Sometimes a curse can be a blessing, until it becomes a curse again.

That’s how Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera must be feeling about COVID-19. The virus behind the deadly pandemic arrived in Chile just in time to put a pause on the social unrest that had paralyzed the country since October of last year, forcing Piñera’s right-wing government coalition to agree to the unthinkable: an electoral process to potentially transform the foundations of the neoliberal state.  

The government’s inept, insensitive, and ideological response to the coronavirus, however, has brought people back to the streets. This time, Chileans are not directly demanding an end to the neoliberal way of life enshrined in the 1980 political constitution imposed by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Now, their demands are much simpler yet potentially more volatile. 

“We are hungry, we need food,” a protester told news reporters from the streets of La Granja, a poor district on the southern end of Santiago. “They are charging the electricity bills, the water bills, we have to buy gas, what do we pay with if no one can work? The problem is not the quarantine, it’s the absence of a state that cares about its people.”

As has happened elsewhere, poor communities in Chile have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, making the desperate conditions that brought millions to the streets last October even worse. For poor people sickened by coronavirus, pre-existing conditions and unevenly distributed health resources have made the illness even more deadly. For those trying to avoid getting sick, the strictly enforced shelter-in-place measures have further exposed their vulnerability as they have become unable to pay for food, shelter, and services without jobs or appropriate support from Piñera’s government.  

The pandemic has torn open the immense inequalities hidden for four decades behind Chile’s false aura of success. Today, as in the worst days of Chilean underdevelopment, organizing represents not just the best way to fight back, but the best way to survive.  

Few places show the depth of Chile’s inequality better than the Toma de Terreno Violeta Parra, which has been taken over since last September by 780 families demanding housing solutions from the government. The families set up a camp of temporary houses made with scraps and discarded construction materials; they hope the camp will be transformed into new apartment buildings.

The Toma is not a new organizing strategy in Chile, but the pandemic has forced those taking part in the land takeover to take extra precautions to prevent disease amidst poor conditions and already meager resources. To learn about how activists in the Toma are adapting to COVID-19, I sat down with Miguel Angel Alfaro, a longtime activist, Cerro Navia resident, and member of the Toma’s support committee.  

 

Why did you move into this vacant lot and what are your demands?

The main objective is to solve the people’s housing problem, but this action is also part of the larger popular struggle in Chile. Cerro Navia has 17,000 people who are under-housed, doubled or tripled up in very overcrowded quarters, usually in the home of a family member. In Chile, they are known as “allegados.” Here at the camp, we have about 12 percent of the district’s allegados. However, we see this not only as a way to solve the overcrowding problem for the people at the Toma, but also as a way to promote the understanding that housing is a human right. This right must also take into account the quality of the housing, the living conditions of the residents, the surroundings, the sustainability of the place. So it is not just about the homes and the amount of meters built, but also about forestation, access to public services, access to education. 

Another thing that people want is housing in the same territory. They don’t want to be sent far away from where their family roots are. They don’t want to be isolated from their friends and family, they don’t want the trauma that can generate. It would be like an exile. Moving people to wherever the land is the cheapest has been the housing logic since forever. For the people at the Toma, staying here is non-negotiable.

 

Who are the people occupying the site of the Toma?

The majority are very low-income families. Most work irregular jobs, usually selling third-hand stuff at the exit of neighborhood produce markets a couple of times a week. About 30 percent of the people are part of a Mapuche committee [Mapuches are one of Chile’s original peoples]. There are also some young activists, mostly anarchists and okupas [squatters]. Some of them have a trade. We have an engineer, a teacher, and a physical therapist, folks who want to make a contribution with what they know. There are also artists, muralists, and street musicians.

 

The coronavirus pandemic caught you in the middle of this campaign. What kinds of adjustments did you have to make in order to make sure people were safe?  

In the beginning of the pandemic, we did nothing. People did not fully believe the news at first, and what was on people's minds was: either we die from starvation or from the cops, or the narcos come and shoot us. Dying out here was something that people had already considered. So the pandemic was just one more variable.  

Once we started figuring out that the thing was real, people started generating spaces to protect themselves. With the support committee, we worked on getting resources like disinfectant and soap. A friend donated 2,000 masks. And then we started educating folks on certain habits, despite the poverty they live in, like how to make better use of the water, use soap, use detergent. But people still are not that scared of the coronavirus. People are not seeing this as, “Oh no, this is the worst that could happen.” The worst thing for them right now would be to get kicked out; people are more concerned about losing the opportunity they have been fighting for, about living with dignity with their families than about the coronavirus.  

We recognize that this may be admirable from a political perspective, even though it could be considered irresponsible from a public health perspective. So we are trying to create awareness and have people take this pandemic seriously. We are saying, "If you are not going to be careful for yourself, do it for your kids, for your parents. If you want to die from coronavirus, go ahead, but don’t take your children, your wife, and the rest of your family with you."

