Creating Solidarity in the slums of Santiago


In September last year, we held an interview with a comrade from the OCL, a Chilean anarcho-communist (platformist) organisation with a presence in the biggest cities of that country - Santiago, Valpara’so and Concepcion. This organisation has a policy of building up the movement amongst the popular rank and file, organising Frentes (Fronts or Networks) among the traditional popular factors in revolutionary struggle in Chile: workers, students and neighbours from the slums of the cities.

This approach is born out of the Chilean revolutionary tradition. But more importantly it comes from their immediate experiences. In the early days of the organisation, there was a process in which different tactics were implemented, with contradictory results. Eventually tactics were’ defined by the comrades’ participation in different struggles: students occupations of campuses and community struggles. This approach has sprung from the meeting of theory and practice. The comrade interviewed is one who has been active for almost ten years in students’ and community organisations. He had been through the period in which the Chilean approach to anarcho-communism was defined. This first lead to the forming of the CUAC"(Congreso de Unificacién Anarco-Comunista), which then developed in the OCL.

We reproduce this interview as it's a very interesting account about the start of their community work, how they've faced the work at a mass level and the different problems posed by this, as well as how they are attempting to make anarchism relevant for people's struggles and their everyday lives. Finally it shows how practice has affected theory and vice-versa. We hope this interview contributes to the debate as to what sort of anarchist-communism we need for the 21st century, and that the ideas exposed serve to enrich other comrades’ practices.

Q. First of all, tell us how did your experience in community work as anarcho-communists start?

As you know, we started using our intuition. We knew that community work had a lot of potential, that it exposes a lot of social contradictions, and that our presence would help to radicalise those contradictions. We were very young and hadn't much experience; the oldest of the group now are between 27 and 30 or so years. So the handiest thing was to start with a Cultural Collective, because we were young and affected by stuff like the military service and other problems. But on the way we realised some weaknesses. In our communities, hunger and unemployment are real and cultural work was a bit distant from that reality. But we managed to form a small group of people and started working on propaganda.

Then, we got in touch with a bunch of comrades who aren’t anarchists, but who are close in terms of rank and file organization. So we started to work in their preuniversitario popularl. From there, we took, part in the demand for education of the youth in the slums. Education is almost entirely private in Chile, so we started educating the youngsters there, teaching them what they needed to get to university, and at the same time, we put across our arguments. For instance, when teaching the official history, We gave a different version as well, for them to know. And many of them got involved in the organisation. For us, it was not the only aim to help people to get to university; we wanted to create popular organisation, from the bottom up, to generate debate and to prepare the field for the struggle.

It has been a work of years... I have been four years working there. We have been learning from these experiences and from the other people there, as an active minority and as part of the People. There has been some tension with some authoritarian tendencies that want to limit the spaces for participation and decision making. For us, that meant to educate people in concrete terms.

In those discussions, our participation in the political organisation was very useful, because we discussed there [in the CUAC] issues that we were also discussing in the communities, so we go; a lot of elements for debate. So the political organisation was a useful tool. We had to argue against the Leninist tendencies that have their own project, where there is no room for Popular Power, for bottom up organisation.

At that time, we'were very reluctant to mix with non-anarchists groups. But as
we were not going to make the revolution all by ourselves, we had to participate with other leftist groups. But we have to be very clever, we know they will try to use us. The Communist Party (CP), for instance will always look for voters, and we, as well, are looking for the popular movement to grow, but also the anarcho- communist movement to grow.

So we got closer to some of those groups, and we learnt a lot from them. First, because we had no experience in legal matters, we needed that to form committees of allegados. Because at that time, in our analysis, we realised that one of the biggest problems in the area where we are working, Pefialolén, was the big numbers of allegados. There are at least 10,000 people in that situation, or much more, so you are talking of around 3.000 families. We started organising in that conflict, but the «experience of the pre universitario was vital, especially all that we learnt about assemblies, propaganda and mass organisation.

So what could we offer to people? Well, the people weren't going to come to us because we were anarchists and want the revolution. They came to us because we gave them a quick and dignified way to get a house. The government, since 2002, due to some trade agreements, had to start building houses called “dynamic housing with no debt”. Those are undignified houses, unfinished, with no roof or stairs, for instance, that look more like matches’ boxes. But you pay a small amount of money, and then it’s yours. And apart from this, the houses were quite far away from the workplaces, and in this moment, Spanish business are willing to buy all the public transport, so it seems that the cost of travelling will increase at least three times.

Q. What did you decide to do?

What we are doing is to use a law that allows the SERVIUS to expropriate lands for public benefit - that law, in the past, was used by Pinochet to rob the lands of the Mapuche (the largest indigenous group in Chile). Now, we are using the same law that the bourgeoisie used to its own benefit, now to attack it.

