There is a light that never goes out: MIR is 52 today

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Chile’s political diversity at the time of Allende is widely documented, however none of the other political parties or movements have quite gained the mythical heights than that of the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR.

Notoriously middle class yet widely appealing, the MIR founders and leaders had the ladies swooning, political establishment sweating under the collar and were pretty much clandestine for most of its existence. When the coup was unleashed, its leaders were hunted down and exterminated deemed far too dangerous to even allow to exile.

The influence of Miguel Enriquez, Luciano Cruz, Luis Toro, Bautista Van Schouwen, Andres Pascal Allende, Marcelo Ferrada and so many others, have not been eroded by the passage of time. Indeed the loss of some of these brilliant minds is ever more painful in a world ravaged by the cruel onslaught of neoliberalism.

Happy Birthday MIR!


Homage to an unsung hero: the life and times of artist Santiago Bell 

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“..They either shot you, or they tried to kill you slowly. They tried to kill me slowly, by beatings, torture and madness in solitary confinement. Ten of my ribs were broken and didn’t set properly. My kidneys do not work well because of the beatings. They made me eat shit with a spoon… People say that this has made me wise. Well, I would rather be stupid, and not have had that lesson. I learnt things, but they were all dark things…”  Santiago Bell 1986; survivor of the Torture Centres and Concentration Camps: “Isla Quiriquina” and “Regimiento de Chillán”

Santiago Bell Jara was an Anglo-Chilean politician, artist & exile. MAPU founder, Intendente de Ñuble and later Minister for the Peasant Education Programme (Ñuble) for the Allende led UP government.

His vocation as an educator which led him to work with Paolo Friere and philanthropic leanings were none more evident than when fostering over 20 street children in Ñuble with his wife Myriam, some of whom to this day call him ‘papá’. His political and social convictions permeated every part of his life, including his later phase in exile, as an artist.

Santiago Bell was born in 1932 to a Scottish father and Chilean mother, the eldest of a tribe of 11 kids. He became a teacher, married Myriam Marcò and had 5 children. He was originally a Christian Democrat but became disillusioned and helped form the breakaway political party, MAPU.

His home life was equally busy. With the financial aid of the church, Santiago & Myriam set up the Hogar de Cristo children’s home for street kids in the Rosita O’ Higgins, Chillan, however, their unorthodox parenting style was criticised by the church. Refusing to bend to the pressures of the church, Santiago & Myriam went it alone, kept the children that wanted to stay with them and continued to live with their adoptive & biological children in Chillàn.

On September 12th 1973 Santiago was arrested in Chillàn. He was then taken to the Isla Quiriquina where he was held without any formal charges until 1975. Once he was released he joined his family; Myriam, his 5 children and baby granddaughter in Cambridge, England, where he and his family were granted asylum status.

In Cambridge he shared his first UK studio with local artists and held his first arts exhibition at the University of Essex, showing his piece ‘torture chair’. After a few years of adjustment in Cambridge, he briefly moved to Belgium, and then returned to the UK in the early eighties settling in the East End of London.

He described the East End of London as ‘poor but culturally rich’. It was here that he and a group of local artists set up the now world famous Bromley By Bow centre, and where Santiago would create the pieces that catapulted him into the public eye, Fame that he neither wanted nor courted.
If Santiago had ever written an arts manifesto it may have had only one rule! Art is not for sale, nor is it a commodity to be peddled on the markets.

His resistance to fame led many an exasperated agent down a long and frustrating path with the same conclusion; Santiago was adamant in his disinterest. Many influential people visited Santiago’s exhibitions including the late Lady Diana & the Archbishop of Canterbury.

His artistic process was as consequent as his ideals. He scoured skips, construction yards etc for scrap wood which he fashioned into marvellous three dimensional sculptures depicting his experiences and other interpretations of global events. His philosophy was that people, like these scraps of wood, could be invested in and become great.

In his later years he went back to Chile (1993) with his wife Myriam to a small village near Mellipilla, Maria Pinto. Here he set about building a studio, where he continued to sculpt and also gave the local campesinos free English lessons in a classroom he had built within his studios.

He spent 11 happy years in his retirement in Chile but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005. He passed away in his eldest daughter’s home in Hackney, London on the 17th May 2005, surrounded by friends, family and comrades.

Jorge and Claudia

She was working as a personal secretary for a TV personality; A giggly bubblegum-blowing teen on her first assignment at the nation’s largest television studios. Her mind was preoccupied with fashion, parties and ‘la nueva ola’. Despite the incumbent violence of the newly established political regime, her life was filled with the niceties of showbiz. One day her lifelong best friend and underground political party member asked her for a favour.

It turned out that he had this friend, ‘Jorge’ who was on the run from the secret police and she needed to look after and hide him. It was the end of October 1973 just a month or so after the coup and the country was being purged of all political opposition. Despite the risks, she agreed to carry out the rather curious favour, after all this was her childhood friend asking. The following week she finally met Jorge.

