The massacre of the Magallanes Workers’ Federation
You encounter one monument to a massacre of workers in Argentina and then come across another one in Chile – the events occurring at very much the same time. Although not necessarily directly connected they were both part of a show of determination of the ruling class to use the forces of the State against workers who were organising in both countries against the adverse effects of the end of the war of 1914-19 and the impetus given to the world proletariat with the success of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917.
Workers and peasants had been establishing organisations to fight for their rights since the late 1880s in Chile but there was no common structure to represent their interests until the Federación Obrera de Magallanes (FOM – The Megallanes Workers’ Federation) was established in June of 1920.
This was too much for the landowners and industrialists and were able to mobilise the army to carry out their wishes. As with the Frie Korps in Germany (the basis for the fascist groupings of the Brown and Black Shirts) and the Black and Tans (who would have been fascists if they were intelligent enough, just thirsting for more blood after leaving the trenches of the Western Front) who butchered Republicans and terrorised the general population in Ireland in the 1920s there are always those from the working class who are prepared to carry out the wishes of the ruling class.
This attack in 1920s Punta Arenas, however, seems to have been a precedent for the military and fascist regimes that were to dominate so many Latin and Central American countries from the 1960s to the 1990s.
If we look at the ‘justifications’ for the actions of the military in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru and virtually all of Central America during that period there was always the idea that they were ‘defending’ the state, ‘protecting values’ and ‘promoting stability’.
And they would always have the media and the judiciary on their side. Illegal actions not being ‘punished’ and the events not even being published in the newspapers so that those not directly involved would not necessarily know of the events.
So to try to précis the events.
Members of the FOM knew that things were getting to a crisis point and began to protect their offices were they organised their activities and also published their newspaper (El Obrero – The Worker). However, tensions appeared to have been reduced and so they subsequently reduced the number of people at their building in the centre of Punta Arenas. (I’ll have to try to identify the location when I return in a few days.)
But at 03.00 on the morning of 27th July 1920 an unspecified number of soldiers and police surrounded the building and opened fire for no other reason than they could. When you know no one is going to hold you to account why do you need a reason.
They attacked the building and, in the process, set it on fire. Some of the workers were armed and fought back but as the building fire got more established and they were forced to leave they were just gunned down at the doors. The fire brigade in Punta Arenas responded quite quickly, as far as I can see, but when they tried to set up their hoses they were threatened – with death – by named officers of the police and army.
Those who weren’t able to leave were burnt to death. The numbers of those who died has never been exactly determined.
Not just in the building that night but in the round-up of ‘suspects’ in the next couple of days.
There’s supposed to be a grave with a number of names of those murdered that night and subsequently in the Municipal Cemetery of Punta Arenas. I wasn’t planning to make a visit there but will also add that quest to my return visit to the city in a week or so.
No newspapers appeared for a couple of days and when they were published no mention was made of the affair.
The attack and murders had their effect. Union and socialist political activity in Chilean Patagonia was severely set back, although not totally destroyed. This incident was a forerunner of the murder of more than 1,500 workers from the countryside in the El Calafate region of Argentina in 1922.
As I write this I remember what some Chileans I met in Britain said after the September 11th 1973 Pinochet military coup. They said that their country had a ‘tradition’ of ‘democracy’ and ‘peaceful’ transition. Did they not know of this event? Were they not aware that the Chilean ruling class, and its ability to call upon the resources and ,enthusiasm of the country’s sycophantic and psychopathic military and police, would stop at nothing to maintain their power? Were they not aware this has been, and will be, the situation in any country, in any epoch, when the workers and peasants rise up against entrenched wealth and power?
One of the tragedies of being old enough to have seen young men and women being held like animals, in the first days following Pinochet’s coup, in the Santiago football stadium, was the fact that they didn’t seem to be aware that once you rattle the lion’s cage it will bite. And bite it did. The result being the changing rooms for football teams being turned into make-shift morgues – before the disposal of the bodies wherever the military saw fit – sometimes letting the families know, sometimes not.
(A cinematic telling of that story, which is highly recommended, is the film ‘Missing’ directed by Costa-Gavras, of 1982.)
But back to the murder of the workers in Punta Arenas.
I’ve come across a short paper about the events and it is from that document that I’ve created this précis. It’s in Spanish but online translation programmes are becoming so efficient you can get a good idea of what the story is all about.
Now a few comments about the monument – as that’s one of the aspects of representing workers’ struggles that particularly interests me – not least from the posts I have made about Albanian Lapidars.
I don’t know what caused this event to be celebrated by the inauguration of a monument in 1968 (and I’m a little bit confused why the Pinochet Fascists (in an important military naval port as was, and is, Punta Arenas) didn’t destroy the structure soon after the coup. After all Pinochet was an Admiral.
I’m more into the figurative representation of workers struggles, whether successful or not, and abstraction doesn’t work for me in such circumstances.
I think what the artist is trying to say is that workers are trapped in something so powerful that, although they can look out they can’t escape the powerful embrace of the system. A bit like a fairy tale where a person, whether good or bad, is trapped in a tree and needs something external to release them.
Obviously what workers need to release them is the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
The problem with such monuments is that it commemorates the past but doesn’t give any guidance for the future.
It’s also quite a long way from the centre of town where the events actually took place so the placing of the monument where no one will see it can appear merely to be a sop to certain forces in society.
I’m sure that no one has been condemned, even posthumously, for this unprovoked and murderous attack. Quite the opposite. I’m sure somewhere there’s a monument to those very attackers for other ‘patriotic’ activities.
But at least there are (or were) some people in the city who thought that it was worth while remembering those who had fought and died for the interests of the working class.
The Memorial Stone
‘La Municipalidad a los martires de la Federación Obrera Magallanes caidos el 27 de Julio de 1920.
Punta Arenas Julio 27 1968’
The words carved into the stone translate as:
‘The Local Government commemorates the martyrs of the Magallanes Workers’ Federation who fell on the 27th July 1920.
Punta Arenas, 27th July 1968′