Calle Santa Fe: Remembering Those Who Fought

Calle Santa Fe 2007 / 35 mm / Colour / 163 min, Dir. Carmen Castillo, Chile – France.

On October 5th 1974 the Chilean military and political police (DINA) raided a safehouse in a working class neighbourhood in Santiago. Miguel Enriquez, a leader of the underground resistance to Pinochet and a hero of the revolutionary left, was killed and his fellow combatant Carmen Castillo was seriously wounded in a two hour long shoot out.

Castillo, who was six months pregnant at the time, was then dragged into Santa Fe street (“calle Santa Fe”) and left there bleeding as soldiers argued about what to do with her; she would likely have died were it not for a neighbour who called an ambulance and insisted that it drive through the military lines to rescue her. Amazingly, the driver agreed and the soldiers did nothing to stop them.

Even once at the hospital, Castillo was not out of danger. Soldiers arrived, and what might have happened next – torture, detention, execution – was all too clear. Yet a nurse got to a phone and made a call to Castillo’s uncle, and then the word was out: the junta was trying to kill a wounded woman, a pregnant woman at that. It struck a chord, and there was international outrage, and the junta – eager to be rid of this problem – had Castillo and her children exiled to France within a month. And so in this way we will be told that “the dictatorship could not overcome the acts of anonymous people.”

In the years following memories of the shootout on calle Santa Fe would haunt Castillo, and would eventually push her to write and make several films trying to come to grips with what had happened. As if the superficially simple events of the day – “police killing guerilla resisting dictatorship” – were like one little loose thread, as she would tug on the story, Castillo would come up against questions – how did the police find the safehouse? who talked and why? – which would eventually see her re-examining the mythology of the resistance, and for a time have her excluded from it.

Castillo’s latest film, Calle Santa Fe, recaps the events of that day, introducing us (briefly) to the radical left and the resistance to Pinochet she was a part of; but mainly this is a film about about how repression and exile, political errors and defeat have played themselves out in the film maker’s life, the lives of her children and those of her comrades. Through her eyes we see what society looks like after fascism, after the butchers have safely retired and everyone else tries to pretend life is normal. We see this is as Castillo travels back to Santiago, to the house on Calle Santa Fe where Enriquez was killed and she was wounded, to the city where she meets family members – who have quite different feelings about her political activities – and also former comrades and neighbours.


The Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left, was founded in Chile in 1965 during the conservative pro-American presidency of Eduardo Frei. It brought together students, trade unionists, anarchists, Trotskyists and radical Christians, and was heavily influenced by the example of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who had led a revolution in Cuba just six years earlier.

While it has been claimed that it was primarily a student group with little base among Chilean workers, according to the former members interviewed by Castillo the MIR found its strongest support amongst the poorest sections of society, presumably the unemployed, landless peasants and Indigenous people. According to one source, by the early seventies the MIR had only 2,000 members, as compared to the Socialist Party’s 80,000 and the Communist Party’s 100,000 within the Chilean working class. (In the Chilean context at that time the Communist Party was far more conservative and timid than the left-wing of the Socialists, being the strongest advocate of a peaceful strategy class collaboration, and a vicious critic of the “extremist” MIR.)

For the entire Chilean left this time was of course marked in every way by the election of Salvador Allende as president in 1970. The socialist Allende was the candidate of Unidad Popular (“Popular Unity”) a coalition of left-wing parties which included the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Party, Social Democratic Party and MAPU. Under his leadership the Popular Unity government would follow a cautious strategy, nationalizing key industries while also reaching out to the middle classes and right-wing military officers.

