Since his tragic death nearly forty years ago, Víctor Jara has become a symbol for human rights, especially as they relate to the abuse of power against an innocent populace that desires representation of its own interests. His death occurred in September 1973 as a result of the political turmoil that enveloped Chile after a military coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet removed Salvador Allende’s government, which was both Marxist in its political allegiances and democratically elected in 1970 by the Chilean population. Such a leftist political occurrence earned intense ire from Richard Nixon, then embroiled in the Cold War and the fear of a Communist domino effect in Latin America, and in a wider sense, in the West, that had begun with the revolution in Cuba in 1959.
According to (at the time) head of the CIA Richard Helms, Nixon instructed the intelligence agency in 1970 to “make the economy scream” in Chile so that Allende’s government would be weakened and made vulnerable to a takeover by a government sympathetic, and with an allegiance to, the United States’s business, trade, and political interests (Allende had, for example, nationalized US-owned copper mines). (The CIA has suggested that while it funded propaganda and political opposition to Allende’s government, it was not directly involved in the 1973 coup, although attempts to organize a coup in 1970 by the agency were rejected after consideration of the extent of loyalty Chile’s military had to its country). As Pinochet’s troops took over the country by force, Allende committed suicide.
Among the most destructive events of this period was the persecution of the political opposition to the right-wing in the country that followed in the aftermath of the takeover. The story of Jara’s death in this aftermath is now infamous. In the days following the coup the Estadio Chile in Stadium (now named the Estadio Víctor Jara) was turned, along with many other structures in the country, into a prison camp. Here Jara was brought after being arrested, and detained for four days; he was evidently pointed out as a leftist singer by a commanding officer, and thereafter tortured, having his hands broken into pieces while soldiers mocked him to “play for them” (to which Jara began to lead the prisoners in a song of definance). At the end of the four days he was murdered by machine gun fire, before having his body dumped in the street.
As a song, “Luchín” demonstrates the qualities which have made Víctor Jara such an important voice in music. In four stanzas Jara communicates a story that is both isolated and specific in its descriptions, while appealing to wider problems in which the population must work against the brutal effects of poverty. The song describes a young, impoverished boy, “fragile as a kite,” who sits along the top of a ravine with his hands purple from the cold. The child plays with a rag ball while a cat, a dog, and a horse look on. Jara concludes the song by singing, “If there are children like Luchín/who live on dirt and worms/let’s open all the cages/and let them fly away like birds,” echoing the song’s first line where Luchín is compared to a fragile kite, the symbol itself ironically contrasted against the destitute conditions the boy is rooted to by his poverty.