I – On to Latin American

Having scoured much of sub-Saharan Africa, the next stage of our journey in search of anarchists and archaeology took us to Latin America. It is probably fair to say that socialism never had much influence in Africa beyond small groups of urban educated intellectuals and a few trade unions in Southern Africa. Where anarchist and socialist ideas have had appeal, it has been because they resonated with egalitarian social norms that predated European contact. Political parties based on ideology barely exist and the far left is a sparse network of small groups of intellectuals in University cities.

In Latin America, things are quite different. Political ideologies and parties have been historically important and the far left has played a major role through the years. Most recently, Marxist and anarchist guerrillas played a prominent role in the insurgencies which broke out throughout the region in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s – most famously embodied in the romantic personage of the Argentine Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara.

Thus, in Latin America, we were not exploring political terra incognita – there were specific anarchist groups that we were visiting that we had been in contact with for several years by mail and email. Much of the continent’s far left was eliminated by military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, but the 1990s saw increased political liberalisation and anarchist and Marxist groups had started to reappear. The increasing spread of email and the internet made it increasingly easy to get in touch with this groups from Europe. Our itinerary of anarchist groups to visit took in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Mexico. The first stop was the home town of Ché – Buenos Aires in Argentina – a mere 7,000 kilometres flight West across the South Atlantic from Cape Town.

Christmas in Buenos Aires, December 25th, 2001

II – New Continent, Same Imperialism

The Americas were, like Africa, colonised by European powers. The balance of military technology and biological pathogens differed considerably in the two cases. The Bantu had been smelting iron weapons for 1,500 years before European arrival and their environment contained numerous deadly pathogens which the inhabitants were protected against to some extent compared to invaders. It was not until the era of the railway, steam-boat and maxim gun that Europeans were really able to fully subdue the interior.

Conquistador — Wikipédia

In Eurasia and Africa, interactions between agrarian empires and nomadic pastoralists drove innovations in the technology of warfare and intensified the arms race between states over the millennia. In the Americas the environment lacked horses or camels. Although complex, sophisticated large empires evolved, their military technology remained relatively basic – metal weapons were never in widespread use. When the Spanish conquistadors showed up with their plate armour, swords, cross-bows and muskets, they were very difficult to hurt with native technology and it was very difficult for the natives to adapt and copy their technology as they lacked basic skills and knowledge like ore-extraction, iron-smelting and blacksmithing. As a result, a relatively small number of Spanish and other European adventurers were able to subjugate a huge swathe of the continent in the 1500s, creating great slave plantations of one sort or another wherever they landed.

The population of the Americas had also been isolated from many common old-world pathogens and was devastated by infectious diseases arriving with Europeans. Genocide and ethnocide were thus the norm for the indigenous groups who came into contact with European settlers in the Americas. The natives were steadily pushed into more and more marginal areas over the course of the centuries – most distinct pre-European cultures and languages went extinct and indigenous groups survive today almost only on the margins of social and political life. Only in the less accessible environments – mountains, desert, forest, tundra – do the indigenous still constitute a distinct and sizeable social group. Indigenous genetics survive everywhere in the population but the Americas are overwhelming settler-cultures based on European norms and forms.

The genocide of the natives and the need for slaves to work the plantations and mines of the conquistadors created the trans-Atlantic African slave trade which operated on a mass scale from the 1500s through the 19th century. Anti-African racism thus also became a powerful social force in the Americas alongside anti-native racism. The Spanish Empire dominated the Americas until the 19th century based on a centralised bureaucracy in which the catholic church controlled education and served as the cultural centre that bound the empire together. The ethnic hierarchy went from native Spaniards (peninsulares) and more generally native-born Europeans, to ethnic Europeans born in the Americas (criollos) to mixed race Europeans (mestizos) to Africans (slaves) and, finally, indigenous groups. The various different shapes and flavours and their precise ordering may change from modern country to country, but they all by and large still retain the same timeless colonial hierarchy. In Latin America, gringos still typically retain a status above the locals in the social imagination and the local elite tend to trace their routes to European ancestors and still like to see themselves as European nobility running their business interests in the tropics. The ethnic hierarchy applies at all levels – ethnically European countries, regions, towns, neighbourhoods and individuals all tend to be wealthier and more powerful than those that are more ethnically American or African.

