A group of ex-political prisoners in Chile are on hunger strike demanding better pensions and compensation for the torture they endured under Pinochet's dictatorship. Workers' Liberty activist Matt Weekes spoke to Ben Veraga-Carvello a Chilean refugee living in Britain.
Ben arrived in Britain in 1976, he lived initially in a reception centre for Chilean refugees in London before moving to Sheffield.
As a prominent student activist and a leading member of revolutionary group M.I.R. who had supported the left-wing President Salvador Allende, Ben had been targeted by Pinochet's regime. He had joined the resistance in response to the 11 September coup alongside many who had placed their faith in the country’s democratically elected socialist leader.
Under General Pinochet’s regime it is estimated that between 2,000-3,200 people were murdered, up to 80,000 were interned in prisons and concentration camps and as many as 30,000 were tortured. According to Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission, a total of 250,000 people were detained for political reasons during the 17 years of dictatorship.
Ben was arrested and held in the prison in Temuco, and later in Santiago. After a period in jail he was taken under heavy military and police escort to the airport. Ben had five minutes to say goodbye to his mum and family before being put on a plane. His girlfriend Jacqueline disappeared in August 1974 and was never seen again. She is one of an estimated 1,200 of the “disappeared” of Chile whose fate remains unknown.
Ben doesn't go into detail about what happened when he was caught and imprisoned. However he is clearly still traumatised despite living in another country for 39 years. The sight of someone in uniform shocks him, and when he hears the sound of a helicopter, he remembers the time when he was thrown out of one. Torture was not just common for political prisoners, it was central to a regime that used the lasting memory of an initial 4 months of intensive executions to maintain its power — people could imagine what could be done to them.
Ben still has to walk with two crutches. He says that people often react by showing pity, but that there is not the specialist medical and therapeutic support for survivors, based on a thorough understanding of what happened in the 1960s, 70s and 80s under the military dictatorships that covered South America.
Now, Ben and other Chilean refugees in Britain are supporting other former prisoners who have been on hunger strike in their country since 13 April. They are demanding compensation, a permanent body to oversee the rights of those persecuted under Pinochet’s regime, and an increase in the measly pension paid by the state in recognition of former prisoners’ inability to work after what they suffered.
The payments were calculated on what the Government thought of as adequate for survivors’ individuals needs, around US$240, not what the (mainly) sole breadwinner of a family and household requires to live.
Some of these men are old and their campaign has recently fragmented with some of the strikers suspending their actions in order to consider the Government’s response in a commission formed with the Church, state and other organisations. Others however, continue to refuse to eat, hoping this will pressure the Government.
An inadequate response by the Chilean state to the hunger strikers will further reinforce the feeling in the country and the exiled and refugees, that Chile has not properly confronted its brutal recent past.