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The battle of Chile continues

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Thursday, 20 September 2007


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 September 11, 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.

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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 about 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, more than 5,000 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.

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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.

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First published in New Matilda on September 12, 2007.



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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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