Calle Santa Fe does not tell us how Castillo ended up on the revolutionary left, and then in the MIR, but she has written about this elsewhere. As Mary Jane Treacy has summarized in Carmen Castillo and the Politics of Forgiveness :

…Carmen Castillo, daughter of the former rector of the Universidad Catolica, lived at the heart of the MIR throughout much of her young adulthood, an involvement that embraced not only her political affiliation, but also her social group of friends, lovers, and family. She reveals that her entry into revolutionary life at seventeen was primarily an infatuation with “la belleza del compromiso,” the beauty of political commitment and obedience to those who embodied it. Thus she first turned to Beatriz Allende, daughter of the future president, and was fascinated by the young woman’s refusal to conform to the norms of seductive femininity, insisting instead upon maintaining a serious mien that befitted her role as member of a guerrilla organization. Castillo’s response to this example was to obey “la Tati:” “[m]e fascinaba su saber y su rigor, gustaba de obedecerle sin cuestionar, me plegaba a sus ordenes, buena alumna”/ I was fascinated by her knowledge and inner strength; I enjoyed obeying her without question; I followed her orders like a good student (vuelo 115). Castillo joined Allende’s revolutionary group, serving as go-between (“buzon”) with militants in Bolivia, and repeating that she must fight unto death (“luchar hasta morir”).

As Castillo fell in love with Beatriz’s cousin, Andres Pascual, who gave her a theory of revolution to interpret her practice, she entered into the leadership circle of MIR, married this Allende and had a daughter, Camila. When soon after she fell in love with Miguel Enriquez, she abandoned her flamboyant style (“good-bye to mini-skirts,” she announces) to embody the simplicity of a serious revolutionary, following the wishes of her new com-panero: “me sentia alegre, descubria el gozo de obedecer a las exigencias del hombre amado”/ I was happy; I found the joy of obeying the demands of the man I loved (vuelo 120).

[quotes from El vuelo de la memoria, by Carmen Castillo and Monica Echeverria. Santiago-Paris. Santiago: LOM, 2002]

While the MIR – which officially rejected electoralism – was well to the left of the Popular Unity government, it was not opposed to it, but rather maintained a position of critical support. For example, one of the former MIRistas interviewed by Castillo recounts how in 1970 the group temporarily called off all its actions in order to not hurt the Allende’s chances at the polls. During the election campaign the Popular Unity candidate’s own security corps was provided by the MIR, as the police could not be trusted and the groups own intelligence operatives inside the military and the right had warned them of plots against Allende’s life. In fact Castillo tells us how some of Allende’s MIRista bodyguards were being sought by police at the same time as they guarded him. Little surprise that following his victory the new socialist president would pass an amnesty for all members of the organization.

The MIR’s chief criticism of Allende was that in opting for a “constitutional”, legal and peaceful road to socialism, the new government was too intent in currying favour with the middle class, which meant sabotaging the radical workers’ and peasants’ movements and relying on the army to remain neutral and play its “traditional” role as protector of the State. The MIR, the only left-wing party to not officially participate in the Popular Unity government, advocated the creation of dual power structures as a step towards setting up a workers State. Rodriguez and other MIR leaders argued that that instead of relying on the army to protect it the government’s only chance lay in arming and empowering the grassroots organizations of the working class while democratizing the armed forces, removing power from the anti-communist officer corps.

As an example of how far Allende was willing to go to placate his ruling class enemies, in 1971 when the MIR published its programme regarding the army and police forces in its newspaper El Rebelde, the Popular Unity government had all copies of the paper seized and laid charges against the programme’s author. A sad sign of where things were at, all the more so as the last two point in the MIR’s “scandalous” programme were that soldiers and police should “disobey officers calling for a coup” and “join with the people in their struggle against the capitalist class.” (see Chile the State and Revolution, pages 193-4)

The MIR’s criticisms were proven right on September 11th 1973, when the armed forces rebelled against the left-wing government, murdering Allende and bringing to power a military junta under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet – ironically, a man Allende had trusted to be his eyes and ears within the armed forces.

Castillo gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a revolutionary on that day: the MIR sent word to Allende in the Moneda (presidential palace) offering to rescue him, but the president – “mindful of the power of symbols” – refused, even though he knew it would mean his death. Instead, Allende sent word back to the MIR, telling his left-wing critics that it was up to them to “continue the fight”.