Bernardo O'Higgins - Wikipedia
Bernardo O’Higgins – Liberator of Chile

The Napoleonic wars caused the Spanish Empire to collapse completely, which caused the various administrative divisions of the Empire to recreate themselves as autonomous, independent administrations. The first few decades of the 19th century saw a series of wars between royalist factions which remained loyal to the restored Spanish monarchy and the Libertadores – military leaders such as Simon Bolivar and Bernardo O’Higgins that favoured independence. The Spanish Empire was repeatedly consumed by civil war and factional infighting and proved incapable of reimposing its authority anywhere on the Spanish Main. Britain’s unilateral banning of the slave trade and their policing of the seas with their navy and privateers allowed them to prevent Spain from reasserting military control. The Monroe doctrine, announced in 1823, declared US opposition to European colonialism in the Americas – most specifically European imperial powers attempting to turn the new nations back into colonies. Of course, the great powers did not cease to meddle in Latin American affairs, but the US increasingly sought to join the great powers and also meddle in their affairs.

Latin American independence took place during a period of high political volatility and internal conflict in continental Europe. Enlightenment ideas had inspired the French revolution and other revolutions, but Napoleon’s wars had led to a generalised reaction by conservative absolutist monarchs in the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the subsequent Holy Alliance. Liberal, nationalist and socialist movements were growing in influence everywhere and a series of uprisings and revolutions continued to shake Europe through the 19th century – 1830, 1848, 1870 all saw continent wide political crises.

The Untranslatable Caudillo — Bunk

The intense conflict of ideas and political factions in Europe was reflected in the newly independent Latin American nations – various factions adopted the full range of political positions from absolute monarchism to federated socialism. Everything was up for grabs in the new arrangement – including what the countries should be, how they should group together regionally and what their borders should be. The regional divisions of the Spanish Empire were ill-defined in various ways, leading to many border demarcation issues. Different groups of settlers had different economic interests – the merchants in the cities typically favoured free trade while the plantation owners wanted protective tariffs. This all conspired to create a highly volatile situation, with new states, constitutions, institutions and political parties emerging in rapid succession, each highly contested and unstable. Ultimately, with such weak institutions and contested norms, political power rapidly devolved to whoever could wield the most force and the “caudillo” became the characteristic ruling archetype – a charismatic leader who could command the loyalty of troops and pay their wages. In many cases caudillos started out as economic oligarchs who developed their workforce into personal militias. They established military dictatorships that were justified by the level of instability and infighting amongst the elite and often saw themselves as benevolently representing the national interest in the face of the irresponsible fractitiousness of the elite and the general public. Over time, this meant that the clientelist network of oligarchs that supported the caudillos became part of the structures of the new states and the disproportionately expensive national army became the symbol of national unity and the core of the modern nation state.

All the modern Latin American states were born and grew up facing similar problems. As colonies, their economies were designed to be heavily dependant on the Spanish kingdom. They typically exported a small number of commodities (mostly silver and gold) to Europe and received all of their manufactured goods as imports from Europe. They had developed little in the way of local manufacturing capacity and most lacked most basic resources required for an industrial economy – oil, steel, coal, etc. They were vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices, transportation costs and powerless in the face of more direct political threats like sanctions, blockades and tariffs. Their governments were born with urgent requirements for money to pay troops and they have remained permanently at the mercy of the foreign powers who control their access to credit and money supply. In order to develop their economies they have been forced to turn to foreign capital markets as well, with the result that a large proportion of their economies have traditionally been controlled by giant foreign multi-nationals. The dependence on international markets for development investment has also rendered the Latin American economies vulnerable to the volatile fluctuations of Europe’s speculative capital flows. Small fluctuations in London and New York commodity prices can turn into devastating recessions in Latin America. Already by the late 19th century, Latin America had become renowned for sovereign debt crises, speculative asset bubbles and coups by strongman military dictatorships, a renown that it has kept polished ever since.