In Pefialolén there are many fields without use, that they bought for peanuts through the town hall, in a fraudulent way, and now they are speculating with them, and they look forward to selling those lands with expensive houses, generating well off areas in a very poor sector of the city, as they're already doing. Those houses cost so much, that a working class person will be able to afford it only if he saves his entire wage, without spending a penny, for one hundred years, which is impossible. Those lands belong historically to a poor area, and we are reclaiming them, [and this] putsthe people in confrontation with the State and the private investors. And the more people we have, the more pressure we can make.

In Pefialolén, we have organised 600 families already, in different committees. In San Luis, we started a committee and we have 30 families, quite few, but I moved to Las Torres, and there are lots of young families that live like allegados, and we have organised 80 families. In Lo Hermida we have 150 families, and so on. So now we are the biggest organisation in Peiialolén, and the biggest organisation of allegados in Chile. The organisation is called LUCHAYVIVIENDA‘, (LYV), and we [the radical left] have an internal network as well, because in LYV there's a bit of everything: people from the Communist party, people that are just looking forward the elections, people that just want to get a house, people that vote for the right because they have no idea of politics.

Q. What are the concrete struggles that LUCHIIYVIVIENDA is leading?

To sum up, we started to meet in September 2003, people from different political groups and others without any militancy, to analyze the problem. The people of the CP tried to put forward their slogans and we didn't care really. We were more interested in how you bring people together, how we organise, the attributes of the delegates and representatives. So we started organising meetings to let the people know about their rights and about the red tape: how to open an account with the SERVIU and how to fill the CAS files.

These files are the instrument used to measure poverty in the country, and are full of traps in order to show a better image of the country, as its results are handed to the World Bank. If you are allegado, for instance, they will tell you “you live in a house with 4 rooms, and have 2 tvs”, while the reality is that you live with all of your family in just one room of the house, and have no access to tv because other families own them, so they distort reality this way and have less chance of getting a social house quickly.

That's the first part of the work, to make ourselves known, to gain the trust of the people, to make them believe and then to bring more people together. And we need morepeople, because if we have 500 families, we can demand land; if we have 1000 we are going to get it immediately, it’s a matter of pressure.

So we sent a letter to the town hall, introducing ourselves as LUCHA Y VIVIENDA, and we wanted them to know our demands and to recognise that in Pefialolén there is a housing crisis. If they admitted the crisis, we would have made the first step to get authorisation to get the lands, and the Ministry would have had to give the final authorisation to build.  But they didn’t like the idea, so we organised three marches to pressure them, and the mayor would tell us “we want to talk with the leaders" and we all went inside, with the rank and file neighbours, all to talk. And thus we showed a new type of leadership, one of a more popular nature, of a more libertarian nature. We had problems in the beginning with the word “leader”, but we understand it as being the visible head of the movement, always obeying our rank and file, and we reflect that in our practice.

So we won that first phase of the struggle: we got the signature of the major and now we pressured the Ministry and the Deputies’ chamber to use the law of expropriation, and that's our struggle now. We want to show to all of Chile, that an organised group of people can gain a fight with the government. And obviously, we won’t stop when we get the neighbourhood: we'll stay there to build it, live in it and make it revolutionary. We'll keep on going, because the problems won't stop when we solve the housing problem: there is still the problem of health, education, unemployment.

Q. Tell us as well about the experience of the house debtors?

That's another big movement. To get a house, people pay some money and then have to pay the rest of the mortgage. And when the business was in the hands of the State, there were lots of people whose debt was “forgiven" because of their poverty. But now the debt is privatised. Now the SERVIU handed all this problem to Inverca, a company that builds the houses and then gets the debt. So now the cost of housing has gone to the roof and these people‘ of Inverca are really ripping off everyone in the most indecent possible way.

Now, there is a big group of debtors in Chile. Because wages in Chile are not enough to live; they are alright if you never get sick, if you don’t have to buy yourself clothes, if you eat just once a day and only bread. So you just don’t get money to pay the mortgages they are asking for. And the debt increases due to high interest rate. So we formed committees of debtors so the whole community would start paying a “poor mortgage” according to what the people could actually afford.

You have to understand that the people don’t want to be beggars, they do want to pay for their house. I know it's not to be a beggar to demand a right, but the people see it as begging. Wemade the demand that people pay according to their own capacity our first step.

And our further demand. is the abolition of the debt. Since the year 2000, the people with a lot of debt are being transferred to the Banking system, and there the interest rates are a real rip off. So we are asking to be assimilated into the “dynamic housing with no ‘debt-” system because the majority of the houses, are basic public housing, really crap housing, you know them. But that system started only in 2002, so the people that got the same sort of houses in 1992, though finished houses, have to pay a lot more. So we are organising the people and starting demonstrations.

