© Debasers Filums
I’d like to say a few nice things about Nae Pasaran, a 2018 documentary written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra that recounts how some workers in the Scottish town of East Kilbride in 1974 made a gesture of defiance towards fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It was a gesture that ultimately had more consequences than they’d imagined.
The workers – Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Somerville and John Keenan – were employed by Rolls Royce and tasked with servicing and repairing engines from Hawker Hunter airplanes. Their East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world where such work could be done. One day they noticed that some engines they’d been assigned belonged to the Chilean Air Force and made sure, via their trade union, that the none of the workforce touched them. Instead, the engines ended up rusting in crates in the plant’s back yard.
This was because the previous year had seen the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile overthrown by the military, who then set up a dictatorship under Pinochet and during the next 17 years, according to official figures from the Chilean government in 2011, engineered the murders and disappearances of 3,095 people and the torture and political imprisonment of 36,948 more – although other estimates are much higher. The Chilean Air Force got the coup going by bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11th, 1973.
The first part of the documentary – which I was lucky enough to see the other day as part of the Jaffna Film Festival in northern Sri Lanka – is amiable enough, with the now retired Fulton, Barrie, Somerville and Keenan meeting up with Sierra in a Scottish pub (“Don’t start with they war stories,” someone tells the venerable Fulton, a veteran of World War II, “we gottae be hame before eight o’clock!”) and recalling events in East Kilbride back in 1974.
But later Sierra travels to Santiago and speaks to people who were on the sharp end of the 1973 coup and, with stories of executions, torture and seemingly boundless cruelty, Nae Pasaran delivers a stark reminder of what the Scottish workers were protesting against. A senior civil servant whom troops dragged out of the just-bombed La Moneda, for example, remembers how he and fifty others were made to lie in a line on the street. A tank would have then driven over the top of them if there hadn’t been so many civilians on the street yelling at the troops to stop.
One prisoner, later exiled to Britain, claims to have been told by an official that the reason he hadn’t been executed was because the British government had offered to get the Hawker Hunter engines back to the Chilean Air Force – his life and the lives of six others constituted the Chilean side of the bargain. Nobly, Sierra doesn’t accept this as gospel truth, even though it would have provided the documentary with a stirring feel-good moment. He qualifies it by also quoting representatives of Amnesty International and the UK government at the time, who are unsure or dismissive of such a deal being made. But the possibility remains that the actions in East Kilbride did save seven lives.
More tangibly, being deprived of those engines took its toll on the Chilean Air Force, as is admitted by its former commander Fernando Rojas Vender. Although the engines were eventually, and very mysteriously, spirited away from the factory in 1978, and although it was rumoured that future repairs and servicing were carried out in Israel and India, the planes and their engines clearly suffered from the lack of Scottish expertise and there were multiple groundings and crashes.
While obviously a considerable tosser, Vender was at least game enough to let himself be interviewed by Sierra. He dismisses Fulton, the original instigator of the engine boycott, as being like a radical ‘Islamist’. In his view, Fulton – who’s a Christian as well as a World War II combatant – couldn’t possibly have acted of his own accord, but had been brainwashed by leftist agitators.
The film’s finale, where Fulton, Barrie and Keenan are brought south to a grand, plush building in London in 2015 – a world away from the Scottish boozer we saw them in at the beginning – and in front of an admiring audience are awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest order that Chile’s government can bestow on foreigners, is both touching and uplifting.
© Debasers Filums
Incidentally, the men make one or two comments about how their actions, facilitated by a powerful trade union, probably wouldn’t have happened today. Nae Pasaran doesn’t mention it, but there’s a brutal irony in how the person who later on did most to emasculate the unions in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was also a great admirer of and buddy to the fascist Pinochet. Thatcher’s actions against the unions, admittedly, had a lot of public support at the time – support fuelled by the disastrous, strike-ridden Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, when the British trade union movement and the then Labour government didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow both their feet away with a sawn-off shotgun.
Still, I wish that British working-class people who voted for Brexit in 2016 on the grounds that they were ‘better off’ in the 1970s before Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was then, would realise that the real reason why they were better off was because they had things like a functioning welfare state and proper trade unions to support and defend them.