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Chile's MIR: The Revolutionary Left Movement

Urban Guerrillas Declare War on the Pinochet Dictatorship

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Chile's MIR: The Revolutionary Left Movement

Bautista Van Schouwen, Marcello Ferrada-Noli and Miguel Enriquez in their college days

Photo courtesy of Marcello Ferrada-Noli

The MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left) is a Chilean insurgent group that was formed in the mid 1960's. During the 1970's, after the fall of President Salvador Allende, it actively attempted to overthrow the Chilean government, at that time led by Dictator Augusto Pinochet. After several key leaders were captured and/or killed, the MIR ceased being a legitimate threat to the Chilean government. It still exists today as a political party: it has renounced violence and terrorism and is instead seeking change through political action.

Beginnings of the MIR

The MIR was founded in 1965 by a union of leftist student groups, primarily in Santiago. They primarily took their inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, which they hoped to replicate in Chile. They soon found some support in Santiago's poor and working-class neighborhoods and among unions. The most important leader was the charismatic Miguel Enríquez (1944-1974), a tireless, idealistic doctor who served as the MIR's General Secretary until his death in 1974.

The MIR and Allende

In 1970, Socialist politician Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile and immediately began reforms, including nationalization of key industries (such as copper mining), taking over education and health care and beginning work on a land reform plan. There was a personal connection between Salvador Allende and the MIR: his nephew, Andrés Pascal Allende, was one of the MIR's young leaders. The MIR supported Allende, but felt that he was too centrist and that his reforms, while a good start, did not go far enough.

When it became apparent that the military was likely to overthrow Allende, the MIR began an active program of making contacts within the armed forces. Their plan was to convince junior officers of the need to support the civilian government: they hoped that when the time came, these young men would disobey the orders of their superiors and support Chile's democracy.

Chile's top army officers learned of the plan and were horrified: their worst nightmare was a divided army, which could lead to an all-out civil war. They made efforts to identify those young officers and soldiers who had been contacted by the MIR and weed them out: they also increased their pressure on Allende. In early September, 1973, General Carlos Prats, head of Chile's armed forces and a supporter of democracy, stepped down, knowing that his departure would speed up the coup d'etat. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Allende that ended with the President committing suicide inside the presidential palace.

The MIR and Pinochet

Pinochet had struck too hard and too fast for the MIR: sympathetic army officers had been rooted out and the army quickly moved to take the streets of Santiago. A wave of terror spread over the city: the military arrested anyone even remotely suspected of being a communist or an insurgent, setting up concentration camps in the stadium and all over the city. Thousands were rounded up: many were killed. The MIR decided not to face the mighty Chilean army directly, but rather go underground and wait for the perfect time to strike. Many of the leaders of the organization fled abroad.

Meanwhile, Pinochet began modifying the army to fight an urban war against its own citizens, enlisting the help of nations like the United States and Brazil. He created the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate), which soon became known as DINA. He placed a ruthless colonel named Manuel Contreras in charge of rooting out the MIR and other insurgents.

The JCR

The Cuban Revolution had spawned many attempts at imitation, not only Chile's MIR. There were several groups in South America who had similar goals and beliefs, including the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo ("People's Revolutionary Army," known as ERP) in Argentina and the Bolivian ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or "National Liberation Army," several of whose leaders had fought alongside Ché Guevara in Bolivia in the mid-1960's).

As early as October of 1972, the various groups had begun discussing working together, pooling resources, information and safehouses. The union of these groups was the brainchild of MIR's Enríquez, who hosted his fellow revolutionaries in Chile when they came for meetings and military training at the MIR's facility deep in the Andes Mountains.

After the fall of Allende, it was decided to formalize the alliance between the four groups. At a meeting in Buenos Aires, it was decided to name the group JCR, or Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria ("Revolutionary Coordinating Junta"). Enríquez himself had remained in Chile: the JCR would be headed by Mario Santucho, leader of Argentina's ERP. The JCR seemed poised to take on the Southern Cone dictatorships: the Bolivians, with their ties to Ché, brought revolutionary credibility, the ERP had money from a string of political kidnappings, the MIR has a clandestine weapons facility and the Tupamaros were experienced urban guerrillas.

Setbacks

The MIR was hit hard by Pinochet's ruthless tactics. Among the thousands of ordinary Chilean citizens that were detained and tortured (and often killed) were several hundred young men and women with ties to the MIR. They confessed under torture and gave away names of other members, locations of safe houses, information about attacks, etc. Many important MIR leaders were rounded up early; one such leader was Marcello Ferrada-Noli, one of the founders of the MIR and writer of its mission statement: he was locked up from 1973 to 1975 before going into exile. Although the MIR had built up a solid network of safe houses, arms dumps and information sharing during the Allende years, it was all quickly and irrevocably compromised during the first few months of the Pinochet era.

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