Departure of a Humble Giant.

I recently received this moving obituary of Charles Condamines, an international revolutionary who fought for the poor and persecuted in Chile and Africa, written by his friend Jose Cifuentes.

In the light of renewed interest in what happened in Chile in the aftermath of the release of James Dean Bradfield's 'Even in Exile' album, I asked to share it here. I believe it shows that Charles' life was an example of commitment to social justice and peace, despite all the odds.


Charles Condamines, our dear Charles.

Charles, a former French priest, arrived in Chile in 1970 in the early days of the Allende government. As soon as he arrived, he saw the glaring difference between the lives of the very poor and the very wealthy. He decided to go and live in a shanty town in Talca, not in order to preach, but in order to inspire people to break free from poverty and exploitation. Such were his convictions and his willingness to live by these, that at the time, he was viewed with suspicion and incredulity both by the Catholic church and by traditional leftist politicians. Carlos, as we called him in Chile, was deemed to be untrustworthy, as it was clear he would not follow anyone blindly, whether this be the clergy or career politicians.

In the shanty towns of Arturo Prat and Che Guevara in Talca, Carlos created communities for life made up of young university students. Led by his example, he sowed seeds which were later to grow into young leaders, spurred by his encouragement of critical thinking and dedication to tackling poverty and social justice.

As well as teaching Marxism and Christianity in the University of Chile – Talca, Carlos worked as a social researcher in the Bishop Manuel Larrain Foundation in Talca. There, amongst other projects, he published an investigation which exposed the human rights degradations experienced by domestic workers in Talca. He also published various think pieces which aimed to provoke a social conscience in workers, students, and the traditionally conservative Catholic establishment.

For Carlos, the duty of every Christian was to be a revolutionary, and the duty of every revolutionary was to create a revolution – no more, no less. Carlos’ actions spoke much louder than his words. Both Camilo Torres and Che Guevara were inspirations to his own life and practices.
Carlos believed firmly that the Catholic Church should exist to serve the poor, and this drove him to found the Christians for Socialism movement in Chile. This was based on the ideology of Liberation Theology, whose vison was enshrined in a public declaration signed by 80 priests, witnessed by Fidel Castro in Cuba. This declaration recognised that Cuban society was much closer to God’s will for humanity on earth. While this outraged the leaders of the Catholic Church, it opened the minds of thousands of Catholic Chileans, until then trapped in the prejudicial thinking of the Chilean right wing.

The reality of Carlos’s daily life in Talca strongly impacted many Christians, Marxists and Agnostics in Chile. His influence was especially strongly felt by many more traditional Catholics who till then believed in a God who was distinct from the daily lives of the poor and marginalised. Carlos’s presence helped them question such beliefs.

As well as those who admired and respected Carlos and his life choices, there were also those who felt uncomfortable with these, and who did not hesitate to use their privileges to isolate and undermine him.

In his personal and political life, Carlos never sorted his relationships according to political affiliations, nor did he blindly follow any political persuasion. He simply treated every man or woman as a brother or sister, even if he often profoundly disagreed with another’s political beliefs.

Allende's election in Chile offered hope of a fairer world until he was overthrown by Pinochet

It is painful to say goodbye to such a gentle, giant fighter for humanity, a prophet amongst us, helping us along the and highs and lows towards a fairer, safer and more peaceful word. Carlos belongs to that generation of men and women who believed that a fairer world was possible, like in Chile with Salvador Allende, and who gave their all for these dreams, despite the consequences. These are the gentle giants which history has given us and from whom, hopefully, new generations will learn to distinguish words from actions, and the importance of living your values.

The military coup in Chile forced Carlos to leave Chile under threat of death, and he was only able to do so thanks to the generous and brave intervention of the then French Consulate in Santiago who personally escorted Carlos to the steps of the aeroplane, in order to prevent his abduction by the Chilean secret police. On the 11th of September 1973, with the complicity of the US Nixon administration, and the Chilean Catholic church, fascism and its bonfire of hate, succeeded in breaking Carlos’ heart.

The Coup in Chile, 1973

The military coup caused Carlos to fall and to stumble, but he soon got up again, and from his home country of France he continued to dedicate his life denouncing the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime. At the same time he opened doors and gave hope to hundreds of Chilean and Latin American refugees exiled in France.

For Carlos, his commitment to the oppressed and persecuted was not limited to Chile. With his characteristic passion for social justice and liberation he created several humanitarian projects in countries across Africa.

Carlos was not only an activist committed to serving the oppressed, but was also a brilliant intellectual capable of pointing out inconsistences as often as necessary, without thought for the consequences. Thus, straight after the military coup in Chile he published his first book ‘The Chilean Catholic Church: Complicity or Resistance’ where he published ample evidence of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church leadership in their collaboration with the civil-military dictatorship. Shortly before his cruel illness limited his physical abilities, he published his second book in France ‘I was a priest, now I am not even a Christian’, where he relived his life, particularly the time spent amongst the shanty towns of Chile, his commitment and his persecution which ultimately led him to have to leave Chile. Until his very last breath, he remained true to his vison of a God which was a God of the oppressed and persecuted. His own experienced showed him that cynicism, egoism, ambition, cowardice and hypocrisy were alive and well amongst the revered leaders of the church to whom he had devoted his life. It was thus profoundly painful to him to disrobe and give up the cassock. Not only this, but he also denounced those businessmen dressed up as pastors and priests. Carlos said ‘to hell’ with that God of the military, of the loan sharks, the career politicians. This was a true expression of his beliefs, of his life, the ultimate act of liberation and denouncement.

During his last few years in France, and while still in reasonably good health, together with his wife friends and neighbours, Carlos supported the development of a small agricultural cooperative, as a means of reducing the negative impact of large monopolies on the ability of local people to eat well. At the same time Carlos, his wife and friends fought for the humane treatment of Libyan and other refugees in France. In his inimitable way, Carlos not only theorised about social injustices but also took personal action in this space whenever it was needed.

I had the personal honour and privilege of knowing Carlos and living with him for three years of my life in the Poblacion Arturo Prat in Chile. I was then a young Catholic with a very conservative and right-wing mindset. Yet Carlos never reproached or criticised my prejudicial views, rather he invited me to follow my own path together with the poor and marginalised. Without ever trying to convince me of the merits of a particular viewpoint, the example of his own life enabled me to transform my own life beyond what I could have imagined. One night in the shack we lived in, Carlos read to me the following: “And let me tell you, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is motivated by real feelings of love, in particular for those who are suffering”. Carlos then asked me if I knew who had written those words. I said no, but that they had a deep impact on me. He replies “Ernesto Che Guevara”.

A gentle giant is leaving us, one of the greatest, who preferred to shine humbly and discreetly. One who never tired nor hesitated to call out as evil those who had sowed so much destruction.
New generations will come and new men and women will come who, like Carlos, are not limited by national borders, ideologies, beliefs, or politics, and who will remind us that his struggle, like our own, has not been in vain.
From many humble corners of Chile we extend our arms fraternally, in these painful moments to your wife Elizabeth, your children Hadrien and Magali, and your grandchildren.

Compañero Carlos Condamines, presente, hasta la Victoria, siempre ! Comrade Carlos Condamines – you are present, until victory, always!

Your Chilean, French and African brothers and sisters.

Jose Cifuentes (Translation by Rocio Cifuentes)

James Dean Bradfield's album about Victor Jara, with inspiring lyrics by Patrick Jones, has sparked new interest in those who resisted Fascism in Chile.