50 yrs since coup against Allende: Why were Palestinian-Chileans divided over Pinochet's rule?
This week marks 50 years since the US backed military coup against democratically elected Chilean President, Salvador Allende. A coup which led to over 17 years of bloody dictatorship by Augusto Pinochet, who reversed all of Allende’s socialist policies, turned football stadiums into concentration camps overnight, and who oversaw the forced disappearances and murder of thousands of Chileans he and his forces deemed to be left wing.
This traumatic chapter Chile’s modern history remains highly contentious amongst the country’s Palestinian diaspora, however.
The Palestinian community in Chile, which is the largest outside the Middle East with over half a million living in the coastal Latin American country, are a divided collective. These fractions very much run along class lines, and unsurprisingly, this has also meant a contradiction in opinions when it comes to the memory of the Pinochet years.
''When Gabriel Boric emerged victorious in the election, it was the Palestinian-Chilean working class that rallied behind him. This clearly had an impact, because in his first address to the United Nations, he condemned Israeli violence against Palestinians. Then, just a few days later, he even caused a diplomatic dispute over his refusal to meet the Israeli ambassador to Chile.''
Palestinian migration to Chile
Whilst today Palestinians are deeply interwoven into the fabric of Chile’s economy, business, industry, sports and politics, it has not always been the case.
Palestinian migration to Chile is reported to have started from as early as the late 1800’s. They travelled for months on cargo ships departing from Haifa and Jaffa’s ports to the coast of France, onto Brazil or Argentina, then making the rest of the over 13,220 km journey to Santiago mostly on foot.
Palestinians residing in Chile today descend from the Bethlehem region, including Jerusalem and Taybeh, consisting of mostly Palestinian Christians. This was due to the start of the ‘Holy Land Trade’ in the mid 1800’s, where these biblical towns experienced increased demand for the religious handicrafts they produced, creating a merchant middle-class within Palestinian society, who began to travel abroad to sell said goods.
Migration then fluctuated across the span of a century mostly before the Nakba, with one of its most notable waves in 1908, just after the Young Turk Revolution which made military conscription of ‘Ottoman subjects’ compulsory. A military draft combined with the increased religious persecution of Palestinian Christians at the hands of Turkish generals, acted as catalysts in the subsequent mass migration to Chile.
Upon their arrival to Chile, Palestinians were quick to fill the missing gaps as a merchant middle-class in a country that was in the process of industrialisation. They swiftly established stores, businesses, and most notably textiles factories both across Chile and several other countries in Latin America.
One Palestinian who played a significant part in Chile’s recent history, is Juan Yarur-Lolas who after leaving Palestine for Latin America, established a small textile factory in La Paz in 1929. His business was such a success that it garnered the attention of then Chilean President Arturo Alessandri. Through financial incentives, Alessandri invited Yarur-Lolas to establish a larger textiles factory in Santiago, which he accepted and so founded a cotton manufacturing company. In less than a decade it became the largest textiles factory in Latin America.
This birth of a Chilean textiles industry was accompanied by the creation of private banks by its owner. Yarur-Lolas established the Banco de Crédito e Inversiones (BCI), which is to this day one of the leading banks in Chile.
Vast numbers of Palestinians began to mirror Yarur-Lolas’s trajectory in becoming part of Chile’s growing middle and upper class through the thriving Palestinian-run industries.
The Palestinian community’s involvement in politics began in the 1940’s, when some entered local politics as both left-wing revolutionaries as well as defenders of the industrialist right-wing status quo. This was the period that the first Palestinian was elected to Chile’s congress, and then two Palestinians were appointed as government ministers.
The outcome of this saw Chile, El Salvador and Honduras abstain from the UN’s 1947 plan to partition Palestine. Sadly, it was one of the last nationalist acts of the emerging affluent Palestinian class in Chile.
