“We need to study Marxism. To be a living organization”: interview with José Salas from the “Hugo Manascero” soup kitchen in La Pintana, Chile

At the end of January 2021, we arranged an interview with comrade José Salas, a communist worker, who told us about the origins of the San Rafael neighbourhood in La Pintana, the fight against Pinochet's dictatorship, and the Hugo Manascero Soup Kitchen. In the Octubre group of the International Marxist Tendency in Chile, we consider it very important to give a voice to working-class activists, contributing their experience to historical memory. See Memories of La Pintana on Facebook.

On 13 February, the Marxist Student Federation will host a screening of Santiago Rising followed by a Q&A session with the director, Nick MacWilliam, and Carlos Cerpa (from the IMT Chile-Octubre). 25 percent of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to La Pintana.

Good evening José. To begin, could you tell us about La Pintana and its history?

La Pintana is one of the poorest municipalities in Chile. Specifically, we are in the San Rafael neighborhood, the oldest in La Pintana. This is a land seizure that was made in 1961, carried out by the Communist Party. At that time these places were just farmlands. The seizure was originally made in Santa Adriana, and to get rid of people they sent them here. As far south as possible in Santiago. This was La Granja municipality, and during the dictatorship the municipality was divided into three. An electoral method to differentiate the poor population of the area. When La Pintana was born in dictatorship, they removed all the slums that were in the upper-class neighborhoods, as in Lo Barnechea, and brought them here. They dumped them here at La Pintana. So the area became a dormitory suburb. There are no industries, the worker comes home just to sleep.

It is a neighborhood rich in experiences. From the beginning of the San Rafael land seizure there were soup kitchens. My parents participated in soup kitchens as well. They were members of the Communist Party. Later the soup kitchens were put aside. The Popular Unity government was elected. The mayor of La Granja in those years was a communist and the councilor was also a communist. So these neighborhoods have always been leftist. When the fascist coup came, they raided many slums. But not San Rafael, the raids were directed only against social leaders, union leaders, and party members.

We always were the lowest part of all Santiago. Thus, during the dictatorship, La Pintana saw the first reorganization of political movements. I was very young, I was 15 years old when I entered the Communist Youth. After the fall of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth, a reorganization was carried out and I was invited to participate. We began to think about how to rebuild all the social organisations, because everything had been dismantled. How to recover the neighborhood assemblies, the Sports Clubs, all those organizations that had been lost. And also the mobilizations.

I remember labor in Chile in those times, and the first strikes. There were no jobs anywhere. All the industries had been liquidated. Before 1973, there were big textile factories. In La Pintana there were workers who came from La Legua, where the SUMAR factory was. And there were many workers who worked in the Ministry of Public Works as well. Because there was the Sewer Man Union, among others, they were all organized. As they were all unemployed, one way for the dictatorship to hide the unemployment was to create the Minimum Employment Program (PEM), then the Occupation Program for Heads of Household (POJH).

They would get you to dig holes...

Sure, we would put a stone here and the next day we put it back in the place from where we had taken it. We began to see the need to organize ourselves as POJH in a union. We created a POJH union in La Pintana. We covered the entire sector and we went on strike. The municipality was in Santa Rosa avenue and the mayor invited us to talk. We went and when we got there he sent the police against us.

The appointed mayor in '82.

Image Memoria La Pintana 1"We realized that just by handing out pamphlets we were not going to end the dictatorship" / Image: Memoria La Pintana

Yes, the mayor was the administrator of the Equestrian Club. So he invited us and we went with members of the POJH. We were more than 1,000 people – 120,000 people worked here in the POJH – so we went and they threw the police at us. And a fight breaks out and for the first time we had a casualty, a comrade who was shot dead. I don't remember the comrade’s name, but he was Mapuche. I do remember that, because he was our first death. And the police and the military picked him up and took him to Temuco. So we went back to our workplaces and burned everything. We rebelled, there we went all out. On Lo Blanco Avenue, at that time it was a dirt road, every 100 meters there was a POJH warehouse where they kept tools, shovels, wheelbarrows, etc. We burned all the cellars. And we spent two days fighting against the police. And that's where the other POJHs from the entire metropolitan area joined us. Then the mayor fired everyone from the POJH in the metropolitan area. From there we began to raise the protests and the spark was lit.