At first, comrades helped mount barricades in the working class neighbourhoods of Santiago, despite the order to go underground. The initial feeling was that this was where the people were making their stand, and that this was the proper place for revolutionaries. But by the end of the day it seemed that the army had crushed this resistance, and as night fell the entire organization went underground.

i wish Castillo had spent more time on this period, the lead up to the coup and its immediate aftermath. After skimming the book Chile: State and Revolution (by Ian Roxborough, Philip O’Brien and Jackie Roddick, Holmes and Meier Publishers 1977) i feel that there are a few things which just aren’t mentioned in Calle Santa Fe, and should be. Not that i am unsympathetic to the filmmakers position – this documentary is almost three hours long, and i know that if she had provided all the details i would want it would be at least twice that. Still, in the interests of filling some of these gaps, i’ll take a moment and mention a few points here…

According to Roxborough, O’Brien and Roddick the MIR benefited from having the correct analysis of the possibility of “peaceful change”, but suffered from a very limited influence amongst the working class and peasantry. They even claim that many of the land occupations which were attributed to the MIR at the time were in fact autonomous actions of peasants or Mapuche Indians, and that accusation that the MIR was involved were a political smear, nothing more. Although they were correct in predicting that the “constitutional road” would prove itself to be a mirage, along with most of the radical left they did expect the armed forces to split, with a section moving to defend the Popular Unity government. When this split failed to materialize, the MIR was as lost as everyone else.

Also, i wonder if the rosy picture of relations between Allende and the MIRistas is not a case of wishful thinking some thirty years after the fact. As a martyr Allende has become a powerful symbol of resistance to fascism and imperialism, his decision to face death in the Moneda rather than flee or negotiate with the coup leaders being one of the most evocative images of that day. Nevertheless, the historical record is clear: in the lead up to the coup Allende was part of the more conservative faction of the Socialist Party, which along with the Communists formed the “right-wing” of the Popular Unity government, and as such opposed those efforts which might have actually have helped prepare the working class to resist the impending massacre. Perhaps there was personal warmth, friendship even, between individual MIRistas and Allende (after all, the presidents own nephew was a leading member of the organization!), but this did not prevent the PU government from trying to reign in the radicals as part of its strategy to woo the middle classes and the officer corps. i am left with the impression that some of the nice things all those interviewed by Castillo had to say about the martyred president might be just a bit exaggerated…

One more point worth clarifying: in terms of actual resistance to the coup, it is true that the MIR like others on the left called for a strategic retreat on the 11th, telling members to go underground. In retrospect, this was clearly the correct decision, the only one which did not lead directly to torture – often followed by death – at the hands of the military. At the time it seems that the MIRistas believed that everyone else was doing the same thing, and that the army had smashed the workers’ resistance by the late afternoon. Yet in terms of honouring the dead, we should note that on this point the MIR were wrong: workers continued to fight for days after the Allende was killed, often led by radical members of the Socialist Party, and snipers continued to pick off soldiers for a week in the popular neighbourhoods of Santiago. Finally the military resorted to aerial bombardment and random massacres, the hallmarks of fascism in power, to terrorize the neighbourhoods and put and end to this popular, though disorganized, resistance.

Despite these minor holes, i found what Castillo and her old comrades had to say about this time to be of great interest, all the memories fascinating because they were so real. People told how they had read books about how to operate in clandestinity, about how to live a guerilla existence, but that when the time came they were completely unprepared, out of their depth. They threw on clothes that had been in style in their grandparents’ day, men shaved their beards (and all stood out because their chins were whiter than the rest of their face!) and put on ties, and to the best of their ability they disappeared to organize the next stage of the resistance.

Those interviewed by Castillo are not so much typical of the MIR’s fighters, but rather of those who survived, for by 1974 the junta had managed to hunt down and kill some 80% of the leadership, by 1978 some 800 MIRistas had fallen. This was a time of hardship and bitter losses. While the MIR managed to publish El Rebelde from the underground (“we often preferred to go without food in order to publish,” one woman remembered), and carried out acts of “armed propaganda”, defending the people as best it could and assassinating army torturers, even those survivors we meet in the film were almost all captured within the first year or two of the dictatorship, held in the junta’s infamous prisons, tortured, and then expelled from the country in 1975.

Although the MIR had criticized Allende for relying on the army to protect him, its own preparations for armed resistance seem to have been far too tentative for the level of violence the Pinochet regime was willing to inflict. Which is really understandable if you think about it: how many of us have talked about catastrophe around the corner, criticized our less radical comrades for their naive faith in the system’s stability, and yet made no real preparations of our own?

