Paula Sanchez Castro was a high school activist when she was detained and tortured under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Fortunately her family managed to get her released while many other political prisoners were “disappeared”. She sought political asylum in Australia and today she is a respected human rights activist and socialist candidate for Senate in federal elections to be held in Australia in May. She recently made a moving speech to an International Women’s Day celebration hosted by the Kurdish community in Sydney, ending her speech by singing the famous Chilean song El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.
I spoke to Paula after that event about her solidarity work for the Kurdish struggle.
“Even though it is not exactly the same, the Chilean and Kurdish peoples have a similar story of struggle. It is a story of repression, dictatorships, abuse of human rights against our people — especially the majority of the people, the poor, the workers, the students and, of course, the women. “The struggle of the Kurdish people is our struggle as well.”
Paula took that message of shared struggle to the International Women’s Day gathering at the Kurdish community centre in Sydney but she also brought with her a message of hope for the Kurdish people.
“In 1973, there was a military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet to get rid of the elected government of Salvador Allende who tried to have a government for the people.
“The Pinochet government jailed, tortured, executed and ‘disappeared’ many people all to bring in a new economic model that gave our countries resources to the North American and other multinational companies.
“Even today there are many people still looking for their disappeared children and grandchildren.
“Despite the extreme repression, people resisted. At first it was women, who formed the Mothers of the Disappeared, who took to the streets. But the movement against the dictatorship grew although it took almost 19 years to get rid of the dictatorship. So the Chilean people learned very well what it is to be repressed!
“Since the dictatorship there has been some return to more a democratic process but the constitution that was imposed by the Pinochet regime in 1980 is still in force today. This constitution gives the military and the rich a lot of power, especially in the parliament where 70% have their positions for life. These are the same people who own many of the companies in Chile.
“However, since 2016 the students of Chile began to take to the streets for protests for better conditions in schools. A few years later, university students went back into the streets and began an 8-month-long strike against the rising cost of education. Soon the demands were broadened to take on human rights, the environment and the fact that most of our country’s resources were in the hands of the multinational corporations. Chilean people even have to pay these companies for access to water.
“The protest movement came to a head three years ago when the students took to the streets over rises in train and bus fares. This movement did not stop and then other sectors of the society — including the workers and their unions — joined them.
“Our people took to the streets in big numbers, marching, singing and doing street performances. It was amazing!
“They were repressed. The government in the military but they did not stop. Thousands of students were put into jail and our new president and introducing a decree to give them amnesty, to free them.
“As a result of this movement we won a plebescite to write a new constitution and almost 80% of Chileans voted ‘yes’. Now a constituent assembly has been formed and it has started writing a new constitution.
“We still face many challenges because while we have a new people’s president, Gabriel Boric, the right-wing and their allies still control the parliament.
“The constituent assembly is more progressive and its first president was a Mapuche woman, an indigenous woman. It is continuing to work on a new constitution against all odds.
“And now, on 11 March, our new President of Chile was inaugurated. He is the youngest president we have ever had — he is just 36 years old.”
Paula said that one of the first laws the new president approved was for an amnesty for all political prisoners who are in jail because of taking part in the protests of the last three years.
“So I want to say to my Kurdish sisters and brothers that there is hope!”