What really lies behind those trapped Chilean miners

A little insight, courtesy of Telesur reporter Alejandro Kirk:

The culprit, say miners and the family members of the trapped men, is the greed of Big Copper industrialists in Chile.

Working conditions have always been atrocious for that very reason in the copper mines, as Alberto Granado attested in his book, Travelling With Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary:

Of course the tour we had today only served to confirm the opinion we formed when we went round yesterday–that is, that the whole place is incalculably rich.

The countless pieces of machinery, the perfect synchronisation and the way they get the maximum use out of every element certainly inspire admiration, but this is eclipsed by the indignation aroused when you think that all this wealth only goes to swell the coffers of Yankee capitalism, while its true owners, the Araucanian people*, live in abject poverty.

The first place we visited was the gallery of what’s called an open-pit mine. it consists of a number of terraces about fifty or sixty yards wide and two or three miles in length. Here they drill and place the dynamite, blow up bits of the hill, and then use universal shovels–a kind of bulldozer–to load up the dump cars hauled by an electric engine. From there the ore goes to the first crushing mill, where a dumper tips it out.

After the first crushing, automatic conveyors take the ore to a second mill and then a third. When the rock is finely crushed it is treated with sulphuric acid in large tanks. All this solution of sulphates is taken to a building, which houses the vats of electrolyte for separating out the copper and regenerating the acid.

The copper obtained by electrolysis is smelted in large furnaces at a temperature of 2,000 degrees centigrade, and then this torrent of liquid copper is tipped into large moulds dusted with calcined bone. It goes on into a unit that solidifies and cools it down almost instantaneously, and then electric cranes carry the moulds to a mill, which planes them to a uniform thickness.

All this is done with such precision that it reminded me of the Chaplin film . The impression grew even stronger when we tried to familiarise ourselves with various aspects of the technological process. Each worker or machine operator knows only what goes on in his section, and sometimes only part of it. There are many who have been working here for more than ten years and don’t know what goes on or what gets done in the next section down the line. Of course this is encouraged by the company, which can more easily exploit them this way, as well as keep them at a very low level culturally and politically. The striving trade-union leaders have a titanic struggle to make the workers see the pros and cons of the agreements that the company tries to get them to sign. The company also employs other subtle means to combat the union.

The bloke acting as our guide, who is nothing but a filthy mercenary, told us that whenever there’s an important union meeting, he and some of the administrator’s other assistants invite a large number of miners to a brothel, thereby robbing the meeting of a required quorum. To give some idea of this character’s mentality, it’s enough to say that at one moment he was telling us that the workers’ demands were excessive, and a little later he informed us that if the mine stood idle a single day the company lost a million dollars. With amounts like that at stake, this born slave dares to say that 100 pesos–a dollar–is an excessive demand. How we itched to throw him into one of the acid vats!


When we came down we met one of the members of the union. He explained to us that the company pays low daily wages, but attracts workers by holding out the illusion that the company store sells goods at lower prices than those of other establishments in the area. But it turns out that there is only a limited number of cheap articles, and essential foodstuffs are not always in stock, so the men have to buy them at fabulously high prices elsewhere from establishments that operate hand-in-glove with the company. Of course once a worker has settled here he stays on, hoping his demands will be heard and his needs met in the next contract. Time goes by, there’s a wife, then children, and in the end, against his will and knowing he’s being exploited, he remains until his eldest son takes his place, once he’s been rendered useless by the passing years and privations–assuming he’s not been killed in a blasting accident, or by silicosis or by the sulphuric vapours.

Afterwards, we went over the western part of the town, where a plant makes prefabricated houses. This kind o
f building could solve the housing problems not only of Chuquicamata but also of the rest of Chile if the technique were properly applied, with a proper finish, nicely painted, and so on. Here everything is done on the cheap, just to igve the workers housing that fulfils the minimum requirements–and sometimes not even that. Besides, they group the houses together in a distant part of town and don’t provide any drains. Of course the Yankees and their lackeys have a special school for their children, as well as golf courses, and their houses aren’t prefabricated.

We also visited the area scheduled to be mined over the next ten years, when the sulphide processing plant is finished. When we saw that they would get millions upon millions of dollars a day out of this area too (they are currently extracting 90,000 tons of ore a day) Fúser [Che] and I remembered that when we had read a book on Chile’s copper we thought the author was exaggerating when he said that forty days’ work could pay off all the capital investment. Life is certainly a great teacher and shows you more than a hundred books.

*Araucanians is the catch-all term for the indigenous peoples of Chile.

Fúser, or Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Alberto Granado’s friend, writes more neutrally about the mine itself, but his brief politico-economic analysis of what he and Granado saw at Chuquicamata (in The Motorcycle Diaries) is as chilling as it is clear:

Chile produces 20 percent of all the world’s copper, and copper has become vitally important in these uncertain times of potential conflict because it is an essential component of various types of weapons of [mass] destruction. Hence, an economico-political battle is being waged in Chile between a coalition of nationalist and left-wing groupings which advocate nationalizing the mines, and those who, in the cause of free enterprise, prefer a well-run mine (even in foreign hands) to possibly less efficient management by the state. Serious accusations have been made in [the Chilean] Congress against the companies currently exploiting the concessions, symptomatic of the climate of nationalist aspiration which surrounds copper production.