Beyond these initial weaknesses and reversals, these former militants explained that going underground itself had major negative repercussions. As one man explained, being a revolutionary means working with other people, making personal connections with the oppressed; clandestinity stops you from doing that, instead you must concentrate on survival, and as a result you risk becoming invisible to those you would prefer to be working with.

Although Castillo herself had lived underground alongside MIR leader Miguel Enriquez, she shares little of her own experiences of this period. So far as this film is concerned, her own story really begins with her capture in 1974. Expelled from the country, she became active with the international movement to expose the crimes of the Pinochet regime, all the while remaining a member of the MIR. Indeed, as a result of all the arrests and expulsions during these first years of struggle against the junta, many, perhaps even most, of the MIR’s active members ended up in a similar position, living outside of Chile.

While Calle Santa Fe does not touch upon what life was like for Castillo in those years, she has written about it elsewhere, and according to Treacy’s overview of her works this was clearly a time of great pain:

The MIR leadership, a hierarchical circle that kept its members under party discipline, still had an important interest in Castillo’s life as “the Widow” and therefore carrier of Miguel’s political essence. It sent her regularly on tour to build solidarity among radicals throughout Europe, even as she was barely coping with her many personal losses (vuelo 185-86). Her attempted suicide, or breakdown, inattention to her dying infant, and inability to care for the daughter entrusted to her care bear witness to Castillo’s deep emotional distress at the same time that Cuba was demanding debriefings on Miguel’s death, the MIR insisting that she remain in Latin America to play out her role as revolutionary icon, and former non-militant friends rejecting her as a troublemaker.


If many of the surviving MIRistas had been forced outside of Chile by the mid-1970s, many of their lives were now to take a particularly hard turn. In 1978, with the declaration that “The MIR Does Not Seek Asylum!”, the organization initiated Operation Return (“Plan Retorno”), by which militants were to be smuggled back into the country to carry out armed struggle against the military regime.

What gets explained here is so valuable precisely because it is what one can imagine getting left out of some left histories.

Operation Return was not something you volunteered for, nor was it just a matter of a few cadre sneaking back temporarily to carry off an attack. For a resistance movement which had been largely driven out of the country, Retorno represented a major offensive, a gamble of sorts, a plan to smuggle large numbers of militants into a country ruled by a brutal dictatorship in order to re-establish an underground revolutionary movement.

Most painfully, as many of the MIRistas had kids, the Operation had a second dimension – “Operation Shelter” – whereby the revolutionaries’ children would be sent to Cuba, to be raised collectively while their parents lived or died far away.

This was obviously a difficult, excruciating, process, and one which was made all the more so as it had been decided by the leadership and imposed on the cadre. And although Castillo herself did not return to Chile at this time – as a high-profile MIR spokesperson she would have been a liability to the new underground – she too sent her children to Havana, “in order to devote my entire life to supporting the resistance” she says.

Castillo interviews her own daughter, and also the daughter of a fellow MIRista, the one being remarkably understanding and sympathetic to the whole process, the other summing up her feelings as “Mom, you left me for shit!” In a discussion with many of these mothers, one woman explained that there were no separate women’s structures or spaces in the MIR in which to discuss Operation Return or Operation Shelter, and figure out what was really the best thing to do – “not even a place to cry together” over the loss of their kids, as one woman remembered. “We could have never imagined how much pain we were causing,” explains another.

i found this section to be of such importance because it dealt with a real problem that confronts people carrying out illegal resistance, and which – because of the sexist division of labour – is particularly heavy for women. All over the world people have sent their kids to be raised by others as they have entered situations of particularly heavy confrontation, but this is obviously a very difficult choice, and one which most people will not make if there are other options. This dilemma may be avoided by small groups in situations where one can “volunteer”, where one is not forced underground; but in terms of mass movements, simply mooting the point and saying “that’s what needs to be done”, is going to mean developing a movement which most people will not want to join, and one which will hampered by the predominance of mainly young men.

