Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Chile 40 years after

(Santiago) – Modern Chile is an excellent example of the old gag about ‘the operation was a success, the patient died’. Santiago is booming, housing prices are through the roof, new construction is everywhere and official unemployment low. Inflation is relatively modest, and the (privatized) highways are free of potholes.

But as the country gets ready to recall the military takeover of 1973, which occurred on the accursed date of September 11, all the surface prosperity and buzz can’t obscure the fact that life for many of the capital’s 5 million plus residents is a grim struggle bordering on a nightmare. The fact that they’re used to it or feel luckier than their Peruvian neighbors is a fancy denial bow they tie on their reality, and I hope it makes them feel better.

Ironically for one of the victims of the notorious debt crises of the 1970s and ’80s, Chile has had plenty of cash for years due to a favorable trade balance and high prices for copper, its principal export. One of the smart things its civilian presidents (and, to be fair, Pinochet as well) did with it was to build up Santiago’s rapid transit grid to the point where one can travel throughout much of the sprawling city by rail. This combination subway and above-ground commuter rail line could have been a boon to the daily life of a populace among whom car ownership historically was a luxury few could afford.

Instead, and counter-intuitively, the improvements have created a vast deterioration in the quality of life of the people who live in Santiago. Before, a complex jumble of privately owned buses constituted a dirty, anarchic but entirely functional transport system that most people relied on, sometimes in combination with the subway. The fare, for most of my years there, fluctuated around 40-50 cents per ride—a lot for many workers but within reach. The new comprehensive city transport plan was based on phasing out these ‘micros’ and replacing them with clean, new vehicles that would be integrated into a subway-bus network with a uniform, electronic payment system starting in 2009.

The result is that it now costs well over one U.S. dollar to take any form of public transport, and good luck squeezing your body into it during rush hour. What once were occasionally overcrowded subway cars are now scenes from Heironymous Bosch’s visions of hell, and the spanking clean new buses are just as bad. Vandalizing youth in very poor neighborhoods have retaliated by burning some buses with the result that no service is available at all there, further punishing those residents. It is not unusual for people to report commuting times of two and even three hours each way in conditions that make it impossible even to read a newspaper.

Another side effect is the newly jammed avenues and side streets as many who can afford to escape the horrors of mass transit retreat to the private automobile, which, while hardly a ton of fun in the frequent bottlenecks, at least provides a modicum of comfort. The country’s loyalty to neoliberal free-trade norms has made car buying relatively cheap, which further clogs the streets.

One has to ask what has been gained by the average working Chilean woman or man if the increased economic activity and accumulation of national wealth has turned their lives into a daily exercise in avoiding agony. What do a healthy GDP figure or a higher average monthly income mean if such a basic element of well-being, moving around the city, has been turned into a punishment? The answer is written on the faces and in the body language of the santiaguinos who pour onto the streets during rush hour, elbowing their way past each other with an aggressiveness that I, a nine-year Manhattanite, found frightening.

And it’s not as if the country’s education, health and retirement systems, two decades after the end of military rule, are any better. Sure, those institutions are bigger, fancier and probably delightfully solvent, but as we’ve seen with the last two years of nonstop student demonstrations, they don’t serve the people’s interests. That’s why it was so interesting to see how the 40th anniversary of the coup is being digested and discussed in the country, how the crimes against dissidents and partisans of the Allende experiment are being revisited and relived.

Spokespeople for the right-wing government and its two supporting parties, both inheritors of the Pinochet legacy (like it or not), fill the airwaves with pleas to set aside ‘hatred and resentment’ in the spirit of national unity. That’s nothing new, but their latest ploy is to describe the country’s violent recent past as a ‘tragedy’ for which both sides are responsible—implying of course that the quota of blame should be divided roughly 50/50.

Young people who did not experience the dictatorship appear not to be buying that dubious line. But they’re also up to here with the traditional parties of the center and social democratic left, whom they see as having done little to dislodge the legacy of Pinochet’s neoliberal model. At least that is one reading of the ongoing street mobilizations that show no sign of stopping—that people want results, not promises.

As always, Chile’s politics can be read as a fairly precise parallel to our own: the pinochetistas are the Republicans while the vaguely liberalish parties are the Democrats. Once in a while a Ross Perot or a Ralph Nader pops up, but the duopoly pretty much run things, and they both are pretty much mainly interested in doing business with each other and with the country’s oligarchs who control the purse strings. The social democrats are better at co-opting protest while the right-wingers manage the propaganda through their media monopoly and keep the populace confused and off-guard.

Sooner or later, however, a system’s failure to respond to basic needs generates deep frustration, cynicism and rejection. It’s no accident that the day before I left Santiago, a student march degenerated into skirmishes with the riot police during which some participants targeted the national electoral commission and broke all its windows. There’ll be a new president next year, but the fight has moved beyond the ballot box.