Whatever the outcome of the battle, it would be as well not to forget the lesson taught by the mines’ graveyards, which contain but a fraction of the enormous number of people devoured by cave-ins, silicosis and the mountain’s infernal climate.

Both of these Argentine travellers wrote their accounts in 1952, long before Salvador Allende finally won election (in 1970) as the first socialist president of Chile–significantly, on a platform that included nationalization of the copper mines. The atrocious conditions of the mines were already an old problem even by then, and as Che’s account makes clear, the Yankee war industries–by that time, given to the production of nuclear weapons–had become a major culprit in the miseries of Chile. That same year, incidentally, Allende campaigned for the presidency for the first time, and lost. Considering what he was up against (the same problems that the miners’ union leaders were facing), it seems hardly surprising that he had to campaign in three more presidential races before finally succeeding. By 1970, political consciousness among miners had apparently reached the necessary critical mass. But the mine owners didn’t take the nationalization drive lying down, and three years later, Allende was murdered in the coup that brought fascist dictatorship to Chile for the first time in the person of Augusto Pinochet.

And yes, the coup was copper-colored.

At the overt level, Washington was frosty, especially after the nationalization of the copper mines; official relations were unfriendly but not openly hostile. The government of President Richard M. Nixon launched an economic blockade conjunction with U.S. multinationals (ITT, Kennecott, Anaconda) and banks (Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank). The US squeezed the Chilean economy by terminating financial assistance and blocking loans from multilateral organizations. But during 1972 and 1973 the US increased aid to the military, a sector unenthusiastic toward the Allende government. The United States also increased training Chilean military personnel in the United States and Panama.

Kennecott and Anaconda were major US copper-mining concerns in Chile. The Chuquicamata mine, which so infuriated Che and “Mial” Granado, was owned by Anaconda at the time of their visit. Chuquicamata’s Wikipedia entry closes on a bland note that probably reveals something of its author’s class viewpoint:

These mines were mainly self-contained and self-sustaining settlements. They were complete with their own cities to house the workers, their own water and electrical plants, schools, stores, railways, and even in certain cases their own police forces. These mines were extremely beneficial in an economical sense, for they provided steady jobs and a steady income for the nation of Chile.

Note the complete absence of mentions of the terrible working conditions, the poor pay, the company stores that fleeced the workers, who were forced to live in substandard, prefabricated housing without sewers, and who often made their way to the company graveyard at a shockingly early age. “Extremely beneficial in an economical sense” they may well have been, if Alberto Granado’s account of million-dollar-a-day ore extraction is anything to go by, but not for the majority of those who worked there! As Che wrote in The Motorcycle Diaries:

Yet the guide, the Yankee bosses’ faithful lapdog, told us: ‘Stupid gringos, they lose thousands of pesos every day in a strike so as not to give a poor worker a couple of extra centavos. That’ll be over when our General Ibañez comes to power.’ And a foreman-poet: ‘These famous terraces enable every scrap of copper to be mined. People like you ask me lots of technical questions but I’m rarely asked how many lives it has cost. I don’t know the answer, doctors, but thank you for asking.’

Linkage added.

The aging General Ibañez was elected soon after that, but he didn’t nationalize the copper mines. Nor did his policies do much that was actually felt at the workers’ level, other than for one thing: he legalized the Chilean Communist Party, which was a leading force in the struggle for nationalization and workers’ rights. That party would become a component in the Popular Front coalition that supported Salvador Allende.

Ironically, after Pinochet’s copper coup, the copper industries of Chile remained nationalized (a process that had begun in 1969 under Allende’s immediate predecessor, Eduardo Frei). But the appalling working conditions were never ameliorated, thanks to Pinochet’s iron fist. His earliest military posting, not coincidentally, was to the mining regions of northern Chile, where his duties included squelching “communism”–that is, union organization among the miners.

Now Chile has a Pinochet sympathizer as president, one who no doubt is looking at selling off the copper industries or handing them back to their original Yankee dueños. And the mining conditions? Well, they speak for themselves. It’s estimated that the rescue of these trapped miners will take another 120 days–four whole months. A fact which should argue strongly against privatization and in favor of serious reforms and dra
stic new workplace safety measures, but it’s not at all certain that Sebastián Piñera will heed these dire warnings. After all, he is a businessman first and foremost, and his attitude is that all of Chile should be run like a business, even when that business is as blatantly inhumane as the copper mines of Chuquicamata.

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3 Responses to What really lies behind those trapped Chilean miners

  1. hans says:

    Now Chile has a Pinochet sympathizer as president, one who no doubt is looking at selling off the copper industries or handing them back to their original Yankee dueños. Well they voted for him then must face their consequences!

  2. kim says:

    The video for this post auto starts each time I visit your blog. Is that a setting you can change on your end? I appreciate your site and your writing. Regards,

  3. Kim, I tried, but for some reason, the autoplay function doesn’t want to shut off. The coding from the site is all messed up, and I’m not techy enough to unmess it. But I will try again. Thanks for writing.

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