i’m not offering any solutions, and what criticisms come to mind are accompanied by the respect i have for what one woman explained, that she “wanted to build a better world for our children – and left them to build this world”… nevertheless, Operation Shelter appears deeply flawed, which is what makes it useful to think about. One obvious point to make is that what it means to be deprived of one’s parents really depends on the way in which one had been raised up until that point. Children who are raised collectively, either by comrades or by extended family networks or some combination of the two, will fare better than those whose mother and father were the central caregivers. But there are limits to this logic, as children who are exiled along with their parents, or children who survive along with a few key caregivers, are likely to enjoy a particularly close bond and dependency with those particular adults. & even if children are raised collectively by many adults, what happens when suddenly most or even all are instructed to leave? no obvious answers…

i am particularly curious about the gender balance within the MIR at this time – while i imagine that like the rest of the Chilean left it had had more male than female members prior to the coup, was this still the case in 1977-8? War often changes gender balances, especially as the enemy may find it easier to identify and kill male combatants than women (i.e. just look at the fact that Enriquez was killed, but Castillo was sent abroad after a quick campaign which made much of the fact that “the military was persecuting a pregnant woman”). How many of the combattants who were to go underground in Chile in Operation Return were women? and how was this decision made? Is this what one male MIRista meant when he criticized himself and the party for having been too rigid, for having excluded cadre who were not willing to abide by decisions? And what part does this question play in Castillo’s question as to whether or not Operation Return was really worth it, sending so many back to be killed?

questions questions questions…


For all this, the 1980s were a decade of open resistance to the dictatorship. Reinforced by the returned members, the MIR carried out a variety of armed actions. We are shown video footage of truckloads of stolen food being redistributed in working class neighbourhoods. This also seems to be a time of inventive tactics, developed in relation with the communities of people the dictatorship oppressed. One woman recounts turning a neighbourhood into a no-go zone for the army simply by distributing loads of soccer balls to local kids who played with them in the streets and thus just happened to block the army’s vehicles.

It would have been good to see more on this resistance to the junta in this period, either by the MIR or by other groups. As it is, we are given these examples, and some footage of demonstrations, and then… we are suddenly told that the MIR leadership decided to liquidate the organization in 1989, just before the dictatorship was to allow the first presidential elections in almost twenty years!

The announcement comes as a shock even to us just watching the film; it is clear how much more horrible and confusing it must have been to those who had survived and resisted underground. The decision was not explained, and even today it seems some former members do not understand why it was taken. Militants were simply told to get married, have kids, go to school, and forget about their life underground.

In the words of one former MIRista, she now felt like an orphan.


Watching Calle Santa Fe i could only think that history can be like a gun, and some unlucky people are fired out of it like bullets. They may not “win”, or even strike their targets, and yet they themselves are ripped apart, paying a great price for even having dared to try.

Re-reading this review, i see with some dismay that i have not been able to do this film justice. Or even given a fair impression of what it’s about. Most scenes are not historical footage, but are of Castillo as she wanders through the downtown Santiago, or through poblaciones, or around the old calle Santa Fe, looking at post-fascist Chile and asking herself, torturing herself, with the question “was it all worth it?” So much sacrifice, so much pain, and here the murderers were allowed to write their own ending, to retire in peace, while men and women like herself and her comrades are the odd ones out, reminders of possibilities that were closed off, battles that were lost and are now eagerly forgotten.

If Calle Santa Fe left me with so many unanswered questions about the MIR, it is probably because this film is not simply about the resistance, but about what a post-fascist society like Chile today means to those who resisted with such uneven results.

In this sense i am reminded of another excellent film, The Dark Side of the White Lady, which tells how the Chilean Navy’s flagship Esmerelda was turned into a torture-ship during the first days after the coup. The Esmerelda is a national symbol in post-fascist Chile, something like Canada’s Bluenose, and is still used with pride by the navy for ceremonies and tours abroad. The film opens with a small demonstration outside some military ceremony on the ship, calling for truth and memory and honouring the people who were tortured and killed on board… while passersby look at the protesters as if they were freaks, one woman explaining that if Chile is so “prosperous” today it is only because Pinochet saved it from the communists.

