In the mid-1970s, Patricio Guzmán released his epic film The Battle of Chile, documenting the final months of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s Government, before its violent overthrow by General Augusto Pinochet and the US Nixon Administration on 11 September, 1973.
The film captured the voice of average Chileans — mostly poor blue-collar workers — and their support for a government that promised to more fairly redistribute the nation’s wealth.
Today, the battle of Chile continues.
The end of August saw the largest demonstrations in the country since the days of the Pinochet dictatorship with 658 arrests and 33 police officers injured. Not surprisingly, in a country where the average wage disparity between floor workers and management is 200:1, demonstrators demanded higher wages and an end to President Michelle Bachelet’s adherence to neo-liberal economics .
Since the 1989 elections that ended Pinochet’s rule, successive Concertación governments of the centre-left coalition which includes the Christian Democratic and Socialist Parties, have certainly increased social spending and reduced poverty; the question is by how much?
According to official figures, in the last 20 years, the poverty rate in the country has been reduced from 45 to 13 per cent and unemployment is at its lowest level in nine years – 6.7 per cent. What’s more, in a conservative country like Chile, Bachelet certainly deserves credit for some of her policies on women’s issues, like providing access to the morning after pill.
But the increases in public spending only look good when compared to the military dictatorship’s drastic cuts to services, which almost led to total economic collapse. And Concertación’s figures on poverty have been achieved by re-defining the poverty line to minimum levels of subsistence. (A 2006 study by CAS Informática indicates that approximately 58 per cent of Chileans lived near or below the poverty line, with 20.6 per cent in extreme poverty.) While the drop in unemployment has more to do with higher levels of Chileans leaving the workforce, due to retirement, than any bold measures by Bachelet to create employment.
Meanwhile, even for people with work, poor wages don’t keep up with costs. In May, over 5000 forestry workers in Horcones in the south of Chile went on strike over low wages and poor working conditions, including ‘long hours with no pay for overtime’, while their employer, Celulosa Arauco, last year recorded profits of $US619 million.
After police shot one worker dead, media attention was given to strikers’ grievances. Soon, wage increases of up to 56 per cent were implemented.
In another recent dispute, this time involving the State-owned National Copper Corporation (CODELCO), the president of the Bishops’ Conference of Chile, Bishop Alejandro Goic one of the mediators of the strike called on Chilean employers to pay their workers an ‘ethical wage’ because, he said, ‘If we do not have social justice, then the conflict will return’.
While Bachelet claimed to support the Bishop’s statement, it was her Government’s labour laws, introduced in January, that sparked the strike.
Likewise, the inability of Bachelet’s administration to make the military more accountable has drawn heavy criticism. This year, Chilean military spending will exceed that of Colombia, the biggest recipient of US military aid in Latin America, and Brazil, South America’s largest power.
Based on a deal from the days of the dictatorship, the Secret Copper Law allows the Chilean military to lay claim to roughly 10 per cent of all revenues from the national copper industry. Since business has been good lately, thanks to Chinese demand, the Chilean military has gone shopping for new toys. Writing on this issue, researcher Alex Sanchez states:
These [new armaments]purchases demonstrate that, ultimately, the military remains largely an autonomous entity in Chile, a separate entity from Bachelet’s civilian Government and not operating under any predictable bona fides. The Chilean military has, largely on its own, engaged in a one-sided arms race in the Andean sub-continent, with the nation’s civilian government lacking the political will or strategic interests to put an end to the hypertrophy of vital institutions that stems from the Pinochet dictatorship’s ghastly legacy and Santiago’s tolerance of such a skewed definition of democracy.
In her right mind, of course, Bachelet would never support the actual use of this new hardware. But against this we must weigh statements she made during her year-long stay at the Inter-American Defence College in Washington DC in 1998. There, Bachelet argued on the necessity for a ‘convergence with the hegemonic power’ or as sociologist, James Petras put it, ‘Servile submission to US strategic dictates’.
Bachelet’s plans are difficult to assess. What is clear, however, is that Chile currently has hundreds of troops in Haiti where it quickly supported US intervention in early 2004 following the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In Iraq, hundreds of Chilean mercenaries are being hired – a situation currently under investigation by the United Nations.
Closer to home, the Chilean military is aware that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is building military bases for the Bolivian military, historically an enemy of Chile. And it is no secret that Chávez wants to create a regional Latin American financial and military block to which Washington’s free market allies like Chile, in future, could be hostile.
Perhaps in response to the clash of visions between Caracas and neo-liberal Santiago, the Bachelet Government has recently declared it will export programs to reduce poverty in the Caribbean. Chile has so far donated a million dollars to the project, but this effort pales in comparison to the co-sponsored literacy and health care programs currently exported by Venezuela and Cuba throughout Latin America.
Despite a Chilean media blackout of the Caracas-Havana initiatives, in Chile, many have been quick to take up the opportunity to have free eye surgery in Cuba. And many Chileans would most likely prefer Bachelet to reduce poverty at home first, followed by a serious overhaul of the nation’s labour laws.
With the Chilean working class on the march again and more industrial disputes on the political cards, filmmaker Patricio Guzmán may want to start documenting this new era too.
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