The new nations were caught in a development trap from birth. They needed foreign capital to develop their natural resources in order to raise funds for national development. However, the economic interests of the foreign investors in the commodity export businesses were generally opposed to national development policies – economic development would mean higher taxes, tariffs, subsidies to other industries, a bigger pubic sector and wage bill and a greater degree of independence from international finance. In the 19th century, by and large, the only great power that really mattered in Latin America was Britain; London was the centre of global finance where governments raised debt and where new international investments were financed and the British navy was powerful enough to enforce a Pax Britannica policing role on the oceanic trade-flows. Britain was responsible for guaranteeing the independence of the new nations financially and militarily ensuring that Spain or France did not reassert any colonial control. Over the course of the 19th century, the US increasingly attempted to compete with Britain as financial and military regional protector but ultimately they had identical aims – to maintain the export oriented dependant nature of Latin American nations. By the end of the second world war, their economic interests had merged and had become adequately expressed in the IMF and world bank and the other global financial institutions.

Financial dependence gave the imperial powers a great many levers with which to prevent Latin American governments from succeeding with national economic development plans. Firstly, the governments are reliant for revenue on commodity exports – if prices or volumes drop, governments will lack revenue for development. In many cases large multi-national commodity conglomerates can reduce production in one country and increase it in another to compensate without any effect on their bottom line – thereby moving revenue around to friendlier governments. Attacks on government debt or currency exchange rates can also have the impact of drastically reducing a government’s ability to fund development and when such attacks are prolonged they can readily lead to political instability and military coups to restore order. Beyond that, there are a great range of export controls, sanctions, restrictions and administrative barriers that can and often have been used by the great powers to prevent Latin American governments from successfully developing import substitutes and to prevent them from creating protected environments in which they can develop new industries. The relative weakness of state institutions, the importance of the army, and the presence of many different feuding political and economic groups means that there are many different options by which the great powers can get their way and thus far they have been highly successful.

III – The Southern Cone

The Spanish empire focused heavily on precious metals – gold and silver – in their American colonies. The search for El Dorado motivated most of those who explored new territories and no sources were discovered in the Southern Cone of South America – modern Chile and Argentina. They were thus little developed by the Empire. Buenos Aires was an Atlantic port for trading with more important settlements in the Andean interior, reachable by river through the Rio de la Plata estuary on which the city was built. Chile contained several farming and fishing settlements which provided food to the more important and populated states to the North.

Argentina saw a huge inflow of immigration from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century and a great economic boom. The lightly populated pampas grasslands that make up the bulk of the country were progressively turned into livestock farms to serve the export market and the indigenous Mapuche were conquered and expelled from most of their remaining territory. The bulk of the immigrants came from Italy and Spain which were centres of anarcho-syndicalism at the time and the immigrants brought their politics with them. The Argentine anarcho-syndicalist FORA became a mass trade union at the start of the 20th century – on May 1st 1904, 70,000 anarchists marched under their banners in Buenos Aires. The spent the next two decades engaged in a series of intense labour disputes until the were finally forced underground after a coup in 1931 which ushered in another military dictatorship. However, the Argentines retained connections with the Spanish anarchists – Durutti, the anarchist caudillo, who featured prominently in the Spanish revolution and civil war travelled to Argentina in order to raise funds for the revolution by robbing Latin American banks.

In the aftermath of the second world war, with the rise of anti-colonial and national liberation movements, Marxist and anarchist political groups of all types emerged and Latin America saw a huge flowering of political thought and ideology on the left in the 1960s and early 70s. This included all the different esoteric traditional European flavours of Trostkyism, Maoism and anarchism, but they also developed their own specific theoretical creeds, notably including Posadism – a brand of Marxism which believes that socialist alien societies are in contact with humanity and will help in revolution on earth.