 

Do you have water?

We have restricted access to water at the camp. Soon after we set up, we intervened in the main water matrix, creating a diversion from the water they were using for the park, which is potable, three blocks from here. We had to build about 1.3 kilometers of piping from the park to the Toma. That water is not enough for everybody. So far, it services only one part of the camp. We got district officials to agree to fill up these big tanks, one per each of six committees. We started to install a faucet for each family, but we have to restrict the consumption. People also donate water jugs, and sometimes the firefighters bring us water.

 

Do you have electricity?

We get energy from the public lighting wires. However, that is not strong enough, not enough volts. We are trying to make people understand that the electricity we have is only for illumination of their space, not for other domestic uses like boiling water and things like that.  

 

How do you pay for materials and labor?

There are dues that every family has to pay. Those who can’t pay in money contribute labor; they help take care of all the things that need to happen. There are some people who are extremely poor, so they dig ditches, do security, build fences, stuff like that. We have access to a lot of construction workers.

 

The coronavirus has forced Chile’s government to impose shelter-in-place orders and curfews, which means that a lot of people can’t work. How is that affecting the Toma? Does everyone have food?

We do an “olla común,” a common pot, although it hasn’t always worked. In the beginning, we tried to do something for everybody but after a while some people started having problems with the menu: beans again, pasta again, etcetera. For a while, instead of a big pot for everybody, people organized themselves into smaller groups, four families here, eight families there, so that they could have more control over what they wanted or were able to cook. That created some conflict with some folks too because we receive donations and they were not always getting to everyone. After a while, we were able to bring it under control, so that all donations were divided according to the number of family members. 

However, when the pandemic arrived, we had to adjust again. Since many folks here are informal workers, selling stuff in the street or singing on the buses, with the shelter-in-place order, they stopped getting an income. Now we are back to a larger “olla común.”  In Cerro Navia, there are 16 functioning “ollas comunes,” and some of those organizations have shown a lot of solidarity with the people at the Toma Violeta Parra; sometimes they say, “I have an extra six kg of beans,” and we go get it. There is also a school that donates the food they don’t use once a week. The labor union representing the vendors at Santiago’s central produce market also gives us fresh fruit and vegetables once a week. In the beginning, people used to pick up the discarded fruit basically from the ground, but the vendors said they would help us out.  

 

You said before that, with the Toma, you want to promote the idea that housing is a human right. Do the people living in the Toma share that political consciousness, or do they just want a house?

We see political thinking among some segments of the people here. We have tried to create spaces of debate and participation. There are three types of assemblies that take place weekly. At the general weekly assembly, people share information on any developments about what the district is saying: the government, the water, things like that. Everyone comes to that. There is another assembly for the leadership from all six committees, with delegates from every block. There is planning and evaluation of the activities taking place and of their own leadership, people’s responses, etcetera. And there is a third assembly for everyone where people discuss a certain topic they select at any of the other two assemblies. These are usually where politics is discussed. Currently there are two themes that have been leading the agenda: one is violence against women and the other is drugs, all aspects of this issue.  

 

Do you do actions?

We do actions all the time. With the pandemic, things have changed a little, though.  The last massive mobilization here was the Women’s Day march in March. We used to do weekly actions in Cerro Navia’s main intersection. We built a human rights memorial and used it as a meeting point. From October to February, we met there every week. Then came the pandemic and screwed everything up. But when we have to go to Cerro Navia’s City Hall, the people go. People know that there needs to be mobilization; they understand that dialogue is limited and that we are going to have to exert pressure in other ways.  

 

How will the Toma get resolved? What is the strategy?

The solution is somewhat simple, but not easy. If we put pressure on the government, it will have to buy the land and build the project or reach a consensus on some other proposal. We have an architectural proposal for what we want to see developed for all 780 families. But the government has to take responsibility, and, so far, they haven’t. We are in talks with them, with their housing agency, but, so far, they do not want to commit to the project.

Just last week, the Toma leaders met with government officials, the municipality, and the landowners to clarify some shenanigans being orchestrated by some developer trying to do a project on the land where we are now. The meeting took place as a result of an action we did on the developer. The developer was making false promises to convince people to move out peacefully, but we found out that this company also had commitments with other people. So, in order to mess with them, we went to some other construction site this developer has close by and occupied the apartments being built. All the media came, and it became a big deal. That gave us visibility, forcing all the players to acknowledge that we are here and that they have a problem they need to resolve. We need to keep public opinion on our side.  

 

Is there a lesson to learn from this that could be helpful to other people who don’t know what you are doing?  

What’s important is that people have once again begun to organize themselves. All of this organizing is a slap in the face of the system. It says that, even after 30 years of this restricted democracy and savage neoliberalism, the issues of working people haven’t been resolved, the system doesn’t work. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all the people in the street, even with the pandemic. I think this effort is a good sign of things to come.

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