Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Chile: what happened to the pobladores?

Where are the vibrant squatter movements of the Popular Unity period?



I have followed the history of a Chilean población, a marginal urban community, called Herminda de la Victoria, inspired by Victor Jara’s music about it. (See previous LAB article)  I have now produced a film which inludes recent versions of all the tracks from Victor’s album:

The film, and a Spanish version, will be launched at an Iberians and Latin Americans in Wales event in June 2024.

Apart from its unique claim to fame as the subject of Victor Jara’s album La Población, Herminda is very typical of a much wider movement. This poblador movement was important part of Chilean society before the 1973 coup, but what has happened to it since then, and does it have a future?

Poblacion 21st century Santiago
A recent Santiago mural: ‘The new poblador is being born’.

When Pobladores made history

Pobladores were poor people who struggled to improve their lives, and in particular their housing. They sought to achieve this by tomas (land seizures) that would allow them to build their own homes. By the mid 20th century land seizures were common throughout Latin America, as people moved to cities that were unable to cope with their arrival. From the 1950s the pobladores in Chile organised through comités de los sin casa (Homeless People’s Committees) and received support, like at La Victoria, a large scale toma in 1957 Santiago, involving hundreds of people assisted by the local Catholic Church and Communist Party.

The original ‘toma’ at Herminda de la Victoria, 1967

The Frei government of the late 1960s established incentives for grassroots participation and assistance for self build. Intended to help the ruling Christian Democrats they were also used by the Socialist and Communist Parties, encouraging an increasing number of organised tomas, including the one at Herminda in 1967. They sought decent housing, to be achieved by self-build, government help with materials, and land titles. Between 1967-73 there were hundreds of tomas in Chile, and by the time of the coup they housed around 10-15 per cent of the Santiago’s total population.

Land seizures were met by systematic police violence, until this was scaled back after the tragic death of pobladores at Puerto Montt in 1969. Even successful tomas, like Herminda, had to withstand physical attempts to evict them and then deal with the Byzantine state bureaucracies that provided the resources and land titles they sought.

While the pobladores would present themselves as families and citizens seeking decent homes, others viewed them as dangerous law breakers. For those supporting them, they would be celebrated as agents of political change, in films and in Victor Jara’s music for La Población. Although a social survey in the late 1960s suggested that pobladores were more interested in a better life than revolutionary change, it did find that they believed in neighbourhood organization, had clear aspirations for the future and confidence in their achievement

The Popular Unity government had an ambivalent attitude to tomas, but direct action, including land seizures continued, which were increasingly being supported by the far left Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR. MIR-led tomas like Nueva La Habana (1970) were more explicitly revolutionary, attempting to establish popular power.Here there were clear rules of behaviour and a parallel justice system to enforce them, self-managed schools and a self-defence militia. Its reputation attracted a visit by a Cuban delegation in 1971 but also the fear and loathing of the right-wing press.

Población Nueva La Habana

After the coup

As for so many others in Chile, the 1973 coup transformed the lives of pobladores. Starting in the days after the coup and for many more years, they were the targets of some of the worst repression. Despite the loss of many leaders, community organisation continued, often with the support of the church, and in less obviously political forms, like sports groups and ollas communes (soup kitchens).

A few poblaciones were forcibly cleared, like Población Ho Chi Minh where valuable land was seized to build a shopping centre; some were renamed, such as Nueva La Habana, which became Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn). Despite the hostility of the dictatorship many survived, and many of the pobladores living in them received their land titles, though for Herminda this meant an organised struggle in 1980, at a far more dangerous moment than when the original toma took place.

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Initially pobladores concentrated on survival, and organised tomas largely ceased, until in 1983 thousands of families participated in a major land invasion. It was initially tolerated though its leaders were arrested, and most of the families involved were later dispersed around the city. From the mid-1980s coalitions of pobladores were formed, like the METRO (Coordinadora Metropolitana de Pobladores).

