Then & Now: Reflections on Chile

Against the Current No. 230, May/June 2024

Oscar Mendoza

The commemoration was a mixture of solemnity and joy, but the struggle against a rightwing agenda continues.

MY AGITATED STATE in boarding my flight from London to Santiago de Chile last September, due to my connecting flight from Glasgow being two hours late, was perhaps a portent of things to come during my visit — a sort of foretaste of what’s engulfing my homeland these days.

Along with the rest of the world going from one major convulsion to another, Chile is facing its own challenges, some new and some dating decades since the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973.

It was the 50th anniversary commemoration of the military coup on September 11 of that year, the original 9/11, that took me back to Chile after a longer than usual time. For several months I had been preparing myself to be in the country on this date, for the first time in half a century.

I have visited during September often, but never around that date, always opting for the season of national independence celebrations. On this occasion, I managed both!

With my mind busily focusing on Chile for a long time, I felt prepared and ready for what I knew would be a powerful, poignant, sometimes sad but overall life-enhancing experience. It was all of those, and much more.

I had prepared a full and busy itinerary, aiming to maximise my chances of commemorating our 9/11, retracing my own story of detention, torture, prison and exile, as well as honoring our dead and sharing time with comrades still with us. A small sprinkling of family and close friends’ gatherings filled the rest of my agenda.

A Divided Society

The commemorations themselves exposed, once more, the deep divisions in Chilean society and the highly polarised nature of the country.

There are essentially two opposing blocs. A majority rejects the military coup, the subsequent dictatorship and human rights abuses, as well as the legacy from that dark period, and pushes for progressive change.

We also have a large minority that justifies the coup and the dictatorship’s crimes and abuses, and likewise favors authoritarian and undemocratic policies to meet the current challenges.

These two Chilean souls were very much to the fore when I arrived. Representing the rightwing opposition to president Gabriel Boric’s government, various political figures did the media rounds speaking about the need to focus on the future and, as they see it, stop focusing on the past.

This is a common theme in their discourse. The more extreme elements, and there are plenty of those, blamed Allende for his own downfall, accusing the Popular Unity government that he presided over of “leading Chile towards Cuba-style communism” and contending that the military dictatorship had “restored democracy in the country” (sic).

On the other hand, both the Boric government with a small and limited official program, as well as the political, labor, human rights and social organisations representing Allende’s supporters — the Socialist and Communist Parties, trade unions, relatives of the military’s victims, and many others — organized a wide range of commemorative activities.

Recovering Memory

The major events took place in the capital Santiago, with a multiplicity of others across the length and breadth of the country.

Before taking part in some of the public commemoration events, I kicked off my own itinerary of memory with a visit to the memorial at the National Stadium — the largest detention and torture center immediately following the coup.

Fighting against the odds, a private not-for-profit corporation has managed to rescue and preserve a small section of the stadium — now fully renovated — which shows areas where prisoners were held and the seating area where we were taken during daytime.

One of the landings where the stairs allow access to the seating, Escotilla #8, has been carefully restored and offers a real insight into the conditions we endured. Large-scale photographs of hundreds of former detainees adorn the walls, and a permanent photographic exhibition tells the story of Allende and the Popular Unity government, up to the coup and subsequent repression.

The smells and feel were highly reminiscent of my time at the National Stadium (5 October to early November 1973), especially when we recreated the walk prisoners took from the main arena to the old Velodrome, which was the main on-site torture center.

Central to the public commemorations was the figure of Allende. At the side entrance to the Moneda Palace (Chile’s White House) at #80 Morandé Street, president Boric accompanied by the Allende family inaugurated an exhibition titled “Allende: the path of a democrat” (Allende: el caminar de un demócrata).

Behind a large glass window the shoes worn by Allende on September 11, in which he was secretly buried, are displayed to highlight his decades-long democratic commitment. Across the street on the sidewalk, a memorial consists of plaques with the names of Allende and his advisers and members of his security detail.