IV – Buenos Aires

South American society has mostly been transplanted and adapted from European models and the transplantations often seem strange and out of place when you are only familiar with the European original. The city of Buenos Aires itself is a good example – it seems far too big and far too grand for a country with such a population and economy. It has a huge 19th century core, with sweeping, broad boulevards lined with grand, decoratively sculpted five storey apartment blocks and statement period town houses. Finely laid out squares bedecked with monumental public buildings and great sculptures and fountains appear where the boulevards intersect. It is immediately reminiscent of Paris in layout and conception – although on a slightly grander scale. More than one third of Argentina’s population lives in the Buenos Aires metropolis and its population is larger than any European city. In the city centre, the population is overwhelmingly white, mostly with Southern European features. On the fringes of the city, some four million people live in slums and shanty towns, many of whom are immigrants from Paraguay and Bolivia, with notably darker skin and indigenous features. The city also has a highly sophisticated urban culture spanning everything from fashion to film, much as one would find in London or New York.

While travelling in Africa, we did not have to make any effort to seem cool or interesting. An Irish couple walking into any given town, bar, region, hotel in Africa is often going to be the most interesting and unusual thing that has happened in that place that month. Everybody wants to talk to you and to hear what you think about things. This is not a normal state of affairs, but one gets used to it after a year or so. It was a mild shock to the system to realise that we were back to being uninteresting nobodies in a competitive social world. Our sun faded t-shirts and camping trousers were suddenly striking unfashionable in this environment, even when compared to the anarchist squatter punks with their edgy t-shirts.

The political heart of Buenos Aires is the Plaza de Mayo which faces the president’s palace – the Casa Rosada. When we visited, the square contained about twenty women dressed in black carrying placards with faded pictures of young people. These were the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – the relatives of people who disappeared during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, they have been seeking justice through a daily silent protest that has lasted decades. That dictatorship was particularly brutal – they disappeared some 30,000 people that they decided were ideologically threatening, sometimes by simply dropping them out of planes over the Atlantic. The reign of terror of the generals left a deep scar on Argentine society – a militarised state in which people regularly mysteriously disappeared for thought crimes is not a psychologically safe space.

The radical left was particularly hard hit by the dictatorship. However, it has recovered as has the importance of popular demonstrations and street politics to public life. We met a group of anarcho-syndicalists who were affiliated to the International Workers Association, led by the Spanish CNT and were part of the Argentine CGT Union. They were actively involved in the piqueteros movement which was ongoing while we were in the city – this involved groups of unemployed workers and youths setting up barricades around the city to protest against their exclusion from economic life. The government was perceived to be subservient to the neo-liberal economics of the IMF: they had pegged the value of the Peso to the US dollar in order to promote price stability – all the ATMs dispensed dollars. This had the disastrous side effect of increasing prices and making exports less competitive. Buenos Aires dollar prices were close to those in London or Paris. It was a shock to our system, having been habituated to African prices, when we learned that a large bottle of beer cost $5 from a store. The piqueteros were very much part of the emerging anti-globalisation movement – their tactics and political narrative borrowed much from the landless people’s movement in Brazil and they saw themselves as part of a global movement demanding a more democratic, inclusive world, as well as seeking immediate economic reforms for a marginalised group.

Public demonstrations have played a large role in Argentine history and while we were in the city, a large trade union march was held which the anarchists participated in – some 50 people with banners and flags towards the back of the crowd. The event was jam packed with theatrics and was by far the loudest public demonstration I’ve ever attended. Several of the groups were launching mini sticks of dynamite into the air with catapults which produced huge explosions with reverberating shock waves. Each union group had a band with drummers and horns and where there were no bands, loudspeakers and amplifiers filled in with music. Everybody was draped in their party colours, with flags, banners and bunting. The National blue and white colours of the Peronist trade unions were particularly eye-catching. The march made its way demonstratively through the great boulevards of the city before peacefully dispersing to the neighbourhood bars.

