Music censorship and restrictions in Chile
– his murder transformed his music into a symbol of struggle against repression across Latin America
From the mid-1980’s the dictatorships were gradually replaced by freely elected, civilian governments. But did censorship and restrictions on the freedom of expression also disappear? Do musicians have the freedom to create, publish and present their music? Officially yes, but has this been the real situation during these last 15-20 years?
A general view
Officially no country in Latin America has political censorship. All countries have signed and ratified The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Convention of Human Rights, also known as The Pact of San José de Costa Rica from 1969.
Article 13, par. 1 in the latter says:
All governments sustain that there is freedom of expression in their respective countries. But the range of interpretations is wide and apparently arbitrary. Which means that censorship is a fact in most Latin American countries, though rarely as explicit political censorship, but most often disguised as charges of “immorality” and “violation of public decency”, etc.
Chile was traditionally regarded as one of the freest and most democratic countries in Latin America until the bloody coup in September 1973, which ousted President Salvador Allende and started almost 17 years of brutal repression.
However, when one looks back at Chile’s history it becomes clear that, in spite of the creation of democratic institutions and the official discourse of democracy and freedom, authoritarian values did predominate in many parts of Chilean society. In fact, until the 1960’s it was mainly the middle class and working class in the cities that knew in practice what democracy means.
Authoritarian governments like the conservative Arturo Alessandri (1920-24, 1932-38), populist Col. Carlos Ibáñez (1922-31, 1952-58), populist Gabriel González Videla (1946-52) and conservative Jorge Alessandri (1958-64) kept a tight control of society through repressive legislation and means of control. Several military interventions during the 20th century complete the picture. In fact it was only during the People’s Front governments (1938-46), Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democratic government (1964-70) and Salvador Allende’s center-left government (1970-73) that a broader democracy in our modern sense of the word was more or less practised.
Historically the elite and the middle classes had an ample margin, and that is perhaps why Chile won a reputation as a democratic country. But books, films, plays and songs could be forbidden for “moral” reasons, and for periods also for political reasons.
When Allende came to power, one early law decreed that at least 40 percent of the music played in the radios should be Chilean. That gave a bigger space for those many folk musicians and songwriters who had popped up during the 1960’s. Many of them – but far from all – had supported Allende’s election. Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Angel Parra, Isabel Parra, Quilapayún, Inti Illimani, Los Amerindios are the best known names from those years, all in debt with the great folksinger and songwriter Violeta Parra.
The freedom of expression was ample during Allende’s almost three years in power, and all parts of the Chilean society benefited from it.
The coup was violent and full of hatred. One of the groups the new, military regime showed a special hatred against, were the musicians, singers and songwriters from what has been known as the Nueva Canción Chilena (The New Chilean Song) “movement”. Víctor Jara was perhaps the most hated by the new regime because of his often precise and acid humour directed against the right and those preparing the coup. He was captured and placed in the Estadio Chile with 5,000 other prisoners, tortured and murdered. Other musicians were jailed, some placed in concentration camps, while others managed to flee into exile.
Hundreds of songs – Chilean and foreign – were banned. Nevertheless many Chileans, thanks to illegally copied and distributed music cassettes, managed to listen to the banned new songs written by those in exile, by the few brave who managed to stay in the country, and by foreign songwriters like the extremely popular Cubans Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés as well as many of the new names from the USA and Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Among the popular, new Chilean groups were Sol y Medianoche (Sun and Midnight) and specially Los Jaivas, who created a kind of fusion between Chilean folk music, Andes folk music and rock with great success. The group was considered pioneer in this new tendency, and was often subject to restrictions or censorship.
Another very popular group was Los Prisioneros (The Prisoners), founded in 1979, during the 1980’s the most popular and best selling Chilean group ever. Playing a music inspired by Los Jaivas and developing what they themselves called “experimental rock pop” the four musicians took up social and political problems. In the middle of the 1980’s they were banned in TV and radio. The effect was that even more people wanted to hear them. Their records were sold in big numbers and many pirate copies were made. In 1987 the group was completely banned. Los Prisioneros was dissolved in 1991, after Pinochet’s defeat in 1988 and 1990, but tried to get together again in late 2001. In an interview with the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina in late 2001 they stressed that not much has changed in Chile after Pinochet left the Presidency.
When general Augusto Pinochet resigned and left the Presidency to the democratically elected Patricio Aylwin i March 1990, it did not mean that full democracy had been achieved. Thanks to the Constitution he had adopted in 1980 he and the military could keep important segments of power and prevent new, democratic laws to be adopted.
One of the most important areas where Pinochet and his partisans succeeded in keeping the old order, was in the area of civil liberties, specially freedom of expression. Censorship on films was maintained. Publication of books and articles “difamating” authorities and institutions could still be banned – the case of journalist Alejandra Matus’ revealing book about corruption among judges of the Chilean Supreme Court, El libro negro de la Justicia chilena (The Black Book of Chilean Justice) was banned when it was published in April 1999 and the publishers jailed, while the author managed to escape to Argentina and then to the USA.
There has also been several attempts to ban music, either in the electronic media, in concerts or distributed on records.
Unfortunately it has been difficult so far to document and verify most of the cases, because very often only little attention has been given to censorship on music, perhaps because most bans on songs seem to have been based on accusations of “indecency” and “violating morality”, clearly a reminiscence from decades of predominance of authoritarian values, and, of course, the cultural, moral and political legacy from the dictatorship, that justified the coup and its violations of human rights with the argument that all this was “necessary” to “defend the values of Western civilization”.
In general the atmosphere surrounding the struggle for freedom of expression is still marked by attitudes and values from the past. That is evident in the presentation in the magazine Revista Cultural No. 26, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of the discussion of new laws in the area of culture, among them a proposal to ease censorship of films. The long article has the title: Las reglas del juego (The Rules of the Game), suggesting that there will still be limitations and restrictions, not that there will be more freedom.
In July 2001 the Congress adopted a law abolishing previous censorship on film (which implies that previous censorship on film music will be lifted too), but it will not be put in force before a new classification system has been adopted. This means that there is still censorship on film, and thus on film music.
The group Sol y Lluvia (Sun and Rain) is one of the many groups that has experienced censorship in the new, democratic Chile. It plays what Armando Labra, guitar player and singer in the group calls “fusión andina” (Andes fusion) with elements from traditional Andes music, rock, punk, reggae and jazz. The lyrics are often very critical of political institutions and social conditions.
(La Estrella de Valparaíso, November 2, 2001).
This is an excerpt from ‘A Survey Of Censorship And Restrictions On Music In Spanish America’ by Jens Lohmann. Published by Freemuse. Copenhagen, 2002.
Jens Lohmann is a Danish journalist and author. He is known as one of Scandinavia’s most knowledgable experts on Latin American music. Born in 1940 and grew up in Mexico.
More information on the internet
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
Ian Smith (UK)
Ariana Hernandez-Reguant (Spain/USA)
Amal Murkus (Palestine/Israel)
Jonathan Walton (UK)
Ole Reitov, Freemuse