These people remained with him in the presidential palace on the day of the coup and survived the bombing, but were subsequently killed by the military two days later following their arrest and torture.

The traditional march for human rights and against impunity, normally held on 9/11, was moved to the day before and assembled thousands of people who walked through the downtown area, passed the presidential palace and finished at Allende’s mausoleum in the general cemetery.

I joined, with my best friend in Chile, in shouting “Allende, Allende, Allende is present.”

That same Sunday evening, the eve of the 50th anniversary, came in my view the most poignant and powerful commemorative event of all — thousands of women dressed in black and carrying a lit candle in their hands with a “Nunca +” (“Never again”) badge on their breasts gathered around the Moneda Palace for a silent vigil.

It was an extraordinary and completely fitting sight, as it’s been primarily women who have led the campaign for truth and justice in Chile, in spite of severe repression during the dictatorship, including beatings and detentions at rallies, and worse.

Day of Commemoration

On the day itself, my own commemorations started with a minute of silence at the Casona Cañaveral where Allende’s private secretary lived and from where she left to join the president at the Moneda Palace, together with her son Enrique (my closest friend at the time), and a group of Allende’s security detail.

She was the only one to survive.

At the same time at La Moneda, President Gabriel Boric held a private reception for Allende’s relatives and the families of his advisers and security detail who perished.

Afterwards, Boric led the main official act in front of an invited audience of foreign and national dignitaries, including the Presidents of Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, as well as political, community and cultural figures.

Under the banner of “Democracy always”, Boric made a strong criticism of the military coup and the years of dictatorship, asking Chileans of all shades of opinion to commit to resolving their political differences by democratic means. A statement to that effect was published, with the signatures of all living former Presidents alongside Boric’s own.

The right-wing opposition refused to sign the declaration and boycotted the official commemorations.

During the evening, at the front of the main entrance into the National Stadium — which served as the largest detention center following the coup — tens of thousands of people gathered for the main open event, called by a coalition of political parties, unions and human rights organizations among others.

Thousands more took the occasion to go into the stadium itself, light candles, and visit the memorial to those of us who were held there between the coup and early November 1973. With music and dance everywhere, the event was a mixture of solemnity and joy.

Through personal connections with the event organizers, my friends and I gained entry to the VIP area next to the stage and saw at close hand a range of Chile’s most famous and best musicians, presented by popular actor and TV personality Daniel Alcaíno. We enjoyed the sounds and songs of Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani and Illapu, among others.

A few speeches from leading human rights campaigners and political figures were interspersed among the musical acts. It was massive, lively, passionate, fun and moving, all at the same time. The large backdrop with Allende’s figure and an excerpt from his last speech “History is ours, and the people make it” expressed simply but powerfully why so many of us gathered there that night.

Personal Participation

My own commemorations followed on the 12th. Accompanied by my friend Enrique’s first cousin and his wife, we visited the family mausoleum at Valparaiso’s number 1 (general) cemetery, up on the Cerro Panteón hill. For some unexplainable reason, it took me half a century to pay my respects at Enrique’s final resting place.

The same evening, thanks to a late invitation to what was a private event for survivors and their families, and the families of those killed following the 1973 coup, I attended the event in memory of the GAP (Grupo de Amigos Personales or Group of Personal Friends, Allende’s security detail).

The invitation was in recognition of the fact that I had been close to Allende’s security detail between 1971 and the coup in 1973, and maintain my links with some of the survivors until today, and that my friend Enrique had been killed after his arrest with a group of GAP members.

The memorial, held at the small theater of the Metropolitan Technological University (UTEM) in Santiago, was poignant in a room charged with emotion. Presented by one of the survivors and one of the relatives, it combined homages to Allende and his daughter Beatriz (known as Tati) along with Allende’s private secretary Miria Contreras Bell (known as Payita), the president’s closest confidants, to every GAP member killed following the coup, and to my friend Enrique, with personal testimonies and music and poetry.