This is the work with more potential for the future, as there are more debtors than allegados. But we are working on unemployed people’s committees, as well we are collectively bargaining getting access to work. Because if the town hall has employment for 40 people, and we have 80 organised, we rotate them and make some work one month, the others the next month? So we create solidarity where the government is creating conflict, because they just throw the offerings and let the people fight each other to get a job. For that reason, ‘organisations of this type are necessary.

As well, we are organising collective canteens, where people are facing hunger together and satisfying the basic need of having something to eat, there are also some cooperatives being formed of the cartoneross. They are collectively getting the hard paper from the rubbish, and collectively they are selling it. There are experiences of this in Brazil, that some of our comrades are familiar with. So we generate solidarity among the ones who are surviving, among those with more need. All these last one are recent experiences and I wouldn't be directly involved with them.

Q. What do you think has been the contribution of the anarchist-communists to the popular movement?

One of the things we've set up in the popular organisations, and something that now is common. currency, are the assemblies. Setting up assemblies in the past was difficult, because of the Leninist view of leaders and masses, and on the other hand: because the struggle against; the dictatorship didn't let you be so open.

We've organised people from.the bottom up, and with good results. 'I'he're are more people coming to the struggle, because. they're part of it; they’re active members, they make decisions. I think we've brought fresh air to the popular struggle, as we've made changes that affect the social relationships. Now you don't get someone preaching at you from the stage, but there is discussion and that's the best to educate our neighbours.

The other thing, is the nature of the leaders: leaders that are listening, that are accountable to the rank and file. Because we know that you need people to be organising at the front, but they have to be mandated.)-ind the bargaining now isn’t anymore done behind closed doors. In many parts still that's the case, for trade unions for instance. But we know we are changing that and that’ll have a powerful effect over the struggles in a couple of years.

But there is more to be done. The direct criticism of the State that we are constantly doing, is something we need to push, for the people still trust a lot the politicians and believe a lot in the State.

Q. And what’s the contribution you think the experience of community organising has brought to the anarcho-communist movement?

Quite a lot. In the beginning  many anarchist circles were only linked to cultural stuff and just met in the centre of the city. We went to lots of demonstrations, with lots of papers, flyers, but we didn't have a real influence. But then, little by little, we started linking to certain struggles. But we didn't just merge them, as part of the people, we started creatingtstruggle as well. We weren't there for the occupations of land of the 90s, but we inherited all that. Popular struggles have helped anarchism to come down to earth, to be involved, in mass practices, where we have learned to be more open and had matured.

We look to the past and think it's a bit funny the way we tried to imitate, European models’ of squatting, and we thought that that wasthe revolutionary thing to do, and we failed to realise that you can't copy other people’s struggles just like ‘a mould. And it was all because of, our lack of experience... there were other experienced comrades, but they were working other issues. Now we are dealing with something real, with a powerfulstruggle that really tackles the.problem of housing. We started in the wrong way, ignoring the struggles of our people, while we were busy imitating squatters in Europe. It took us some time to realise all this, but now we are on the right path, regardless that we still need more political developments.

Q. How do you see the relationship between the libertarian movement, the community struggles and the prospect of revolutionary change in Chile?

We have to be realistic, because hunger is: haunting: Latin America and Chile is used; as an example of neoliberalism. So I imagine that they'll inject loads of resources for it to stay in a dead-like peace. But there are many things, like the Free Trade Agreements (PTA), that will create radical changes for they're attacking us from all over the place. And our task has to ‘be to keep on going with the project of building up socially, to create the conditions to smash Capital.

Right now, the majority of the population are satisfied with the economic model, because during the governments of la Concertacions, the proletarians ‘had access to consumer goods that in the past were exclusively for the elites. But we know as well that this created social relationships that were far more enslaving, like ‘the use of credit to hook people
into consuming.

At the same time, and as the circus of democracy and the market opportunities go on, people are starting to realise what lies behind the curtains, especially in moments when the PTA show the real nature of the system. We work in the. slums because we know that there lie the biggest contradictions. We are bringing tools for the developing social movement, and we know that as it grows, they will be very useful.

Among the left of the world and herein Chile. there isn't a revolutionary project that is more coherent than libertarian communism, as every other attempt of revolution has failed because of the problems posed by power, the State and Capital, that was never abolished. It is a big challenge, as “our project is the only one that remains standing. 6

Interview with G., a militant with the OCL (Organizacion Comunista Libertaria) and a community organiser from Santiago de Chile (16/09/04) by Paddy Rua