The day after Castillo was captured and Miguel Enriquez was killed his brother Edgardo issued a statement that “The fight will not be over until we have hung Pinochet by his balls at the Santiago Place d’Armes.” But Edgardo was himself killed in 1976, while Pinochet got to die a natural death in 2006 at the ripe old age of 91. There was no anti-fascist victory, and today those who fought and managed to survive appear as embarrassments or anachronisms.

Nor does it seem like yesterday’s guerilla has an obvious place in today’s left. One of the hardest moments in Calle Santa Fe is where Castillo meets a younger activist in a bar, ostensibly to talk to him about her hopes to buy the house where Enriquez was killed and turn it into some kind of left-wing community centre. The young man she is meeting with – perhaps in a staged conversation, but certainly one which represents something real – tells her that such a plan does not really interest him or other younger activists, that they’ve almost had enough with hearing of those who fought and died, and that instead of commemorating what the older generation did (or failed to do), they prefer to act as they believe their elders would have. Which may be fair but is also unclear, and leads to more questions than answers.

One of Castillo’s former comrades tries to convince her that the MIR had an effect, that it has a legacy, and that this can be seen in the new “horizontalist” left of today. Not party-based, but more “social” he says, as the camera zooms in on some hip hop street musicians rapping about poverty and capitalism, as if to say “This is what it was all for, this is our legacy.” But for me at least the scene is unconvincing, this kind of nostalgic cozy sentimentalism, whereby whatever “they” did was worth it as it gave rise to whatever “we” are up to today.

To leave aside questions of cause and effect, success or failure, does not seem an adequate way to honour the past or really even see the present.

& for what it’s worth, Castillo herself does not seem entirely trusting of such a tale.

If for nothing else, Calle Santa Fe is worth watching for this sadness and this honesty. Carmen Castillo shares with us herself, and her doubts, and her feelings of defeat, her questions of whether all sacrifices were necessary, or even useful. These are hard questions, and there are no answers, certainly not at this stage in the game.


Calle Santa Fe is by no means a complete story. As i mentioned, Castillo has been driven to examine her past in the revolutionary left, and what happened to it. She has written several books, and in 1993 made her first film, a painfully honest, and surprisingly sympathetic, portrait of the woman who broke under torture and gave her and Enriquez up to the police (La Flaca Alejandra: vidas y muertes de una mujer chilena released in english in 1994 as In a Time of Betrayal).

Castillo first learned that the DINA had managed to “break” many captured MIRistas, and use them as double-agents to draw out and capture guerilla fighters, in the late seventies. Revealing the extent of this in a memoir she wrote at the time shattered the organization’s mythology regarding its political prisoners, and led directly to her being expelled from the MIR, which accused her of doing “moral damage to the Revolution, MIR and the memory of Miguel.”

Given this, one might expect Castillo to be one of those “ex-leftists” who feel a need to reveal all about the “bad revolutionaries” they once hung out with. i have not read her books, but judging from what i have found online, and from watching Calle Santa Fe, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, while certainly not uncritical, Castillo is so clear in her sympathies and her unflinching solidarity with her own past and truth, that when she mentions in passing that she had “become distant” from the MIR in the 1980s i thought i had heard wrong, and it was only in reading about her on the internet that i learned of her expulsion and realized that this was in fact what she had said.

i went into Calle Santa Fe not knowing much about the MIR or the resistance to Pinochet, and had never heard of Carmen Castillo. While the film was almost three hours long i left the cinema with so many more questions than i had had before. The lead up to the coup, life underground, Operation Shelter, resistance in the eighties, life in exile for those who did not return – there is so much that is touched on, but only just touched on.

This is a compliment, not a criticism. i fully intend to check out what else i can find by Castillo, and will keep an eye open to what she does in the future. If the workers’ movement in Chile was defeated by extreme violence, experiences around the world have shown how the left can also be suffocated by its own pablum and easy distortions. By showing us her own life and that of her former comrades, by not retreating from solidarity but also not giving in to self-serving “fibs”, Castillo shows us what it means to treasure the truth, all truths, including the difficult ones.


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