The event enabled me to meet some comrades I hadn’t seen for 50 years and re-establish contact with others. With some, we resisted the coup together. With others, we shared time in detention. Therefore, the encounters were powerful and full of joy. We endure!

Perspectives on Chile Today

My itinerary also offered me perspectives on life in Chile today. I regularly used Santiago’s excellent subway system, as well as traveling as a passenger in my friends’ car.

Traveling from the affluent area of Lo Barnechea down towards the Los Dominicos or Tobalaba subway stations in my friends’ SUV, we drove by the large and often luxurious homes of the Chilean elite in the Eastern area of Santiago.

 We passed a myriad of high-end shops, restaurants and car showrooms. The roads are broad and tree-lined, and the general sense could be easily compared to Europe or North America. Alongside us, also driving on the roads, were countless expensive vehicles retailing in Chile at 50, 60 and 70 million pesos (slightly under US$50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 at current rates).

Considering that the median annual income of Chileans employed in 2022 was around US$6,000, that half of pensioners live on US$3,500 per annum, and that the annual minimum wage is equivalent to US$5,500, those vehicles are far out of reach for most Chileans (Government of Chile source).

The high level of income inequality in the country is a well-known and documented fact. Although Chile has experienced a remarkable decline in absolute poverty since the 1990s, after the return to democratically elected government, it remains one of the most unequal OECD countries.

This is mostly due to the high concentration of income with the top 10% earning 26.5 times the average income. The stark inequalities date back to the neoliberal economic policies pursued under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), particularly the large-scale privatization of state enterprises during the 1980s.

Legacy of Privatization

In the runup to the 1982 financial crisis that affected the whole of Latin America, the state controlled a significant portion of the economy, often through CORFO (acronym for Chile’s Corporation for the Promotion of Growth).

According to research published in April 1993 in the CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America) magazine, Robert Devlin identifies that the percentage of Chile’s GDP value added by the state enterprise sector was around 14% of the total. State employment represented a fifth of the total.

One of the key measures of the Pinochet government’s recovery plan, from 1983 onwards, was the sale to the private sector of large numbers of state companies, including those in some of the most critical sectors.

In line with other such processes, privatization in Chile led to a veritable “sacking” of the state’s assets with profound and long lasting repercussions, which can be seen right up to the present.

The most infamous case was that of SOQUIMICH (now SQM, the Chemicals and Minerals Society), which transferred the Chilean state company to Julio Ponce Lerou, the then son-in-law of Augusto Pinochet, for 20,300 million pesos through the transfer of 93% of the state’s shares — despite the fact that the value was approximately 35,800 million pesos.

In 1993, the operations of the technical grade potassium nitrate plant began. In 1995, SQM was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and started the production of potassium chloride from the Salar de Atacama. Production of lithium carbonate from the Salar del Carmen started in 1997. In the years that followed, the business was internationalised through acquisitions and joint ventures.

Profits and Politics

The enormous personal fortune that Ponce Lerou derived from this acquisition has enabled him to buy his way into influencing politicians and governments of all hues ever since. A major political scandal exploded in 2015, when SQM was revealed as having provided funding for major political figures and campaigns through the mechanism of paying invoices for consultancy or advisory services that were never rendered.

SQM’s power to influence the direction of our country was last demonstrated when the Boric government announced on 20 April 2023 that as part of its national lithium strategy, the state would involve the private sector in all stages of exploration, exploitation and value added production of this most precious of metals.

In January 2024, Boric welcomed the establishment of a public-private association that will enable the exploitation of lithium between 2025 and 2060. The agreement between the state copper corporation CODELCO and SQM allows for the extraction of 300,000 tons during the first five years, increasing production by a third from current levels.

Though the state will hold a majority of shares, all operational decisions will be left to SQM (subject to a veto by the state), giving another major boost to the company and wider group. This move was seen as a betrayal by progressives who favor a wholly state-owned and managed lithium operation, more akin to CODELCO and copper.