When we were all fired from the POJH, there were soup kitchens. The Catholic Church delivered the provisions and the local priest lent us the space to hold our meetings. And the committees for housing were also held in the church. We began to create committees for housing per block, and to organize them. We organized with the Coordinadora Metropolitana de Pobladores.

Then we started the first land seizures, which failed as there were so few of us. At the beginning we were like 300 families. Given the amount of cops they sent against us, we failed. Then in 1983 a land seizure was made, the Raul Silva Henriquez camp was founded. One of the largest in Chile. Because we did it with 15,000 families. To achieve this we had to fight for three days against the police. The first day we fought alone. But on the second day the university students joined. Because right here is the veterinary and agronomy campus of the University of Chile. And on the third day, they surrounded the camp with soldiers. That's when Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez came and brought some ambassadors. The soldiers placed checkpoints in Santa Rosa and Gran Avenida. They stopped the trucks that were arriving with people, so that no more people would continue to join. In the beginning the occupation was a single one, and during the clashes it was divided in two. In the end there were 2 camps, one was in El Bosque municipality and the other in La Pintana.

That was the first land seizure that was achieved during the dictatorship. It was called the Free Territory of Chile. We were organized with defense and emergency crews. We had a small hospital within the camp. Medical students came to serve. And we organized it well. That occupation lasted until the people were taken out of there, they were given a home. From that camp became what is now El Castillo neighborhood. Because they dumped them there. They are marginalized, piling them up in little houses. On a lot where 20 houses should normally fit, there will fit 100. That is why there is a lot of overcrowding in La Pintana.

So this has all been a constant struggle. We have grown up in the midst of a constant struggle against the system. We have been displaced. In the past, if you said you were from La Pintana, they won't hire you. The internet, the telephone companies, they wouldn't come to La Pintana. A Red Zone they said, so it is cataloged.

That Coordinadora Metropolitana de Pobladores you mentioned, who led it?

The bulk were communists. There were miristas. Consider that the other organizations were totally dismantled. They were divided, they split. But there were people from everywhere. There were even Christian Democrats, more progressive ones. I was in charge of the youth section in the Coordinadora. Then my concerns grew.

The thinking changes a lot from one generation to another. Because the previous generation came from a process where the popular government was not won from one day to the next. Rather, it was a long, continuous process of electoral struggle, of laying the foundations of the popular government. And suddenly, there is repression, the organisms being beheaded. That's when we enter, the new generation. And there comes a process also in the Communist Party. We were from the Communist Youth. Many of the old men were still afraid to advance to other forms of struggle. We continued raising our methods, we had to continue taking over places. And there they were also organizing, people from the MIR, socialists, who wanted changes. And we realized that we were always the same people. That we are living just in the next block, but we needed to organize ourselves. That is where the committees for housing began to appear.

We realized that just by handing out pamphlets we were not going to end the dictatorship. And one day I remember, with the boys, there were some comrades from the Christian Left, some from the MIR, and us who were from the Communist Youth, we realized that we needed to prepare ourselves militarily. Therefore we gave ourselves the task of doing military service. I volunteered, I did it at the San Bernardo Infantry School. At 17 years old. At that time it was two years of compulsory military service, but as we were volunteers we did it in one year. And after that we went out to the streets, again to reorganize ourselves. We created a Youth Center called Victor Jara. There we all got together and held football championships with other neighborhoods. With that youth center we went to show solidarity with the strike at the El Teniente mine. We went all out, to scratch all of Rancagua in solidarity.

The strikes at the El Teniente mine and others are important, since in May ‘83 they gave rise to the First National Day of Protest, called by the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC), and later to the formation of the National Workers’ Command (CNT) that brought together the unions willing to mobilize against the dictatorship. What were the slogans that you raised?