Her first impression of him was that he was rather arrogant and had impeccable manners. His calm blue eyes and impressive stature were not what she originally expected of her new daytime companion. She stood there chewing gum and shyly observing him in the rather tense room. The man, Jorge, was a serious chap. Extremely handsome with long elegant fingers, immaculate fingernails and a very confident quiet manner.

He observed the girl, about 12 years his junior in skintight jeans and platforms. She was annoying and loud and talked constant gibberish.
How awful to be in this predicament so far away from everything he loved, he pondered, And he would have to spend his days with her…He turned to the girl and asked her to stop tapping her feet as it was making him nervous. She looked at the man, ‘Jorge’ and rolled her eyes at the absurd command which she begrudgingly observed. The mutual friend intervened in the awkward standoff between the raucous teenager and serious political figure by pronouncing ‘Your new name is Claudia’ and smiled mischievously whilst ushering them out the door with precise instructions.

They made their way downtown on foot and boarded the bus which was a shock to both of them. Her, because she was from the plushest part of town and him because he was from Concepcion and not as familiar with Santiago as his more urban brother-in-arms ‘Carlos’. The bus was hot and heaving with poor people and weird smells. After an hour long ride they reached their destination; the posh suburbs, and walked to her gated community where he finally achieved a good rest and decent cup of tea.

As the weeks uneasily drifted by, despite their differences they became rather fond of each other. Her anti intellectualism and giddy youth was a welcome respite from the political militancy that had separated him from his son. She learnt lots from him too, he helped balance her frenetic energy and taught her to hold her tongue and maintain composure.
One tedious afternoon he asked if she’d read Marxist-Leninist theory, ‘what is that?!’ She screeched, first to his horror and then to his amusement. Claudia said it was one of the few times she really saw him do a proper belly laugh. After the tough job of gaining his trust she managed to get him to loosen up a few times, not be such a square. There was one frisky afternoon where she briefly sampled his masculinity and another occasion in which she managed to persuade him to come along to a party. She discovered that he was a wonderful dancer but he soon wanted to return back to the quiet, away from the giddy glitz, so far removed from the reality of his possible capture and most likely, immediate execution.

Most of the time he’d be solemn, listening to music and international news on an ancient pocket radio he kept on his person at all times, and expressed his sorrow at being separated from his little son. She listened to him lament not seeing his child grow up: not being able to hold him. She asked him to let her help, her dad could pick up his son and bring him, even just for an afternoon, but Jorge just welled up and nodded no. The risks were too great.
She felt sad for him so isolated, on the run and having to spend his days between meetings and sleeping in safe-houses. On days they had enough money they would get around the city by car but mostly they used buses as they were cheaper and less easy to follow by the secret police.
She tagged along to many meetings and even got to meet ‘Carlos’ the enigmatic first man of the outlawed political party, but mostly nobody paid attention to the young girl and she found their rambling meetings a little dull. Sometimes she would be sent on risky missions to meet a nurse for medical supplies as he suffered from a progressive colic condition.

Over those damp autumn days she became Jorge’s ally, She cared about whether he ate or had proper underwear or the cigarettes he loved to smoke. Their routine had now become like second skin. Her lack of political awareness shielded her from the reality that protecting this man could cost her the things she held dear. Namely, life as she knew it.
Her mother constantly fretted about Claudia’s whereabouts and insisted on knowing why she spent so much time with that older man and had become his chaperone but Claudia kept to her word and brushed off the questions whilst wangling extra money to keep them afloat.

As the indiscernible days agonisingly stretched out before them, Jorge became increasingly agitated. He had not settled into his routine and bad news continually filtered through the networks. In effect his dead-man-walking status haunted him which is why he and James, who was also living in phantasmagoric clandestinity, decided to change tack and go into hiding someplace else where their scent wouldn’t be detected.
James thought that they should take cover in a church downtown. Jorge wasn’t so sure, Claudia intervened, seeing holes and risk in their plans but was promptly brushed off. She pleaded with them to let her hide Jorge in some private land that belonged to her family. They said no and dismissed her ideas as absurd. Undeterred she conjectured that the centrally located high footfall church would not be safe, but her words fell on deaf ears.

The last day she saw him alive was on December 10th 1973. Three days later, the church where they took refuge was raided and Jorge and James were taken by military personnel never to be seen again. It was on that day that ‘Claudia’ discovered ‘Jorge’s’ real name. And then it was her turn to run.

Homage to Bautista Van Schouwen 

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Bautista Van Schouwen, MIR founder, medical surgeon & father was born on the 3rd April 1943.  Today he would have been a not so elderly 74 years young, had his political beliefs not been criminalised to the point of making him one of the Chilean regime’s top ten wanted men.

A first class medical student (achieving among the highest grades in his graduation year) he excelled in pretty much every thing he turned his hand to, from achieving top grades at the prestigious Concepcion University, to founding a political movement & leading a grand ideological revolution. Despite Pinochet’s attempt to remove and extinguish him completely, his memory and influence is still very much etched upon the Chilean psyche.

