A rainy Santiago protest
A campaign that began with endangered swans and grew into an indictment of Chilean democracy was stonewalled on 10 June when police rounded up demonstrators in the Chilean capital, Santiago. Scores of protesters – among them politicians, unionists, lecturers and leading environmentalists – were arrested for “disturbing the peace” as they approached the presidential palace to deliver a letter demanding the closure of a controversial wood-pulp plant in the southern city of Valdivia. All were later released without charge.
“Everything was peaceful until the carabineros - sent in, I imagine, by someone in the government - arrived, triggering violence. It’s incomprehensible, the attitude the government took today. It is a crime against freedom of expression, against the constitution,” said Nelson Avila, a Radical Social Democratic Party senator among those detained.
"The damage is not just to the swans, it’s to public health..."
Marcel Claude, Chilean head of the Oceana conservation group, was incensed. “This is an example of the famous Chilean democracy. When the citizenry wants to express itself to the president of the republic, he sends in the carabineros. The method he chooses is censorship and repression - the methods of the dictatorship. In Chile, the government ignores the people. Only the businessmen, who exist in the shadows with their vested interests, are heard.”
Last October, black-necked swans started to fall from the skies of Valdivia. Around the same time, a doctor in nearby San José de la Mariquina, Juan Ramón Silva de la Paz, was treating patients complaining of severe vomiting and chronic headaches. Matters worsened rapidly. Of 6,000 swans in the Carlos Andwanter sanctuary, 5,000 died or migrated. A local investigation found that their marshland habitat, listed under the Ramsar Convention for the Protection of Wetlands, was all but dead. By December, 400 people were in hospital with symptoms of poisoning, 100 critically affected. Silva, who had sifted the polluted waterways, was dead of exposure.
Valdivians blamed a $1.2 billion cellulose plant. The plant dumped its waste into the Rio Cruces, 10 kilometres upstream of the sanctuary. They said the ecological damage was already “practically irreparable”, and demanded the plant be closed.
Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco), the forestry giant which owns the Celulosa Valdivia plant, rubbished the accusations. The authorities refused to act, even as evidence of an environmental disaster accumulated. “The government and the National Environmental Commission are constantly justifying the company, before taking into account what we are saying,” said Carlos Leal, a representative of Valdivian residents. “The damage is not just to the swans, it’s to public health, the water, the soil, our future projects, our jobs, everything.” Agricultural yields in the area plummeted; tourism halved.
In January, stricken Valdivians scored a palpable hit. Local officials found the plant was dumping waste illegally and overproducing massively. It was ordered to close, at a cost to Celco of $1 million a day.
Closing time for Celco
It was then that the effluence hit the fan. President Ricardo Lagos, it emerged, had surreptitiously briefed Anacleto Angelini, whose economic group owns Celco, ahead of the closure. Angelini, an Italian émigré who made his fortune out of Pinochet’s shotgun privatisations in the 1980s, is the second richest man in Chile. A reclusive nonagenarian, he is also a major financial backer of Concertación, the centre-left coalition that has held power since the first post-dictatorship elections in 1989. The Zaldívar brothers, both influential senators for the Christian Democrats, the largest party in Congress, are shareholders in the Angelini group.
Valdivians were flabbergasted to learn that the plant’s closure would only be temporary, and that Celco would not be liable for a cleanup of the Cruces.
The tussle reached the Supreme Court, where the closure order was lifted last month. Celco, which always maintained its innocence, was vindicated. Vindicated, that is, until the central prop of the company’s defence – a supposedly independent academic study – collapsed last week. Celco, it emerged, had written the evidence itself. As its lawyers and general manager resigned, Celco voluntarily suspended production at Valdivia.
In a flurry of writs, deputies of all creeds indicted the Supreme Court, Celco and the government for having interests so conflicted that they allowed a protected area of natural beauty – as well as the livelihoods of Valdivians – to be ransomed to big business. Even now, with forty swans left and a salvage operation postponed while the squabble over liability persists, the plant is not definitively closed.
So it was that protesters marched on Friday. “The government has not lived up to its word because it has not shown a real desire to protect our citizen’s rights,” read the letter they intended to deliver.
Also by Tom Burgis on openDemocracy:
“Vote for independence!” (April 2005)
“‘A little British revolution’” (May 2005)
When the police waded in, the symbolism could not have been worse. The armoured vans rolled up in the shadow of La Moneda, the presidential palace bombed on 11 September 1973 as Pinochet ousted Salvador Allende’s elected government. If the allusion seems strained, it is worth remembering that many of the “businessmen” denounced by Claude owe their umbral hegemony to the generalissimo. The “Chicago boys” – the group of neo-liberal economists entrusted with the junta’s purse – still dictate Chilean economics. For the barons of the media, commerce and agriculture, the return of democracy meant little more than a shift in clientele.
Under Pinochet, to demonstrate against the government was to risk torture, genital electrocution, rape and a watery grave. Not even the present government’s most vocal critics accuse it of resorting to the crocodile clips. But, as is evident everywhere from Cape Town to Moscow, Bogotá to Beijing, governments proclaiming their liberality are dusting down the mechanisms of repression in the name of economic progress.
In April, Santiago hosted the Community of Democracies. The delegates trumpeted “democratic governance … transparency” and “sustainable development”. In a country that paid a bloody price for its emancipation, the mighty would do well to remember the summit’s resolution: “Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social, and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”
Chile Information Project
UNESCO Human Rights archive of Chile