Back to my travels, on the subway, used by Chileans of all social classes, I came across countless street sellers, so many that one couldn’t keep tabs. It provides clear evidence of the large informal labor sector, which makes such things as taxation or pension reform extremely challenging.

More than once I witnessed young children accompanying their mothers/parents. My guess is that they simply had no alternative childcare arrangements — but what a life for a young one; possibly 10 to 12 hours perambulating across the vast underground network, for very little money.

At the subway stations, or immediately outside of them, were many stalls with other vendors displaying a wide variety of articles of mostly Chinese-made cheap goods and bagatelles. This provided even more evidence of the informal sector.

In Chile by the end of 2022, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), approximately 2.6 million people were engaged in informal employment.

This definition includes workers who do not contribute to the social security system (pensions, health and unemployment insurance) and also encompasses self-employed individuals not actively registered with the Internal Revenue Service (SII).

The informality rate is 28%, meaning that almost one-third of the workforce operates in an informal capacity. This rate decreased to 22% during the peak of the pandemic, not necessarily due to a transition of these workers to formality, but because some shifted into unemployment or inactivity, reintegrating into the informal sector post-pandemic.

I also came across large numbers of immigrants, whose condition was fairly easy to identify because of their accents and appearance. Since immigration has become a huge and contentious political issue, it’s worth looking into the facts and figures in some detail.

According to estimates produced by INE, by the end of 2022 a total of just over 1.6 million foreign individuals (826,000 men and 799,000 women) resided in Chile. The figure represents an increase of 3.9% compared to 2021 and a 25% rise compared to 2018.

Given that the total population of Chile in 2022 reached 19.6 million, the estimated number of immigrants represents 8.1%. By comparison, in the United States in 2021 the foreign born population was 13.6% of the total (source: OECD International Migration Outlook 2022).

The majority of immigrants are between 25 and 39 years old, with the highest proportion in the 30-34 age group (17.8% of the total). Additionally, a total of 210,000 children and adolescents (under 20 years old) were estimated, representing 13% of the total foreign population, a percentage that has been decreasing since 2018 when it reached 15.4%.

The majority of foreign individuals come from Venezuela (almost a third), Peru (traditionally the main country of origin for migrants), Colombia and Haiti, and well over half live in the Santiago metropolitan area. A total of 6.6% are in an irregular situation. The majority are men and two thirds of undocumented migrants are from Venezuela.

Rightwing Discourse vs. Reality

In political discourse, much as in the United States, UK and other countries, immigration and especially illegal immigration is a hot and contentious topic. In Chile too, the right speaks of the country “swamped by migrants,” and of their “threatening indigenous culture,” “bringing a wave of crime with them.”

The right are on shaky ground here, because in February 2019 Chile’s then President Sebastián Piñera travelled to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta to rally support for the failed self-proclaimed “president” of Venezuela Juan Guaido, clearly fanning expectations that Chile would welcome Venezuelan exiles with open arms. Increased Colombian immigration can also be traced to this point.

However, when the stream of Venezuelans traversing the continent to enter Chile became a roaring river, the Chilean government implemented stringent entry measures, requiring a passport and, as of June 24, 2019 a Democratic Responsibility Visa, that must be obtained in Chilean Consulate offices.

Mass migration from Haiti dates back to the time that Chilean military forces led the United Nations presence on the island following the 2010 earthquake. Haitians in particular, because of their African ancestry and different language, have reported experiencing high levels of discrimination and even abuse.

The issue of immigration is frequently associated with violent crime in the media and political discourse. Crime and violence are regularly featured in opinion polls as one of, if not the principal, key concerns of Chileans of all social groups. It’s also seen as a major thorn in the side and Achilles heel for the Boric government.

The Chilean media contribute greatly to a climate of general insecurity with blanket coverage of crime and violence through all their channels. This is the case even though the situation has been present well before the current Boric administration.

