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Arica, always Arica, greater is my loyalty

Arica, always Arica, greater is my loyalty

The landmines – that was certainly a pleasant surprise upon entering the country – didn’t get me, but the road construction nearly did when I ventured out of the hotel the night of my arrival in search of food, and discovered that the pavement abruptly ended – without warning – on the other side of the intersection I had just crossed, leaving me to run through four lanes in order to get to the side of Avenida Santa María that featured someplace to walk and, hopefully, to eat. I did much better on the former score than the latter.

Because it is two hours later on the Chilean side of the border than on the Peruvian side, it was already after 6 PM when at last we pulled into Arica’s international passenger terminal.

Arica is Chile’s northernmost city, but not the northernmost populated area, a title that goes to Visviri, a tiny desert hamlet on the three-way border between Chile, Perú, and Bolivia. It is a fair-sized city, with approximately 260,000 inhabitants, and boasts one of the most pleasant climates in the country. With temperatures ranging between 15° and 25°C year-round, it is affectionately known as the City of the Eternal Spring. It is bordered on three sides by the Atacama Desert, and on one by the PacificOcean. The proximity of a large body of water, as you can surely imagine, was a welcome change after seeing little other than sand for twenty-four hours.

Avenida Diego Portales

Avenida Diego Portales, Arica

Like its Peruvian counterpart,Tacna, Arica is profoundly economically depressed. Because it is convenient to pretty much nowhere – even the other major desert cities are roughly 1000 km away – the major shipping routes do not bring much business to its port, preferring the ports of Iquique (12 hours to the south, in the shadow of an epic sand dune) and Valparaíso (in central Chile). It is over 2000 km away from the capital in Santiago, which, in a state as militantly centralised as Chile, means that the government only come calling if they want something. The upshot of all this an official unemployment rate of around 25%.

When during my research I realised what a monumentally long trip I had in store for me, I decided the most sensible thing would be to break it up into two legs:Lima-Arica and Arica-Santiago. I would spend a night in the City of the Eternal Spring (a name that instantly endeared the place to me), sleep in a proper bed, take a leisurely shower, change into clothes that had not spent 24 straight hours clinging to me, and go out on the town for a nice dinner out. Then, refreshed, I would sit down in the next bus, and arrive, greeted by friends, in Santiago a little over thirty hours later.

I had scouted out several pleasant-looking, inexpensive hostels in Arica during my online research. All promised free wifi, a convenient location, and included photos of lush, king-sized beds in airy rooms. Unaccountably, I failed to make a note of any of these places, and couldn’t remember the name of any one of them upon my arrival.

Arica Bus Terminal

Arica Bus Terminal

Fortunately in a sense, I was so comprehensively knackered upon my arrival in Arica that I no longer cared. All I wanted was someplace to lay down my luggage, wash off the dirt I had caked on me during the trip, check my e-mail and let people know where I was headed next, and some kind of flat surface to collapse on. Above all, I did not want to walk even another yard with all this crap on my shoulders.

As it turned out, there was a row of hostels directly opposite the bus terminal on Avenida Diego Portales.

There is scarcely a city, town, or village in Chile without at least one street commemorating Diego Portales. He earned the undying admiration of the Chilean ruling class two hundred years ago when he successfully subverted the country’s first constitutional convention, which was threatening to become too democratic, with a combination of violence and treachery.

Following Chile’s independence from Spain in 1810, the country was ruled for years by General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, another ubiquitous street name, who had declared himself the “Supreme Leader of the Nation”[1]. This was, however, not at all what most people had understood “freedom from Spain” to mean. When fellow street name regular Manuel Rodríguez suggested that it might be an idea to have actual elections, O’Higgins had him wacked.

Before being murdered, Rodríguez uttered the words “Éste es el pago de Chile” (These are the wages of Chile.), a phrase that has become immortal as an expression of the bad ends met by those who actually try to do right by the Chilean people.