The slogans were “Stop Hunger", “Long live the strike of El Teniente", “Down with Pinochet.” Those were the main three. The first slogan that I remember after the dictatorship, do you know what it was? It was an R, which stood for Resistance and Revolution. That was the first, because I saw my older brother who was in the Communist Youth. And after the coup they were graffiting the light poles, and I saw them. By the way, with my wife we were both in the Communist Youth. In 1982, for the First Hunger March, she was arrested for being in the march, she was charged with disturbance of public order. She was about 15 years old and being a minor they kept her for three days.

Then one day they invited me to participate in something else. And there I learned about the Zero Front. Have you ever heard of it?

Of course, the Zero Front was one of the first military policies to emerge from the Communist Party to fight the dictatorship, which later became the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

Image Memoria La Pintana 2"As I was convicted for belonging to a political party, they recognized me as a political prisoner" / Image: Memoria La Pintana

At that time, organizations began to grow here in La Pintana. The parties began to reorganize, with their leadership and everything. Furthermore, the first steps of the FPMR as such took place in La Pintana. Because this was where the organization was more structured. Almost all of us here took part of it, our comrades, all young people. I was the youngest of all. I have several comrades who fell in combat. Amid all those fighting, even I was arrested in '85, and I was imprisoned until '90. And they sent me to the north, I was in Copiapó. When I arrived there, solidarity committees were formed with political prisoners. I was convicted of illegal possession of weapons and explosives. But there was no evidence, they didn't find anything. And also for belonging to a banned political party. As I was convicted for belonging to a political party, they recognized me as a political prisoner. So I had visits every six months from the International Red Cross and the Court of Appeals, because the weight was all on top of me. When I was released, the Front had already dissolved.

I returned to my territory. And pseudo democracy returned to Chile. I also realized how the opportunists arrived. The returnees took over everything that we had organized. And those of us who had fought head-on against the dictatorship were isolated. So we were in a very special position. First, because our main organizations, the parties, were not recognizing us. And the other thing is that we saw that people began to change their point of view regarding the social process and changes. They began to settle for the crumbs.

Let's see, to problematize a bit. Official history says that given the failure of the assassination attempt against Pinochet and the seizure of arms from the FPMR, the path of conciliation and the Concertation of Parties for Democracy was consolidated. It is said that after 1986, the “decisive year”, there was no mass mobilization in the sense of seeking a defeat of the armed forces.

No, the mobilization did not stop. What happened is that in 1987 Chile experienced a very special situation. The United States got in full swing using the media. They began to change all the priests who were more politically conscious, those who came from Liberation Theology. They removed them and they placed priests more akin to the system. This coincides with the visit of Pope John Paul II. The first fight was here at La Bandera Park. The Pope came to meet the poor and they all mobilized. The media only highlighted those who spoke to the Pope, told him that the people were starving. But they did not speak of the clashes that took place in the surroundings of the Park.

Then a machinery was coming to dismantle all the forces that the left had. At that time, the returnees began to arrive. The first to arrive were the Socialists. The first task they did was to make the rank-and-file of the organizations dissociate themselves, among the communists, the MAPU Lautaro, the MIR, to disengage among themselves.

It is said that it was decisive how a sector of the Socialist Party abandoned the historic alliance of socialists and communists, and started looking more towards the political center.

Image Memoria La Pintana 3"Already in 1990 when the majority of the Political Prisoners were out, the machine was in all the parties" / Image: Memoria La Pintana

Towards conciliation with the regime. The socialists came with that mentality. And then came those from the Communist Party. To totally dismantle all the own forces that we had organized. Because we were organized by street. We had an organization in which we could fight for three or four days so that the cops would not enter the neighborhood, organized with the FPMR. They began to dismantle everything, to strip everything we had. The Church no longer helped us with the meeting spaces. We had bought some houses to run Youth Centers with international help. And one day some owners showed up, PPD, Christian Democrats, and we lost those houses. An owner who we didn't know appeared, with papers in hand.

