'Nae Pasaran' Shares the Story of Scottish Laborers Standing Against Chile's Pinochet Regime

A group of Scottish factory workers refused to repair warplanes that had arrived from Chile during the 1973 Pinochet Coup. The were told that their solidarity was meaningless. Now, a new film tells another story.

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Apr 21 2015, 8:30pm

Photo courtesy of Manuel Ocampo

In 1974, warplane engines arrived for repairs at a Rolls Royce factory in the Scottish town of East Kilbride, just outside Glasgow. Factory worker Bob Fulton recognized the engines as coming from the Hawker Hunters that attacked Chile's presidential palace during the coup of September 11, 1973. He refused to work on them on moral grounds. By the end of the day, all 4,000 factory workers had joined him in his act of solidarity.

The CIA-backed military coup was led by army chief Augusto Pinochet and toppled the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. British-built Hawker Hunters bombarded La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende, refusing to surrender or accept exile, made his final speech before taking his own life. Within hours, a military junta was sworn in and Allende's supporters and anyone against the coup were arrested, tortured, or forced into exile. Left-wing political activity was suppressed until Pinochet's dictatorship ended in 1990, but one of the most efficient acts against his rule took place, without violence, in Scotland.

The Rolls Royce factory workers refused to service the engines or to let them leave the factory, leaving them outside for years in the harsh Scottish weather. Four years later, the engines mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night leaving the workers in the dark about what happened to them for decades. They eventually began to believe that their actions had been meaningless.

Last year, their story was told in a short film by Felipe Bustos Sierra, who was born in Belgium to exiled Chilean parents and has been based in Scotland for ten years. The film, Nae Pasaran,featured interviews with three of the surviving workers—Bob Fulton, Robert Somerville, and John Keenan.

Bustos Sierra gave some insight on the workers' motivations. "Scotland's working class at the time had two strong examples," he told me, "the stories of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War—which made the expression No Pasarán very popular—and the recent experiences of World War II." Bob Fulton had worked as an engine mechanic on tanks during World War II, and after surviving one of the worst battles in Italy, he says in the short film, dictatorship became "a nasty word." Robert Somerville and John Keenan, on the other hand, had political motives. "The trade unions had condemned the coup and so when Bob brought up that there were engines from Chile in the factory, I think they knew right away that they could support this," Bustos Sierra explained.

As a result of the short film, new information came to light that proved the action had, in fact, had serious implications. Now, Bustos Sierra is in the process of funding a feature film, through a Kickstarter campaign, that will tell the whole story, "following these three guys as they discover the impact of their action and what kind of power we have as individuals." I spoke to Bustos Sierra to find out more.

Poster designed by Fergus Dunnet. Copyright Debasers Filums

VICE: How did you first hear about this story?
Felipe Bustos Sierra: Well, I am Chilean and I grew up in exile. My father was a Chilean journalist who was on the blacklist for 15 years. We used to go to lots of solidarity events in Brussels, and this was one of the tales we heard of international solidarity. It was one of those stories that was passed along for years and so I heard it years after it was all over. I had heard that at the time the planes were in Scotland, that the workers were refusing to let go of the planes, and that they had barricades and were fighting with the police every day—all quite overblown. So, when I got to Scotland, ten years ago, I started digging in.

How did news of the Scottish action get to people? Not just to those in exile, but I've read that even people in Chilean torture centers heard about it.
I have heard from a couple of people who were in prison at the time that they overheard the news on a guard's radio or from newly arrived prisoners. It was in the papers at the time and when I was in Chile I did find some very small articles on, like, pages 15 or 20, buried as much as possible.

Their achievement was that some of the Air Force was incapacitated because of the workers' action in Scotland. I heard from members of the Chilean Air Force who had refused to take part in the coup (and were imprisoned). A few of them managed to survive because of these engines, because they became part of a trade. The Chilean Air Force said, "If we get those engines back, we'll relax a little bit and release some of these prisoners." So [there] are the guys who benefited directly from this action.

Clearly, 40 years later, there's something still quite sensitive about this.

Did any of the workers in Scotland know this at the time?
No, they hadn't a clue.

They were told that basically their action meant nothing?
Yes, three months after the engines disappeared, the Rolls Royce management let them know that a General in the Chilean Air Force said that the engines were back in full operation and that was it.

That was a disappointment but they thought: Well, that's just not possible. They had left the engines for a year in the factory and three years [outdoors] in their crates with nothing to save them from corrosion. The idea that the engines could be back in operation so soon afterward just didn't make sense.