In the protests between 1983-6 the poblaciones played a crucial role. Those that managed to retain strong solidarity, often where the original toma was led by the Communist Party, were able to organise more effectively, and were better placed to evade informers. Nonetheless they were subjected to frequent raids, arrests and disappearances. While the protests helped to bring an end to 17 years of dictatorship, communities like La Victoria and Herminda were left battered and exhausted.

After the dictatorship

During the Concertación government of the 1990s, what was left of the poblador movement never enjoyed the active support of major political parties they had had in the years before the 1973 coup. The Concertación discouraged land seizure, if only to give the military less excuse to interfere again, and used the police to suppress and prevent it. There were few tomas in the 1990s, but 1999 saw a large occupation of land in Peñalolén.

Herminda de la Victoria in 2019. Photo: Malcolm Boorer

Although it allocated more resources to housing, the Concertación retained much of the neo-liberal approach of the dictatorship. More housing would be built, but as a commodity, and for the poor it was increasingly located on the fringe of cities. Some housing assistance was available to groups of homeless people (though not to groups larger than 50) with the process generally managed by NGOs, not as the result of direct action of the kind seen before 1973.

Pobladores in the 21st century

There have been few land seizures since 2000, and most have been aimed at exerting pressure on particular issues rather than using the land for permanent housing. Newly formed groups of badly-housed people have used the pobladores name, such as the MPL (Movement of Pobladores in Struggle) in 2006, based in Peñalolén, and FENAPO (National Federation of Pobladores) in 2010. Though the aim of decent housing remains, location is important for these new pobladores so they can remain in the area where they have social links.

In established poblaciones like La Victoria and Herminda, the poblador heritage is still remembered with pride, with many murals commemorating their history, and events to celebrate the anniversary of the original toma. Though the quality of the housing is variable, some of it now provides the decent homes the tomas aimed at and, in particular, the security of land titles. Roads, water supply and infrastructure have been provided over the years, while city expansion has resulted in locations that are no longer on the periphery.

Demonstration by residents of Peñalolen in March 2006. They complain that they are being driven out of the area by high rents. While the wealthy build luxury homes, they are being forced to move to the edge of the city.

During my visit to Herminda (March 2019) I could see the benefit of neighbourhood improvement schemes in the form of play and leisure equipment, and it was suggested that, with greater solidarity, social problems were less than in surrounding areas. One issue was population increase, with some residents creating extra living space within existing plots.

Herminda de la Victoria
Mural from La Herminda – ’50 years of struggle, history and rebellion. Image:

Housing shortage still exists, but the quantity of housing built since 1990 (not all in good locations) has reduced the deficit. Today self-build is hardly a viable option, and those who are homeless can rely on technical support. Many poblador groups joined the Unidad Social in 2019 and were active in the Estallido Social (social uprising) of 2019, but housing does not seem to have been a central issue. A survey of nearly 900 protesters in November 2019 found the main demands were pensions, health and education, comprising around 20 per cent of the total, with housing and the city accounting for less than one per cent.

Land occupation did occur during the Estallido, when in November 2019 around 300 families took over some land in the Peñalolén area. Their statements reflected both the aims of pobladores 60 years ago and the current protests, with the demand for the construction of new social housing, rather than the opportunity for self-build, and calls for constitutional changes. As with most of the estallido protests, this occupation met with a violent police response, including the use of helicopters.

While Chile looked at making Constitutional change, its parliament prepared ‘usurpation’, or anti-toma, legislation (Ley de Usurpaciones). After protests a compromise meant that homeless people would no longer have a defence of poor living conditions if they take part in a toma, and they could face a graduated scale of penalties based on the extent of violence and damage.

The poblador movement before 1973 helped to change housing provision in Chile and over 50 years later the results can be seen in many communities like Herminda and La Victoria. In established poblaciones and recently formed organisations the spirit of the movement is kept alive, but land occupations leading to self-build or new permanent housing have largely ceased. With a new law to discourage tomas, future poblador activity may not change housing in Chile the way it once did.