Volodia Teitelboim: Politician exiled under Pinochet

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The Independent Online

Volodia Teitelboim was one of those rare beings to combine an active and influential life in politics with the talents of a discriminating writer and literary critic. He was one of Chile's leading essayists, combining writing with half a century as a member of the Politburo of the Chilean Communist Party. "Writing," he said, "is for me one way of being happy" and added that politics was his wife and literature his mistress. (This lover of women might more accurately have termed literature "one of his mistresses".)

He was born in the southern Chilean city of Chillán in 1916 to a Jewish couple, he from Ukraine, she from Moldavia, who had come to Chile as part of a programme to populate the area, hitherto indigene territory, with Europeans. From his teens Volodia Teitelboim determined to be a writer and activist.

He was 19, and a leader of the law students at the University of Chile, when his first literary work appeared, Antología de Poesía Chilena Nueva (1935), an anthology of new Chilean poetry, which he produced with his friend Eduardo Anguita. It caused a stir in the often stuffy literary circles of Chile by including no work by Gabriela Mistral, the country's leading poetess who was later to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature but whom the compilers dismissed as "conservative and antiquated". In 1943 he published El Amanecer del Capitalismo y la Conquista de America ("The Dawn of Capitalism and the Conquest of America").

In his teens he joined the Chilean Communist Party, a disciplined body which never wavered in its support for Moscow's brand of Marxism-Leninism. In 1945, before he was 30, he had been elected a member of its Politburo. He had proved his loyalty during the presidency of Gabriel González Videla, when the party was outlawed, when he went on the run and, after several arrests, was confined to the prison camp of Pisagua in the Atacama Desert, a jail which was to become infamous during the Pinochet dictatorship.

As a journalist he collaborated in the founding of El Siglo, the party's daily newspaper. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for Valparaiso in 1961 and 1965 and then won two successive terms as senator for Santiago in the upper house. With his receding chin and flat cap, he was a familiar figure to Chileans. He was later to say that his aim was to ensure that "human beings would not be merchandise, but should participate as collective architects of a society of justice and solidarity".

Teitelboim was a major figure in the six-party Popular Unity coalition headed by President Salvador Allende of the Socialist Party which governed from 1970. As such, Teitelboim was in the thick not just of Allende's reform programme but also of the internecine fighting among the parties which so sapped its effectiveness.

The military putsch of September 1973 found him in Moscow, in transit between Rome and Santiago at the end of an official mission to explain government strategy to Europeans. Radio Moscow immediately seized the opportunity to put him on air. Under the protection of Sergei Lapin, the Soviet minister for radio and television, his principal political work thereafter consisted in his twice-weekly broadcast Escucha, Chile ("Listen, Chile") on Radio Moscow, which brought news to a country whose inhabitants were subjected to terror and censorship and which was to run for 17 years.

One of his earliest programmes carried every detail of the burial of Pablo Neruda, the poet who had been a Communist since 1945 and who in 1971 became Chile's second winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. It told how the coffin of Neruda, who had died of prostate cancer within a few days of the coup, was carried out of a house which had been comprehensively wrecked and its books, papers and photographs burned by Pinochet's soldiery.

The programme was an intense irritation to the dictatorship, drawing as it did on a wide range of informants, including malcontents within the Chilean military. Such was its influence that when it named the régime's torturers, as it often did, some of them would write to him begging him to make clear that they were only acting on orders. Escucha, Chile was one of the principal reasons why Pinochet deprived Teitelboim of his Chilean citizenship.

In exile he continued his literary output, including, notably, a study in 1984 of Neruda (translated into English as Neruda: a personal biography) with whom he was at odds in literary and personal matters.

Teitelboim re-entered Chile clandestinely in 1987 wearing a wig of the sort of red hair he had had when he was a boy. He came back definitively the following year when he was elected secretary-general of the party, a post he retained until 1994. He also continued his literary output, producing studies of Vicente Huidobro, Jorge Luis Borges and even of Mistral.

He received the Chilean National Literature Prize in 2002, an occasion which led his critics to attack him for his failure to criticise crimes committed by Marxist-Leninist governments.

In April 2005 Claudio Teitelboim, a distinguished Chilean scientist whom he had brought up, discovered he was in fact the son of Álvaro Bunster, Salvador Allende's ambassador in London. He immediately dropped the surname and broke with Volodia, only to be reconciled on his foster father's deathbed.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Valentín Teitelboim Volosky (Volodia Teitelboim), politician and writer: born Chillán, Chile 17 March 1916; commentator, Moscow Radio 1973-87; married; died Santiago 31 January 2008.