by Sanjena Sathian
Before arriving in Antofagasta, we all had distinct ideas about what the city would look like. Some of us guessed it would be the Dubai of northern Chile — we’d heard a lot about how it was an expensive, rich city essentially built around the mining industry. Others thought it was a tiny mining town and still pictured soot-faced hefty mine workers to be wandering around in their work gear all day. The answer is it is neither. Antofagasta is one of the main cities in the northern region. There are rich suburbs and some intensely poor ones, and there are a few colleges, both public and private. No actual mines exist in the city, but a few private transnational companies exist outside the city. Antofagasta, then, is a city that exists as a product of the mining industry, but the clearest trace of mining that I’ve seen so far were the advertisements in the airport when we landed, showing off the latest technology and advertising fancy hotels for business trippers.
But mining forms the underlying pulse of this entire region, and, in reality, Chile itself. Many of us are researching things to do with labor rights and social movements in the country, and Chile has gained its most international media attention recently because the nation is exploding with protests. Here, those protests and movements are taking form against the way the government interacts with the mining industry.
Today, we encountered our second protest. We met up with protesters at the Plaza del Colon at 10 AM, and as they gathered slowly, putting together their signs and chatting with one another, we were pleased to find a few familiar faces in the crowd — some of the students from Catolica Norte who we met last night were there, as were a few of their professors and even the nanny union-leader who Diego had interviewed yesterday. We saw young people and grandparents, mine workers and students who described themselves as “militant Communists,” and even a few local political leaders. The atmosphere was friendly and calm, and the group, as it marched through the streets, never took up more space than a block.
But people are angry. The protest was against FONDENOR, the same thing I posted the press release about earlier. FONDENOR is essentially a government initiative that was initially greeted with great excitement by the country; it purports to take the money gained from taxes on the industry and redistribute it across the northern region so that the local areas benefit from mining. But when the government began to define what constitutes a mining region, towns like Antofagasta and Calama were left out because they don’t have actual mines within their city limits — but they’re where most miners live, and where most of the business surrounding mining occurs. The north is bursting with anger over this: the protest we saw today was tiny compared to what workers in Calama did just yesterday, blocking highways and preventing any through traffic from getting into the city.
We’re at the stage of the trip where we’re starting to hear a lot of the same things. For reporters, that’s comforting, because it means we’re on the right track, and we’re starting to “get it.” In Chile, we’ve been seeing signs of a country between development and supremely strong economic status, and the unrest — the students, in the southern part of the country against dams and in the north against mining — all speaks to a country experiencing severe growing pains. The question is whether the cramps will stop the country’s growth or if they will pass and let it keep on growing up.