V – El Gaucho Macho

For most of Argentina’s independent history, the economy has been focused on exporting livestock for the world market. The cowboys on horseback who took care of the big commercial herds were known as gauchos and their lifestyle has made a big sentimental impact on the national culture. Many of the restaurants serve many different cuts of beef steak but no vegetables – as close to a meat only diet as you can find. The gaucho ideal has also had a significant impact on gender roles –the tough, stoic and decisive gaucho is the purest form of the Latin American “macho” persona. The tango dancers who entertain the diners wrestling with multiple steaks on the terraces show an extremely exaggerated caricature of traditional gender roles in their eternal dance. The masculine ideal has influences from the Medieval Spanish nobility: the chivalry of Don Quixote. It was bolstered by mass immigration from Italy in the 19th century, which introduced another romantic macho element. The harsh, masculine world of the gaucho on the pampas intensified the macho virility further and made it particularly Argentine. The final touch is the ubiquitous maté drink which all Argentines appear to be obsessed with and drink incessantly from silver straws and ornate cups.

This macho aspect to life is not hard to see – it is written into the bearing, postures and gestures of the people – but it really comes out in the evenings when people have been drinking. We travelled to the old port neighbourhood of La Boca on a Saturday while a football match between local rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors was taking place. For the rest of the evening, the streets were full of men punching each other in the head, mostly showing no inclination to avoid being punched in return. As we got a taxi home, I recall seeing a huge shirtless man with a full-bodied mane of dark flowing hair approaching a group of 3 other men, punch himself twice in the chest, then stand in front of them with his arms apart, inviting them to hit him, with a big stupid grin on his face as if being punched was the most fun thing that he could possibly think of.

La Boca – old port of Buenos Aires

The cultural influence of the Spanish and Italians is well known, but the long-lasting influence of the English is more surprising. Large numbers of English settlers arrived in the late 19th century and they became influential in the business life of the city. Most of the sports clubs that were established in the Victorian era were given English names and based directly on English models – Newell’s Old Boys, Old Georgians. Like in England, Rugby is popular amongst those who attend private schools. The Argentine elite still look to England for cultural leadership and the English language and business norms remain their gold standard.

VI – Santiago De Chile

From Buenos Aires we travelled by bus across the continent, through the Andes to Santiago, the capital of Chile, where we were visiting the CUAC – the Chilean Union of Anarchist Communists. In Latin America, long distance buses tend to be fairly expensive compared to Africa but extremely high quality – modern coaches with air conditioning, reclining seats, and in transit entertainment systems are not unusual. The big cities are all connected by reasonably modern paved highways. Even though the distances are great, the journeys are not at all gruelling and the buses mostly make fast progress on roads that are rarely crowded.

Argentina’s population is heavily centred on the area West and North of Buenos Aires – all the big cities are relatively near one another. The rest of the country remains a vast, sparsely populated farm that produces food for the export market. After over 1,000km of trundling through mostly featureless flat farmland, the jagged peaks of the Andes rise suddenly out of the plain. All of Chile resides in the thin coastal strip between the mountain peaks and the Pacific. The micro-climate of the valleys in the Southern part of the country is ideal for growing fruits and vegetables and like Argentina, the commercial agriculture sector has been historically important economically. Santiago, the capital, is set in a broad valley, immediately beneath the mountains. The road through the mountain pass from Argentina winds directly down into the capital city which is laid out neatly around the valley floor.

Chile and Argentina share much common culture and history and have similar ethnic makeups. There are immediately noticeable differences though. Everything in Chile is a little more moderated than in Argentina, less volatile and more ordered. Santiago is far smaller than Buenos Aires and lacked its sense of urban chaos and vibrancy. It is much more spaced out and feels dominated by commuters and office buildings rather than fashion and consumerism. The special position of the military in Chilean life has been architected into the city – even in the centre, certain areas are reserved for the army and one can find entire city neighbourhoods with nothing but military buildings. The city also lacks the same sprawling slums – the working class is mostly housed in well ordered modest apartment blocks in suburbs that surround the city and are well connected by public buses.