Your short film ends on a note of mystery, like no one really knows what happened to the engines. So, did you find out more after the film was made?
Yes, it was really when the short film premiered in Chile that our doors opened in an incredible way. All the information up to that point was from the National Archives in London, the Scottish National Archives, and the Rolls Royce archives. There's still loads of documents that are classified. Clearly, 40 years later, there's something still quite sensitive about this.

So, a lot of new information came from the Chilean side, and from meeting people who had their own connection with the story that helped me find more people and see the documents over there. But there's still so much that's either being held back or has been destroyed.

Deliberately destroyed?
It's hard to say. Definitely in the last year of Pinochet's government, he became quite paranoid about the information that was out there.

How exactly did the protest take shape?
It was very simple, which I think makes it so powerful. It was really Bob Fulton saying: "There's a Chilean engine on my desk. I'm not going to work on it. You can fire me, but I'm not going to touch this." The workers knew about the coup, they had condemned it on the day it happened. So, by the end of the day, they'd inventoried all the equipment from Chile and passed it on to each representative of each of the factory's sections and they all voted to say nobody would work on it.

For a whole year, all these bits and pieces were scattered across the factory. It blocked some assembly lines, [so] after a year Rolls Royce convinced them to move them so they just roughly assembled them, put them in crates, and put them outside.

They were such big pieces of equipment that professionals were needed to move them about, but they all decided they wouldn't do it. That's when the trade unions got involved. The transport trade union said, "None of our companies will assist with moving them out of the factory." That's what allowed the action to last for so long.

Related: VICE travels to Chilean Patagonia to meet Faustino Barrientos, a man who has lived alone in a house built from the remains of a shipwrecked fishing vessel since 1965.

What kind of pressure were they under?
It's hard to say. There was quite a bit of pressure but at the same time, they knew they had the backing of the whole factory. And the trade unions were still quite a formidable force at the time.

They made sure that the story stayed in the papers for as long as possible. It was a time when commitment to causes like that was much stronger so they received personal letters from people all over the country, saying: "I'm writing to my MP about this."

Post-Thatcher, now that the trade unions have been decimated in Britain, do you think something like that could happen today?
No. I asked the guys the same question and they just laughed. I think they'd be fired on the spot. Either that or day workers would be hired to do the work.

It doesn't seem to be a very well-known story.
One of things, I think, is that the engines left Scotland in 1978 and Thatcher came to power in 1979 and crippled the trade unions completely over the next few years. So, any stories like that just wouldn't be heard. Trade unions lost a huge part of their power—and then there was the bigger news of the miners' strikes.

In March, the three workers were honored by the Chilean government at a ceremony in Glasgow that was attended by former political prisoners and solidarity activists. Was there ever any prior recognition?
No. The only thing was when Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, there were some stories about it coming out, but [they were] superficial. There was no effort to find out what actually went on.

It's been 40 years and many of the protagonists have passed away. Do you feel an urgency to get his film made?
Absolutely. The short film focused on Scotland but [with the feature] I am trying to connect with Chile. The story of the coup was so bleak, this is one of the few stories that have a positive ending. All these people are of a certain age [Fulton is 92] and so many documents have been destroyed, all the stuff that gives nuance to the story lives only in these people's heads.

The film will feature music from Victor Jara. Tell me about him.
Victor Jara was my point of entry to the whole story. I grew up with Jara's songs and there came a time, as a teenager, where I said I was sick of it. It's such a dark story, so I disconnected from it for a few years. Later, I found out more than what I had been told. Growing up in exile, you hear all these really colorful, overblown stories like: Victor Jara died while singing with a guitar in his hand and he just wouldn't stop singing. That wasn't true, but that was the propaganda that was carried at the time because it raised morale. It's like with this story [the story of Nae Pasaran, which had been exaggerated in its retellings]. I think, 40 years later, we need something better. We need the truth before it's completely lost. The dictatorship is over, there's no point pushing a direction, what is important is having a proper history.

This is a small story but people seem to get so much satisfaction, or relief, out of hearing that it is true. At the screening in Chile, I asked people to leave messages on camera afterward. People lined up for an hour to leave their messages. So many people said: "We heard about this, but we thought it was just a rumor. We thought it had just been made up to give us hope."

Nae Pasaran is being funded partly through a Kickstarter campaign, which you can support here.

Follow Karen Gardiner on Twitter.

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