History of Chile Human Rights

Mariano Puga, the Workers-Priest, Passed Away

SANTIAGO – Mariano Puga passed away due to his lymphatic cancer. Before dying the priest had been saying goodbye to his loved ones in case this should happen. Known as the “worker priest,” Puga was one of the few clergymen who actively confronted the dictatorship and its disregard for human rights.

On Mar. 3 priest Mariano Puga wrote a letter from the Catholic University Clinic, directed to his fellow priests. In it, he reaffirmed his commitment to human rights by referencing the events that have occurred in the country since the start of the protests in October.

One week before being admitted to the hospital, the priest held a mass in front of the courthouse in Santiago, during which he asked for the political prisoners of the protests to be freed, and prayed for all those who have been injured in the past protests and who have had their livelihood affected by them.

Widely known as the “worker priest,” Puga has been a champion for human rights and deeply involved in social movements as well as helping those in need. During the dictatorship he directly confronted the military for their role in human rights abuses.

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From Aristocracy to Priesthood

Born in the center of Santiago, Puga grew up with six brothers in a traditional and aristocratic family. His father was a lawyer and politician who had worked as the Chilean Ambassador to the United States and as a member of parliament. His mother was daughter of Melchor Concha y Toro, owner of the Concha y Toro winery.

Thanks to his father’s job, Puga completed his basic education in London. When the family returned to Chile, he was sent to the Grange School, one of Chile’s best private schools. After that, he joined the Military Academy, before entering the Catholic University where he studied architecture.

While at Catholic University, Puga began doing volunteer work, where he witnessed the extreme poverty of others. After completing additional volunteer work, he decided to abandon his studies and join the seminary. In 1959, he graduated as a priest and continued his studies in Europe, receiving a doctorate in moral theology, allowing him to become a teacher at his former university.

Worker Priest

In 1972, Puga left the seminary and went to the mining town of Chuquicamata, where he worked as a priest for subcontractors. His position allowed him to see the labor exploitation that was common during that time period. This compelled him to adopt a more progressive position, earning him the nickname “worker priest.” He  also joined with the Christians for Socialism movement, which openly supported then-president Salvador Allende.

Due to his acts and beliefs, Puga came into constant conflict with the more conservative members of the Church as well as with the military dictatorship that took power on Sept. 11, 1973. As but one example, he personally walked up to the Estadio Nacional (National Stadium), which was being used to torture political prisoners, and offered to give spiritual help to the prisoners inside. His offer was rejected by the soldiers on guard duty.

Champion of Human Rights

During the dictatorship, Puga offered himself as a painter for churches, schools, and hardware stores, in order to sustain himself financially while maintaining his activism against Dictator Agusto  Pinochet, which resulted in Puga being arrested seven times and taken to know torture centers.

After one of his arrests, he was invited to speak with Pinochet, where he directly confronted Pinochet about the human right abuses and said, “I have seen tortured victims, missing people, and searches and seizures, general. If I keep my mouth shut on that, Jesus will turn his back on me.”

After a brief exile in Peru, Puga returned to Chile in order to help with the high levels of unemployment that had been caused by the economic crisis of the 1980s. In 1987, he participated in Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country; and, during the pope’s mass, Puga attempted to contain the protests that were going on nearby.

Return to Democracy

Once Pinochet left power, Puga moved to “La Legua,” one of Chile’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. He worked here as a social organizer from 1992 until 2002. After this, he became a missionary for the south of Chile, traveling to the hard-to-reach islands in the middle of the archipelago where he performed masses for the few who live there.

More recently, he has continued to participate in protests, pushing for human rights and looking for reparations and answers for the victims of the dictatorship. In this regard, in 2016, he officiated a mass in Punta Peuco, a prison that houses those who committed human right abuses during the dictatorship. When some of the prisoners asked for forgiveness, Puga replied, “There can be no forgiveness with no reparations.”

In 2019, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and began treatment in April of that year. When the social protests began in October, he showed his full support by publishing a letter on the internet, titled, “¡El despertar no tiene que morir nunca más!”—a strong admonition that this October’s social awakening must never fall asleep again.

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