Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Chile: co-operation and working class self-defence in the midst of the rubble

At the end of February, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 hit central Chile, with 300 confirmed dead the day after and over two million people affected by it. In the aftermath, the media reported that Chilean troops had to be sent into the region to distribute food and maintain order.

As the Indian Express put it, "last week’s devastating earthquake unleashed a wave of looting." President Michelle Bachelet condemned the "pillage and criminality," and sent 7,000 soldiers to the area. According to BBC News, they are now double that number, and Bachelet has threatened a "stern response to any renewal of looting and violence." As with Haiti, however, there is strong evidence to suggest that the army has not been sent in to quell criminality but to defend private property against human need.

As LibCom report;
One man has been shot dead by the military and over 160 arrested for expropriating necessities in parts of northern Chile, which are suffering a near total lack of basic commodities following a massive earthquake on Saturday morning.

Various voices are starting to emerge from the devastated region, denouncing the urgency of the Chilean government - under the control of left-of-centre Michele Bachelet until she hands over to right wing Sebastián Piñera on 11 March - in deploying thousands of soldiers and police blockading supermarket entrances against 'looters' instead of initiating a comprehensive aid effort.

Many groups, in calling for civil disobedience against the machine-gun wielding military on their rubble-strewn street corners, have drawn comparisons with the military dictatorship of 1973-90. Some parts of the country, such as the rural area around Concepción (Chile's second city), are completely devoid of even the most rudimentary services, implying that Bachelet et al are prepared to let their citizens starve in order to assert the "rule of order".

The chaos in the quake zone has been further compounded by contradictory statements from on high: while one missive ordered supermarkets to distribute basic foodstuffs for free, a regional military commander promised a "severe response" to looting. And as the desperate and the hungry start to target smaller, less well-protected businesses, authorities in Concepción - as well as the regions of Maule and Bio Bio, amongst others - have imposed an indefinite, military-enforced curfew from 9pm-6am. The efficiency of the military in protecting shopfronts is in marked contrast with the clumsiness of the relief effort, which has already seen disaster in the crash landing of a plane on its way to Concepción, killing six aid workers.
There are also reports, as yet unverified, of self-organisation by ordinary people in the face of this government contempt and incompetence. Also for LibCom, what follows is the translation of an account from an anonymous observer in the region;
By now, it is well known that many people did the common sense thing and entered the centres in which provisions were being stored, taking no more than what they needed. Such an act is logical, rational, necessary and inevitable - so much so that it appears absurd even to debate it. People organised themselves spontaneously – giving out milk, nappies and water according to each individual’s need, with attention paid in particular to the number of children within each family. The need to take available products was so evident – and the determination of the people to exercise their right to survive was so powerful – that even the police ended up helping (extracting commodities from the Lider supermarket in Concepción, for example). And when attempts were made to impede the populace in doing the only thing that it could possibly do, the buildings in question were set alight – it’s equally logical, after all, that if tonnes of foodstuffs have to rot instead of being consumed, that they are burnt, thus avoiding infection. These incidences of ‘looting’ have allowed thousands of people to subsist for hours in darkness, without drinking water or even the remotest hope that someone might come to their aid.

Now, however, in the space of just a few hours, the situation has changed drastically. Throughout the penquista (Concepción) metropolis, well-armed, mobile gangs have started to operate in expensive vehicles, concerning themselves with looting not just small businesses, but also residential buildings and houses. Their objective is to hoard the scarce few goods that people have been able to retrieve from the supermarkets, as well as their domestic appliances, money and whatever else they may find. In some parts of Concepción, these gangs have looted houses before setting them alight and then fleeing. Residents, who at first found themselves rendered completely defenceless, have started to organise their own defences, taking it in turns to do security patrols, erecting barricades to protect their roads, and, in some barrios, collectivising their commodities in order to ensure that everyone gets fed.

I don’t intend to “complete” the square of information gleaned from other sources with this brief account of events in the last few hours, more I want to bring everyone’s attention to the nature of this critical situation, and its relevance from an anti-capitalist viewpoint. The spontaneous impulse of the people to appropriate what they need to subsist, and their tendency towards dialogue, sharing, agreement and collective action, have been present since the first moment of this catastrophe. We have all seen this natural, communitarian tendency in one form or another in our lives. In the midst of the horror experienced by thousands of workers and their families, this impulse to living as a community has emerged as a light in the dark, reminding us that it is never late to start again, to return to our [natural?] selves.
No doubt, more details andverification will emerge as time goes on, and we will know the full story behind these events. However, given past precedent around the globe, such self-organisation in the face of state repression seems highly likely. In which case, the people partaking in it represent a threat to the governmental monopoly on "order" and so risk the full force of Bachelet's "stern response."

You can make a donation via the CGT (Confederación General de Trabajadores, a Chilean union) here. Our full solidarity and support should go to those, as LibCom words it, "who have been forced – in the blink of an eye – to understand that their lives belong to themselves alone, and that noone will come to their aid."