By the early 1970’s widening gaps between the Palestinian working class and middle/upper classes developed. There was increasing political polarisation between the community’s left-wing politicians and its right-wing industrialists whose Palestinian nationalism came second to their desire to protect their newly accumulated wealth. Salvador Allende’s election as president only strengthened this fracture.
Feeling empowered by Allende’s victory, workers across the country began demanding self-management of industries and an end to their exploitation, which led to nationalisation. This started with the textiles industry as it was the country’s largest, and its workers were the most unionised. Yarur-Lolas’s factory was the first to be nationalised.
Consequently, Palestinian industrialists becoming staunch opponents of Allende’s government, with some even playing a critical role in the 1973 military coup against his government.
Left-wing Palestinians like film director Miguel Littin, former ambassador Mahfúd Massis, and former government minister Rafael Tarud, were condemned to exile following the coup, and many others sent to concentration camps and never seen again. Pinochet immediately returned the textile factories to their Palestinian industrialist owners.
Class interests first
Indeed, affluent Palestinians were not hesitating in placing their commitment to the Palestinian liberation struggle second to their class and financial interests. Some wealthy Palestinians funded Pinochet’s dictatorship and served as ministers within his government, as he signed arms deals with Israel and whilst Israeli forces trained his secret police, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA). DINA abducted and murdered over 3,000 people, and tortured over 35,000 more just in the first few years of Pinochet’s rule.
Today, the class divide between Palestinian-Chileans is more prevalent than ever. This was all too evident during the country’s 2021 elections when Palestinian industrialists voted for Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right pro-Israel candidate, whilst working class Palestinians supported either centre-left pro-Palestinian candidate Gabriel Boric, or the leader of the Chilean Communist Party, Daniel Jadue – who is also of Palestinian descent.
Support for Kast was even more polarising given his call for the further colonisation of southern Chile’s indigenous Mapuche region, whose people, like Palestinians, have struggled against settler colonialism.
When Gabriel Boric emerged victorious in the election, it was the Palestinian-Chilean working class that rallied behind him. This clearly had an impact, because in his first address to the United Nations, he condemned Israeli violence against Palestinians. Then, just a few days later, he even caused a diplomatic dispute over his refusal to meet the Israeli ambassador to Chile.
Indeed, both Boric’s election victory and his consistently progressive stance on Palestine during his term, is testament to the determination and efforts of the Palestinian-Chilean working class.
The Palestinian community has undoubtedly had a hand in shaping the last 140 years of Chile’s history, and in doing so its affluent classes have acquired unfathomable wealth and political power. Whilst this should have been utilised for not only the Palestinian fight for liberation – alongside the indigenous Mapuche struggle – it has instead worked against the greater good from the Palestinians, to the poor, oppressed and exploited Chileans.
However, the opposite has clearly been true of poorer Palestinians who have always been committed to the Palestinian struggle.
Furthermore, it is Palestinian students have for decades been active on campuses across the country, successfully campaigning for their universities to cut ties with partner Israeli universities, to shutting down events on campus hosting Israeli propagandists like Yoseph Haddad. They continue to run successful BDS campaigns in their universities, are organising protests on the streets of Santiago and mobilising behind progressive left candidates for government.
The class divide among Palestinians in Chile isn’t uncommon amongst diaspora communities, but it is the urgency of supporting the Palestinian struggle that makes a critique so necessary. What is important, is that Palestinians in Chile continue to forge solidarities among oppressed groups, hold local and national leaders to account over complicity with the occupation, and continue to be vocal on Israel’s ongoing crimes. The Palestinian-Chilean working class has undoubtedly historically carried this torch, they have refused to forsaken the fight for liberation.
Farrah Koutteineh is founder of KEY48 - a voluntary collective calling for the immediate right of return of over 7.4 million Palestinian refugees. Koutteineh is also a political activist focusing on intersectional activism including, the Decolonise Palestine movement, indigenous people's rights, anti-establishment movement, women's rights and climate justice.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @key48return
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.