Hora Chilena in words: Leo Castillo’s reunion speech

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Leo Castillo was a prominent member of Cambridge's Chilean community. At the Hora Chilena reunion event which saw people reunited after decades of lost contact, he was asked to say some words. His speech, recounted here, was an thought-provoking recollection of the sometimes dark, often humorous journey and always eventful journey of the Chilean exile and their British helpers, which looked to the future with optimism.


Dear Friends,

When I received Camila's invitation to say something today I said to myself: 'Poor girl. She is really running out of options for guest speakers.

But here I am and as an alternative speaker and from the bottom of the barrel it is for me a great pleasure to be again among so many friends, people who were such an important and significant part of our lives in the first years of exile.

Looking at you the old memories of those initial years in this country, when we work together to denounce and indeed defeat the brutal military dictatorship in Chile, come back again and they are happy memories of collaboration and good will, of generosity and understanding.

But it is impossible not to mention what brought all of us together in this common enterprise. Forty years ago, on September 11th, 1973, a military coup put an end to our hopes for a better Chile where social justice could prevail, where individual liberties and economic progress could be expanded into the mass of the population.

The velocity and ruthless efficiency of the military intervention painfully exposed our incapacity for dealing with an event of this magnitude. We simply were not prepared. We lived with the enthusiasm and the demanding tasks of creating the Chilean Road to Socialism.

We, at the same time, embarked ourselves in long and, in retrospective, empty discussion and squabbles about political strategies and insignificant differences about tactics. How naive we were. While we discussed the footnotes of this major script that was the Unidad Popular the military were busy writing the book of terror and oppression.

What follows is very well known and abundantly documented. They are the dark and terrible years of the dictatorship with the creation of concentration camps, torture and assassinations. Individual liberties disappeared and a State of Fear was imposed on all us.

The international opinion reacted to this outrage with remarkable swiftness. There was open condemnation of what was going on in our poor country and many nations open their doors to receive political refugees. England was particularly generous.

An important part of the foreign aid under the Wilson administration was earmarked to help Chileans to come to the UK. Many converged to Cambridge, some forced into exile, others looking for the freedom that had disappeared so completely.

Gradually a large number of Chileans and their families formed a large community in this town. It was a rather complex group. Practically all political parties from the left were represented, there were strong differences in professional background and social composition.

But in spite of our differences cohesion and harmony were achieved. Diversity was the reality, unity the final product. Obviously the common purpose of fighting the dictatorship and helping our comrades in Chile gave us a space where we could create a very active community. Most of the differences were set aside and we embarked in what were to be 15 or more years of useful, constructive initiatives to advance the quest for freedom in Chile.

But there was another crucial factor that made a success of our committee and in general contributed to the well being of the Chilean community as a whole. This was the one vital ingredient that injected extra doses of common sense and stability.

And that was the constant collaboration and support of our English friends in Cambridge. So many of them gave, with extraordinary generosity, their time and effort to help us and in some cases to guide us into the most effective way to influence public opinion and gain new supporters. Their presence was invaluable to us.

They made us to feel welcomed and part of something bigger than a purely local activity. They gave us their friendship and constant enthusiasm. There were so many of them that it is almost impossible to mention everybody and I am sure that each one of us could add more names to what came to be a very long list long list.

Just to mention a few that worked with us in the first years of exile in Cambridge:

Ian Wright and Penny Pollit
Frank Liddiar and Anne Marie Liddiard
Etel Shepherd and Bill Shepherd
Julia Napier
Alan Tait and Anne Tait
Sophie Rinvolucri
John Stewart
Susan Brown
David Mourton
Janet Jones
Lissie Mussell

And so many others. We have a debt of gratitude to them and we want once more to say thank you. Some of them are here with us today. Why don't we give them a token of our esteem?

Gradually the long fight against the dictatorship was starting to change the total hegemony exercised by the military. It was not an easy battle and many comrades in Chile paid the ultimate price in this long struggle for democracy and justice.

Opposition to Pinochet was taking a more coherent profile and in 1988 a plebiscite, that was supposed to ratify Pinochet as the president of Chile for another eight years, came as an emphatic 'NO' to the dictatorship.

The transition to democracy had started and it grew and become more and more robust. I remember that Alan Tait said to me: "Leonardo, I am not used to winning." He was right, it was a victory. They say that Victory has many fathers, Defeat is an orphan, but not in this case. This moment of victory belonged to all of us and it was good to celebrate and rejoice.

The terrible lesson left by the dictatorship in our country is that democracy must be defended constantly. It is not a natural organism but something precious that must be nurtured, protected and preserved.

This is well understood by the young generation of Chileans. Their courage today, their determination to expand the range of political liberties, to establish a wider basis of economic justice is not only refreshing but a real hope for the future.

They, the new Chileans who are constructing a better country in Chile, bring to reality the real significance of the last message of Salvador Allende to the people, broadcasted from el Palacio de la Moneda under siege. His words, after 40 years, still come strong and true, full of courage and hope.

I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seems to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner than later the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

 

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