Arica

Arica

The entire country erupted in rebellion to get rid of “Liberator” O’Higgins, and eventually succeeded in kicking him out. This is depicted in orthodox iconography as a stately affair in which the great Liberator decides before a grateful nation that it is time to make way for new leadership. In reality, however, O’Higgins clung to power to the bitter end, and only stepped down in a hastily arranged ceremony when it was clear that the alternative was to be run out of town by pitchfork-wielding villagers.

A similar tack was taken by another self-appointed “Supreme Leader of the Nation”, Augusto Pinochet. After a decade of escalating protest and resistance to his dictatorship, when even his CIA handlers had grown sick of him, he allowed the population to vote on whether to keep him as dictator. When the majority voted to send him packing, he arranged a ceremonial departure from the presidential palace  under the slogan Misión cumplida (“Mission Accomplished”), which sounds a bit more dignified than “OK, OK! I’ll leave already!”

After O’Higgins left office, there began a lengthy process of drafting a constitution Outside of Santiago, where the artisans, fishermen, and farmers who were the backbone of the country’s economy lived, people had a long tradition of local self-government through assemblies in which all citizens could participate in decision-making. Unsurprisingly, they hoped to create a constitution in that tradition. In Santiago, home to the merchants and bankers who spent their days finding ways to make money off of the work done everywhere else without actually doing any themselves, the prospect of letting their golden goose make its own decisions was not well received. Under the leadership of Diego Portales, they sought a highly centralised structure that would keep the important decisions in their neighbourhood, if not directly in their salons.

Arica

Arica

Portales and colleagues arranged to have the constitutional assembly held in Santiago, their home ground. The representatives of the rest of the country – who were directly accountable to those who had elected them and could be recalled at any time – were forced to travel a long way to take part in the debates (and considering how long the bus ride is, just imagine what it must have been like on horseback!). Once there, they were subjected to an unremitting campaign of harassment by the Portales mob, who ensured that they had no decent places to stay, ridiculed and defamed them in the press, and disrupted the deliberations in hopes of controlling the process. Even so, it did not appear that they would get what they wanted.

Eventually, they induced a segment of the army, under General Prieto, to mutiny against their commander, General Freire, who sided with the democratic aspirations of the people. Freire’s forces, with overwhelming popular support, quickly had Portales and Prieto on the brink of defeat. Prieto’s reaction was to request an audience with Freire, in Prieto’s camp, to negotiate a surrender. Trusting that Prieto would not abuse the right of surrender, Freire came unarmed. Prieto’s men ambushed him and his party, and launched surprise attacks on his forces.

In the end, Prieto was able to fight to a draw. In the negotiations, he and Freire agreed to mutual disarmament. Demonstrating a less than impressive learning curve, Freire had his troops give up their arms first. Prieto and his men kept theirs.

While I can cite no source in support of this, I have a feeling that this may have been the origin not only of Chile’s political malaise, but of the typical Chilean expression huevón (pronounced we-ON), which means “dickhead”.

And that is how the street I now surveyed got its name. There is a habit of this in Chile. Being a treasonous, murdering bastard who subverts democracy in defence of the interests of the moneyed oligarchy is much more likely to get you a street name than being someone who defends democracy against such people. Today, no street remembers General Carlos Prats González, murdered by Pinochet for his opposition to the coup that brought him to power, and only a few small side streets (not one of them is in Santiago) remember General René Schneider, who was murdered by the CIA-financed coup plotters in order to prevent Salvador Allende taking office at all. Col Roberto Souper, however, who led a disastrously failed coup attempt against Allende, has a street in one of Santiago’s nicest neighbourhoods named after him. Éste es el pago de Chile.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I should note that this is hardly a specifically Chilean phenomenon. The US is full of streets commemorating Woodrow Wilson, but how many streets celebrate Eugene V. Debs, whom Wilson sent to prison for a decade for making an anti-war speech during his presidential campaign? Or Emma Goldman, who was run out of the country during Wilson’s violent crackdown on the labour movement? How many streets remember the victims of Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre, in which police opened fire on workers striking for the eight-hour work day? Is there even a single street commemorating the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, in which soldiers machine-gunned striking miners and their families whilst they slept? If anything, the difference between the US and Chile is that, in Chile, ordinary people are much more likely to remember these names, even if those who name streets do not.