VII – Pinochet’s Water Cannon

The date of September 11th already had special significance to the Chilean left in January 2001, when we were there. It was the date on which General Pinochet launched his coup in 1973 which led to a 17 year dictatorship which only came to a partial end in 1990. Pinochet was a virulent anti-intellectual and he particularly hated the left. His regime used targeted disappearances and mass torture to terrorise the population into conforming to his rigidly conservative and authoritarian military rule. Socialist and Marxist groups had been historically strong in Chile, but they were eliminated, driven into exile and effectively suppressed by Pinochet’s state. September 11th was the one day on which the residual left still came out to riot in opposition to the regime.

With the Chilean Anarchists, Santiago, January 2001

The end of Pinochet’s martial rule in 1990 saw left parties reform quickly. The CUAC (Chilean Union of Anarchist Communists) formed in the 1990s, as the first anarchist group that had existed in the country since 1973. They had about 20 members in Santiago, all were young, in their twenties and early thirties, enthusiastic and idealistic. They were involved primarily in economic campaigns – most worked at relatively low-waged jobs in the city’s service industry and struggled to make ends meet. Although Pinochet had gone, the neo-liberal economic policies which focused on privatisation and export competitiveness remained. This meant increasing inequality and marginalisation for large sectors of the local workforce. The health service had been entirely privatized and this was a focus of criticism and opposition from across the broad public.

Anarchists marching under papal statues

The other major campaign that the anarchists were involved in related to the Pinochet regime itself. Pinochet had departed with a negotiated settlement in 1990 which left a lot of military influence intact and provided broad immunity for crimes committed by the security services under his regime. While in Santiago, we participated alongside the anarchists and many other political groups in a march against impunity, demanding that those responsible for extra-judicial executions and torture be held accountable. Pinochet had just returned to the country and continued to enjoy immunity. A long campaign led by the families of the disappeared had grown steadily in numbers and was starting to put significant pressure on the remnants of the military regime. When the march got to the presidential palace in the centre of town, it was met with khaki-painted water cannons and armoured personnel vehicles full of armed troops. Although we knew it was mostly for show and it was unlikely that the troops would open fire on us, the use of military forces to police a civilian demonstration was a little unnerving. I found myself searching around the square for stone-clad doorways that I might be able to hide from bullets in. The anarchists filled us with horror stories about the water cannons being filled with sewerage water – the crowd dispersed rapidly once the cannons were turned on and we happily managed to retreat to the bar without finding out if they were apocryphal.

VIII – Prussians

In both Argentina and Chile, the military professes itself to have Germanic or Prussian roots. This relates to the period in the late 19th and early 20th century during which the South American militaries were organized on a modern basis. The Prussian army was considered to be the finest example of military organization in Europe at the time and it formed the blueprint of the new National armies. Germany also served as a source of expert consultancy and training to the new nations. Both militaries are quite open about this influence and express pride in this tradition. The influence can be seen in many ways; the heavy use of formal uniforms, medals, sashes, decorative hats and visual indications of rank; insistence on unquestioning obedience to a disciplinarian, authoritarian, top-down order-giving hierarchy; a conservative, Christian world view which instinctively suppresses all behaviour that does not fit the pre-ordained order.

The Chileans and Argentines even retain something of the old-fashioned Prussian geo-political military theory in which the nation is conceived of as an organism that must grow territorially or be consumed by its competitors. This type of thinking was responsible for several historical border wars and naval arms races between the nations over inconsequential tracts of land. It was also responsible for Germany losing two world wars, as a result of which Prussia effectively ceased to exist, but it manages to retain some prestige in this corner of the world. It was also responsible for the Argentine generals decision to invade the Malvinas, bringing their regime to an abrupt end. In a world of supply chains and logistics, the South American commodity exporting economies that import all of their manufactured goods have no strategic power irrespective of what weapons they buy. One suspects that part of the attraction of an extremely disciplinarian social order is that it allows the military elite to cleanse themselves of their shameful indigenous blood and lets them purge all hint of native influence from their environment.