From ‘88 onwards, it was a machine that was determined to destroy the entire people’s movement. Already in 1990 when the majority of the Political Prisoners were out, the machine was in all the parties. Those of us who had been heroes one day became villains. And also there was corruption involved with the money that came from abroad. Some got rich off that money. Money that came from solidarity, which they sent from abroad. It no longer came in, it got lost somewhere along the road. A collective of ex-Political Prisoners was created and after the second meeting, and I realized that it was only for profit. So I retired, I was inactive for several years. I walked away trying to normalize my life because I had to reinvent myself. I focused only on work.

Then suddenly a comrade I have known for many years invited me to participate in the SINACIN (National Union of Industrial Construction and Related Activities), when it was being formed.

In what year was SINACIN created?

It was formed in 2016, when a group of workers affiliated with SINAMI (National Union of Industrial Assembly) became discontented because of the mismanagement of the leadership, which made the union a commercial entity and abandoned the fight for the interests of the workers. We wanted SINACIN to get into the neighbourhoods. To leave the bureaucratic meetings, and go to the social organizations. For example, we, as SINACIN Central in Santiago Centro, managed to set up a clinic. We made an agreement with the Latin American School of Medicine of Cuba. We are going to have Cuban doctors.

In La Pintana, the local Communist Party provides us with an office. I told them that this benefits both us and them. With the commitment that we were always going to be straight with them. So we got to spice up the place. And there the October uprising happened. We got organized and started going to the marches. Every Friday we went to Dignidad Square. Also even with some people from the party. We were going to the Front Line.

And then came the famine. The jobs began to stop. Hence the situation of soup kitchens.

You mean with the uprising or the pandemic?

The uprising. Here mysteriously the supermarkets were burned. The cops guarding them disappeared and the supermarkets were set on fire. Logically that was intentional. They applied a policy of shock. They pit the people against each other. Some people even came out with the idea that we had to stand guard because the other neighborhood was going to attack us. That is a policy of the United States Department of State. They did the same in times of the dictatorship. They would spread a rumour and then it caused panic.

Protestas en Chile Image Carlos Figueroa"There is a need to study Marxism. To be a living organization, because after all we have been through we need to get something good out of this" / Image: Carlos Figueroa

We started to see the level of want. And suddenly soup kitchens were raised. In November we saw the first of them. And in March the pandemic arrived and the vast majority rose. And we said, are we good to set up a soup kitchen? We started to prepare. We asked SINACIN Central for help. Because we had to buy a stove, gas gallons, pots, everything. And find helpers. We created the Hugo Manascero Soup Kitchen Solidarity Committee. But we realized that during the week there were already plenty of soup kitchens working. There were six soup kitchens in San Rafael, which worked from Monday to Friday. In all of La Pintana there were like 30. Then we saw that our game was Saturday and Sunday.

In time we had more people, we made 400 lunches a day. We are now reorganizing. Now we make 150 lunches. The municipality gives us chicken. We make lentils on Saturday, and on Sunday puree with chicken. Then the other week we make chickpeas, and the next day chicken rice. We work with whatever we have. We don't even deliver salad because we can't afford it. The main thing is the links one makes with other organizations. For example, for the anniversary of San Rafael. All the soup kitchens were organized together and we made the main course. Because we have more experience. We have very fast people, who know the quantities well, because everything has to be well proportioned.

First, our focus was helping those families who have COVID. We made a list of people to do home delivery. We were at a critical moment. Because there are so many elderly people here. Then we asked the communist deputies of the district for help. Congressman Amaro Labra gave us gallons of gas. Deputy Camila Vallejos gives us food, the same amount as for all the other 30 soup kitchens in La Pintana. We began to coordinate with the people from the CP and also of other parties. And neighbors. We approached the Neighborhood Council that was abandoned.