Much has been written about his ideological viewpoints but not much is known about his person. Devastatingly handsome, reportedly a fabulous dancer and often photographed with cigarette in hand, his cool aura oozes the calm confidence of a man sure of his destiny.

From grainy internet images, photocopied and reposted millions of times, his fiery determination is undeniably eternal. The strength of his spirit and conviction continues to defy the inevitable moulting of time and anger the ones left behind in a world devoid of such a talented and devoted man, Bauchi.

Here is a tribute written by his son Pablo:

Desde el litoral del noroeste de México les mando unas palabras para rendir homenaje a Bautista van Schouwen Vasey, mi padre, y a Patricio Munita. En mis recuerdos intermitentes de niño, veo a mi padre con su mirada tierna y su sonrisa dulce como diciéndome ‘Aquí estoy, no me he separado ni un segundo de tu lado’, y es así como lo siento, en cada cosa que emprendo, en las decisiones importantes que tomo, él está de alguna manera presente, pero su ausencia también ha dejado irremediablemente un gran vacío en mi vida. Bauchi nació en un hogar de padres abnegados y amorosos, Carlota y Bautista, mis abuelos, quienes iniciaron su vida matrimonial en el norte de Chile, en un pueblito llamado Peña Chica (que no sé si todavía existe), y es ahí donde nació Bauchi, el primer hijo, y más tarde llegaron sus hermanos Carlos y Jorge. Después de la detención de Bauchi por agentes de la DINA en diciembre de 1973, sus padres dedicaron años de sus vidas a participar en campañas en distintos países donde se reclamaba a la junta militar chilena que mantuviera con vida a Bautista van Schouwen y lo liberara.

Por todo lo que he leído y escuchado sobre Bautista, me doy cuenta que fue un hombre excepcional, valiente, talentoso, entregado totalmente a la causa del movimiento revolucionario en el que participó desde su fundación, y también en un segundo plano a la medicina, específicamente a la neurología. No creía en la exaltación del martirologio ni en el culto a los muertos ni a los personajes.
Además de su esencia como revolucionario y su activismo político, Bautista tenía espíritu de investigador, de científico, de conocer y entender los procesos sociales de su época. Si él hubiera sobrevivido al golpismo de hace más de 40 años, se hubiera dedicado a estudiar e investigar en profundidad las causas que llevaron a la derrota a su organización, al gobierno de Salvador Allende y al movimiento popular en su conjunto. A conocer y entender la cadena de factores que llevaron a semejante tragedia, que fue particularmente sangrienta en Chile. No podemos olvidar que más de 600 miembros del Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria están entre los miles de desaparecidos y asesinados durante la dictadura.

Bautista estaría hoy sumergido en la búsqueda de información, de testimonios, para dar respuesta a interrogantes cruciales y necesarias, como por ejemplo: ¿Qué no vimos? ¿Qué fue lo que no percibimos a tiempo? ¿Qué nos llevó a mantener nuestro discurso y políticas internas como organización clandestina? o a querer cambiarlos cuando quizás ya era tarde? ¿Qué opciones tuvimos? ¿Por qué el costo en vidas fue tan alto? ¿Cuáles decisiones fueron erróneas? ¿En qué nos equivocamos al evaluar al enemigo? Y seguiría un largo etcétera de cuestionamientos y de visualizar las posibles acciones a tomar.

Seguramente él estaría pensando en cómo promover la discusión sobre estrategias de lucha ajustadas al contexto actual, invitando particularmente a representantes de las nuevas generaciones para que asumieran el relevo en aras de construir una sociedad más justa e igualitaria. Bauchi, padre querido, aquí somos muchos los que te recordamos y añoramos. Estamos en la lucha diaria por vivir y sobrevivir, criar hijos, vivir el amor en pareja, cuidar los trabajos, apoyar las causas justas, defender los derechos propios y ajenos, construir el presente. Pero también estamos y estaremos siempre viviendo la muy dolorosa y controversial paradoja de tu vida, que marcó la mía y la de muchos: Con tu muerte pasaste a ser inmortal.” 

Pablo Van Schouwen

The Santiago Project

Growing up under the influence of Santiago was no easy feat. With two Santiagos in my life both towering, influential and silent, it dawned on me that both were inextricably linked.

The influences of these Santiagos were initially subtle but as the years pressed forward, their presence and mystery has infiltrated my daily life to such an extent that I feel they must be examined closely .

Santiago Bell was my beloved grandfather, a man whom I was in awe of. From early childhood his spirit and moral strength massively shaped my ideas and ambitions. His artwork and incredible life drew many people to him, as did his unshakable faith and philanthropic ideals.

The second Santiago in my life was the place where I was born, Chile. Growing up in the shadow of exile was perplexing and added unnecessary drama to the already complex process of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. I was soon to discover that I inhabit several worlds. The trick was to decipher which one of them I truly belonged to.

The road to our eventual exile in the UK  has been littered with sub journeys.

As I begin to attempt to understand who Santiago was and attempt to extrapolate meaning from his artwork, I hope to be led to the other Santiago. The one I left behind in Chile.