VIII – Valparaiso

The town of Valparaiso serves as the port of Santiago, 100km to the West, and is the main port of the country. It has the appearance of an ancient Mediterranean fishing port, with brightly coloured houses and archaic funiculaires carrying people up the steep slopes behind the port. Everything seems slightly old-fashioned, slightly decaying and out-of-place – as if a European town got stranded here on the Pacific coast mysteriously in the 1950s. The heyday of the port was in the 19th century when it was a major stopover on the route to the Pacific from Europe around the Cape. It went into long term decline with the opening of the Panama canal. Although it still hosts Chile’s major modern container port, shipping fruit, wine and copper to the world markets, the town itself progressively lost many of its wealthy inhabitants since the 19th century peak and then containerisation removed many of the traditional long-shoreman and dockworker jobs in the mid 20th century. What remains is a traditional fishing and working class community scratching out a living on the scraps – home-made houses tumble down the slopes in neighbourhoods that will certainly not survive any type of earthquake.

IX – Atacama

After Chile the next stop on our colonial-anarchist itinerary was Bolivia. We took a bus North from Santiago on a road that continued parallel to the great chain of the mountains to the East. The mountain range serves as a major continental rainfall barrier – it is enough of an obstacle that clouds lose their moisture in crossing. North of Santiago, the coastline becomes increasingly drier and the Atacama desert begins – the place on earth with the least rainfall. The Northern coastline of Chile was formerly part of Peru and Bolivia until it was seized in a 19th century war – it contained valuable nitrate deposits which were used for fertilizer and gunpowder manufacturing. Later, in the early 20th century, the nitrate market faded in importance, but Chile became a leading source of copper ore as it remains today.

With the development of electricity and electric equipment, demand for copper exploded in the early 20th century. It has long been understood that given free competition, the profit rate on commodities will tend towards zero and in order to maintain profitability it is necessary to control supply. The US robber barons of the late 19th century mostly acquired their wealth by achieving monopoly control of some commodity through the construction of vertically integrated supply chains with interlocking ownership of everything from transportation infrastructure to media, allowing them to effectively control overall production and thus determine prices, locking in their desired profit level.

By the start of the 20th century, robber barons such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor and Hearst had become some of the richest individuals the world had ever seen based on the locked in profit flows of their monopolies. By the 1920s, the world market for copper had been cornered by an interconnected Anglo-American cartel, spanning the Rockefeller led Anaconda Copper in the US – the same copper bosses that cut Joe Hill down – and RioTinto, covering the British empire. Their scale allowed them to effectively limit global production levels, keeping profitability high. With exploding demand for copper, this made it a very profitable business.

Chile’s copper mining industry was traditionally dominated by foreign investors and was progressively consolidated under Anaconda copper in the first half of the 20th century. When Salvador Allende was elected in 1973, he nationalised the copper industry, justifying it on the basis of the “super-profits” that had been extracted over the years by the industry. His government had a program of national economic development – they wanted to develop new industries and move away from dependence on minerals and cash crops and the international commodity markets and they needed some way of financing the necessary investments. The CIA had been busily interfering with the Chilean political system for decades on behalf of US corporate interests – principally Anaconda and ITT, the monopoly US telecoms provider. They heavily funded Allende’s opponents through the 1950s and 1960s, along with the usual bag of covert cold-war dirty tricks, black propaganda and so on. Chile is Latin America’s most stable and wealthy country, with the highest level of social development – programs of national economic development enjoyed widespread public support. The CIA was not able to hold back the tide for ever and Allende eventually won in 1970. However, with the nationalisation of copper, he probably signed his own death warrant. An alliance of Anaconda, the CIA, ITT and the Prussian wing of the Chilean military ousted Allende’s government on September 11th 1973 in a coup that was marked by the highly targeted and effective use of executions – covering politicians like Allende, loyal military officers, journalists and even well known popular singers like Victor Jara. To punish them for their foolhardy electoral choices, the Chilean population got 17 years of a Prussian dictatorship. The copper multinationals got significant deregulation of the industry and a boom in new mines and Chile continues to be highly profitable for the Anglo-American copper cartel.

Leave a Reply