And so we have been all year. In December, together with SINACIN, the CP and the Neighborhood Council, we delivered candies for the children. We made a caravan, we went out in a vehicle and passed through the streets, and all the children who came up to us, we gave a bag of candies. The idea was that people would start to organize again. To build links with everyone. To give life to the social organization. But the idea is to move beyond the soup kitchen. We did four Cabildos. Plenty of people came. We put up posters. And we met in a park. They talked about the problems, about what we expected from all this.

And what prospects do you see with the constituent assembly?

Now the focus has changed. Because now all the organizations are directly watching the next elections. Elections of councilors, mayors, governors, and constituents. Here also, as a soup kitchen, we had talked with a comrade who is a Human Rights lawyer about the possibility of putting her forward as a candidate. We as a soup kitchen, as a civil society organization, would send her to the constituent assembly. And the comrade unfortunately could not go as an independent. Because she is already in a party, Revolución Democrática. We started to see the number of seats and this is truly a struggle. Because in the district we would have six or seven seats. But you are almost forced to join a party. And then the parties have already decided who are going to be candidates.

Bombo Fica was supposed to go as candidate here for Chile Digno (a coalition of the CP with the Social Green Regionalist Front). But then they gave us Barbara Figuera (President of CUT, the main union federation, and leading member of the CP): a bad candidate. They gave no explanation. There are problems everywhere because the leadership took over the seats. Here in La Pintana, the Communist Party is the only party that is organized, the only one alive. The rank-and-file are mobilized. But there is a distancing between the leadership and the rank-and-file. It's like if the leading body of the CP is a separate entity from all social organizations. And we perceive them that way. Because, for example, the CUT did not play an important role in the social movement during the October rebellion. They didn't fight when they should have fought. They settled for the crumbs.

So there is a nefarious power underneath these opportunists who appear. That is a kind of animal that exists in Chile, who seeks to secure their job through politics. But this was the opportunity for people to come out, to have better elements for the constituent assembly. So as not to fall into the same thing as the past.

How do you see the future of the soup kitchens and other social organizations in this context?

We have to re-channel to see how much support we have in order to continue. For example, one day someone proposed that we could become a community dining room. That is complicated, because that takes years and years to maintain and if we do not have the resources we are in trouble. I said no, because that's why we set up as a Solidarity Committee, so we can include committees for the unemployed, for housing, etc. And continue providing for people. Organizing people.

This causes wear and tear, but above all other important political tasks are overlooked. What should the role of Marxists be in the face of these social organizations?

The soup kitchen is a moment. A political issue of this moment. But we have to think ahead about how we reinvent ourselves, how we create organizations, to overcome obstacles. You need to be with the people if you want to be participants in a process. We have to turn to the streets. Because many opportunists are taking over. You have to learn from mistakes, it is a constant struggle. I am closely linked to the party, my roots, my family, everything. And you cannot generalize. There are people here who fought, there were comrades who fell. So the great task is how we channel the strength that we have and to connect with the youth. And we have to provide concrete solutions, otherwise we would be making the same mistakes.

I met comrade Hugo Manascero, a communist leader who organized the land seizure of San Rafael. An old communist. In times of dictatorship, and afterwards, we always chatted. He scolded me because I had left, that we “don't have to abandon ship”. And he was right. The only way to change this is to go back to the roots of Marxism. And he told me like this, that “outside you leave the field free for all these opportunists.” For them to destroy everything we have achieved over 100 years, “and you stay on the sidelines,” he told me. In his honor we called the Soup kitchen thus. So there is a need to study Marxism. To be a living organization, because after all we have been through we need to get something good out of this.

We greatly appreciate the interview with the comrade. We verify once again that everything that the workers of Chile have achieved has been on the basis of trusting in their own strength. In the toughest and most urgent hours, they have shown courage, creativity, and loyalty to the organizations they have built and that have awakened them to political life. Unfortunately, it is often the leaders who have fallen short. Their political and strategic decisions have failed at key moments of the class struggle. They have abandoned Marxism, as a theory based on the living experience of the working class. Today a new generation of fighters seeks to organize, and the lessons from every struggle will help provide the means to overcome any obstacle in building a revolutionary leadership for the working class.