As a result, his government pays the political price in spite of a large number of security-focused initiatives and plans, and larger budgets and equipment being deployed. In the fiscal year 2023, the allocation for policing and public order increased by 4.4%, in the midst of severe budgetary constraints (source: Gobierno de Chile).

Violent Crime and Politics

The underlying causes relate to increasing incidents of violence (such as carjackings, robberies, home invasions). Even though objectively Chile has been, is and possibly will continue to be one of the safest places in Latin America, the statistics are clearly heading in the wrong direction.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the rate of intentional homicides went up from 3.63 per 100 thousand of population in 2021 to 6.7 per 100 thousand of population in 2022 — a huge increase in the space of just one year.

By comparison, El Salvador under the draconian measures introduced by the Bukele government (an example the Chilean right loves to point to) went from 18.17 to 7.8 in the same period. The U.S. 2022 figure was 6.4 per thousand.

Criminal gangs from Venezuela and Peru contribute significantly to violent crime, adding fire to the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Organized criminal groups such as El Tren de Aragua and Los Orientales (both from Venezuela), Espartanos from Colombia, and Los Pulpos and Nueva Generación (Peru) are among the leading eight bands identified by Chile’s prosecutors as carrying out most kidnappings, homicides, drugs and people trafficking.

The most notorious case involving immigration and violent crime was the kidnapping of former Venezuelan army officer Ronald Ojeda in Santiago in the early hours on February 21st this year.

His dead body was found on March 1 inside a suitcase buried under a cement structure in an area occupied by an informal settlement. Burying victims under cement is a technique that has been used in other cases involving organised crime gangs from Venezuela.

Initially, the rightwing opposition and Venezuelan opposition sources alleged — without any proof whatsoever — that the kidnapping was politically motivated and had been carried out by Maduro’s government forces acting secretly in Chile. Prosecutors investigating the crime, which created a great deal of public unease and commotion, stated that they were keeping an open mind and generally kept quiet until the investigation uncovered the tragic end.

According to prosecutors in charge, the four men who kidnapped Ojeda were members of the Venezuelan organized crime group belonging to El Tren de Aragua. One 17-year old Venezuelan irregularly in the country has been detained and charged, and there’s a manhunt on for the rest of those involved.

In between the kidnapping and the corpse being found, the rightwing opposition started making all sorts of demands from the Boric government, basically trying to have all communist party ministers and other high ranking functionaries sacked because of their alleged “complicity with Maduro.”

When challenged about the lack of evidence, they simply doubled down, a tactic commonly used in today’s polarized Chile. The strident calls for Boric to sever ties with one of the main pillars of support his government enjoys, namely the Chilean Communist Party, led to his very strong defence of the democratic credentials of the party.

Via an X post on March 2, Boric denounced the visceral anti-communism of some political groups and media sympathetic to them, accusing them of perpetrating attacks ad hominem and spreading lies about the CP. He ended his post by stating: “I don’t have any doubt about the democratic and social commitment of the Chilean CP.”

Stasis and Growing Threat

Early indications are that Ojeda’s kidnapping and death (with the cause being established as “mechanical asphyxiation”) will continue to be used as a stick to beat the government, especially as violent crime shows no sign of abating or being brought under control.

Two years ago, when the Boric government took office, many commentators and observers — myself included — expressed the view that his government had only two top priorities: to get inflation down and reactivate the economy, which has been achieved to a reasonable extent so far; and to deal with crime and violence, where it has failed to make progress.

If during the remaining two years of Boric’s term the wave of criminality is not stopped, the chances of an authoritarian rightwing president will grow and grow. If in addition the proposed pensions and tax reforms also fail, a rightwing government looks almost certain.

That’s why in Congress at the present time, opposition forces are doing everything they can to put obstacles in the way and push a continuity neoliberal model with very limited and inconsequential reforms at best.

It’s like being back in the 1970-73 period. That’s why in Chile, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

May-June 2024, ATC 230

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