One of the other places to stay in Arica

One of the other places to stay in Arica

As much as I would like to be able to claim that these were my first musings upon seeing the name of the street I stood in, that would be an utter lie. My thoughts, to the extent that they were articulate enough to merit the name, were something more along the lines of: Fuck, heavy. Back hurts. Arse hurts. Arms hurt. Tired. Need sleep. Need to eat. Need to eat sleep. Shit, am becoming incoherent. V., v. bad!

Something needed to be done.

With these thoughts firmly in mind, I slogged my way through the front door of the Rocca Luna hostel  diagonally opposite the bus terminal. I had settled on this place because it was five minutes’ walk from the bus station, appeared relatively well-maintained, and advertised free wifi.

A man in his mid-50s with a big black moustache welcomed me with a smile.

“Have you got any rooms free?”

“Indeed we do. How long do you plan on staying?”

“Just one night.”

“That will be 6,000 pesos,” he replied.

I handed him the money and my passport. He filled out some forms, asked for my signature, and gave me my room key.

At the time, I had not yet worked out a shortcut to convert between US dollars and Chilean pesos, so I was only aware that this was a very affordable price indeed. I since worked out that one can reliably approximate the dollar value of an amount denominated in Chilean pesos by taking off three noughts and multiplying by two. 6,000 pesos, for example, works out to roughly 12 dollars. 100,000 pesos is approximately 200 dollars, and 1 million pesos is about 2,000 dollars. And so on.

Rocca Luna was a decidedly basic establishment. My room, which was on the top end of a long and narrow staircase, was just large enough to accommodate the bed and my luggage. The bed featured a foam-rubber mattress about three feet wide, and had a profound sense of history. A window opened up into the open-air corridor. The light flickered when I plugged in my computer.

But I didn’t give a rat’s. The shower was clean. The water was hot. The bed was…a decent approximation, and the employees were lovely (I didn’t have to carry that damn suitcase up the stairs). And that was really all I was asking for from life at that particular moment.

That having been said, had someone shown up and offered me a free suite with a king-size bed, 1100-count cotton sheets, an obscenely large stack of pillows, an ocean view, a complimentary bottle of Bordeaux, and a bathtub deep enough to swim in, I would most assuredly not have said “no” (especially if a nice, fluffy bathrobe were included).


[1] I am indebted for this narrative in large part to the concise and engaging account of Chilean constitutional history found in En nombre del poder popular constituyente (In the Name of the People’s Constituent Power) by the eminent Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar.

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Los pueblos americanos
se sienten acongojados
porque los gobernadores
los tienen tan separados.

¿Cuándo será ese cuando,
 señor fiscal,
 que la América sea
 solo un pilar?
 Solo un pilar, ay sí,
 y una bandera.
 Que terminen las bullas
 en la frontera.

¡Por un puña’o ’e tierra
 no quiero guerra!

The peoples of America
feel suffocated
because their governments
keep them separated.

When will the day come,
Mr Prosecutor,
that America will be
a single pillar?
A single pillar yes,
and a single banner,
to put an end to the noise
on the borders.

Don’t go starting wars
over a handful of land!
-Violeta Parra, Los pueblos americanos

The endless Atacama desert

The endless Atacama desert

I’ve never really been one for tourism. Brief visits of no more than a few days have always left me quite unsatisfied, as I must invariably move on just as I am finally beginning to settle in. Nor have I ever been a fan of the standard guided tour, in which one is whisked from place to place in the less-than-thrilling company of the sort of foreign holidaymakers who are unlikely to be all that sorely missed in their countries of origin, and who distinguish themselves either by their overall sense of superiority to everyone and everything they encounter in the country they are visiting (“Oh, we’ve got one just like that in Peoria/Parramatta/Slough, but ours is much nicer.”; “Have your people come to Jesus yet?”) or by running commentary that makes the most asinine thing you’ve ever heard seem like a flight of erudition by comparison (“Look, honey, they’ve got BMWs in Germany, too!”). (more…)

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