranks.

This, understandably, hasn’t gone down well, and Chrissie has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age. Born in 1951, she had no female role models. To be a woman meant to have no place in the rock scene she adored, and so, she writes, “I thought sex was, like becoming ‘a woman’, something to put off for as long as possible.” Desperate to be one of the guys, she accepted their rules – no complaining, no whining, taking it like a man. Hence her macho stance, refusing to blame anyone but herself.

I found Chrissie’s book quite cold and sad, and so I was greatly cheered by then reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. Carrie’s band Sleater-Kinney sprang from the Washington punk and indie scene of the early Nineties, and what her book showed was how much changed in the 20 years or so that separated the two women.

Chrissie Hynde had acted as an individual, an outrider. She grew up going to see the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin, and as for female rock stars at that time, she said, “You could count them on one hand.” But Brownstein was born in 1974, her first gig was Madonna, and by the mid-Nineties she had the whole riot grrrl scene to call on – “a network of people finding their voices”. Both the participants and the subject matter had changed: “Girls wrote and sang about sexism and sexual assault, about shitty bosses and boyfriends.” Feminism and gender politics had reasserted themselves, and this time the girls in music weren’t playing second fiddle.

I remember going to a riot grrrl gig in London. The bands were Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, the audience was women only, and it was thrilling, very unlike the days of punk, when there may have been women onstage but usually men ruled the room. The recent documentary The Punk Singer shows Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill on stage at another gig. “All girls to the front,” she yells. “I’m not kidding. All girls to the front. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back –” and she waves the guys out of the moshpit and towards the back of the club, finally laying claim to a literal space for women to inhabit. It felt like the culmination of a years-long rebuttal of the rules of rock’n’roll.

So it can be easy to forget now that once upon a time, the only available musical identity was male. Even Patti Smith, our heroine and champion for so long now, wrote about seeing Keith Richards and wanting to be him. In the words of that great feminist saying, quoted by Caitlin Moran, “I cannot be what I cannot see,” but Chrissie’s generation took that fact and turned it on its head. They wanted to be just like the guys – and sometimes that came at painful expense to themselves, but in doing so they opened up the options for female identity. And those of us who followed: we could be something new, because we could see them. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis