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Photo: Steven Volk   vert photo cred: sue kropp
Steven Volk holds the award he received from the Chilean Government.

Oberlin College Professor Recognized by Chilean Government

by Sue Kropp

Photo: Steven Volk (1973)
Steven Volk in 1973.

Related Links:
North American Congress on Latin America

MARCH 12, 2002--For the past 25 years, Professor of History Steven Volk has been part of a worldwide movement that sought to restore democracy to Chile. This past November, Chile's government honored these men and women at a ceremony in New York City, officially recognizing them for their participation in the nation's long struggle toward freedom.

"I first went to Chile in 1972 to work on my dissertation," says Volk. "I became involved with a group of North American students who were publishing a newsletter about Chile's political situation and America's involvement in the growing crisis."

While overseas, Volk observed that students in Chile--unlike Americans--did not have access to information about U.S. or Latin American politics or economics. He began raising money for books for the library at the University of Chile.

On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile's president Salvador Allende Gossens Ugarte and instituted a military dictatorship. Among the casualties were two American students, both of whom were Volk's friends. Volk remained in Chile for six weeks after the coup, helping foreigners escape the new regime and rescuing his library from the hands of the new government.

"For several weeks, I took a briefcase into the University of Chile's library every day and removed books one by one so that the government wouldn't destroy them," Volk says. The books eventually were stored at the University of Lima. "I think most of us were shocked that a once-stable democracy had become so repressive in so short a period of time."

After returning to the U.S., Volk began working with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), an independent, nonprofit organization that was investigating major trends in Latin America and those countries' relations with the U.S. From 1973 to 1984, Volk remained an active member of NACLA, serving as the organization's research director and publishing articles in its newsletter.

Volk also became involved in the Chile Solidarity Movement, a group that focused its energy on putting pressure on Pinochet.

"If we found out that a member of Pinochet's government was coming to visit the States, we would show up wherever they were addressing the public and confront them verbally," says Volk. "We also passed out literature against Pinochet's government to the crowd. As a group, we were very successful in propagating the truth about Pinochet's dictatorship and keeping it in the public eye."

The 1982 film Missing, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, was also instrumental in keeping Chile in the spotlight. Based on the murder of Volk's friend, Charles Horman, Missing demystified the political situation in Chile for the American public. The film featured Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in leading roles.

"Missing generated a lot of publicity for our cause and addressed many questions that I think the American people had about the situation overseas," Volk says.

In 1988, the Chilean people were able to vote Pinochet out of office because of a loophole that had been added to the constitution by Pinochet himself. During the next round of elections, Pinochet's candidate lost, and a democratic candidate from the central-left coalition was elected president.

"After 25 years of work, it was rewarding to see this happen," says Volk. "At times the work was demoralizing, and we didn't feel like we would ever accomplish anything. It was hard to keep agitating and going to meetings, but it all paid off in the end."

At last November's ceremony in New York, Volk was honored by name for his involvement in the solidarity movement and presented with a plaque.

"I'm very proud that I was recognized," Volk says. "It's a good feeling to have a government thank you."

Volk continues to participate in the Chilean government's prosecution of the human rights violations that took place during Pinochet's regime. He plans to travel to Chile within the coming months to testify in a pretrial hearing that will examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, both of whom were killed in 1973's coup.

Volk poses under a sign for a Chilean labor movement.




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