Protesting Patagonians tired of feeling cut off from the world
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On paper, it is one of the wealthiest regions in Chile. Its economy grew a staggering 19.8% during 2011, almost three times the country’s growth rate. It has the second lowest unemployment rate in Chile. And government investment per capita is almost triple that of the national capital, Santiago. Yet during the past two weeks the inhabitants of , a region in southern Chile with only 105,000 people but the size of Bulgaria, have been blocking highways, bridges and airfields in protest against the national government. Why would a region seemingly so prosperous go up in arms?
On paper, it is one of the wealthiest regions in Chile. Its economy grew a staggering 19.8% during 2011, almost three times the country’s growth rate. It has the second lowest unemployment rate in Chile. And government investment per capita is almost triple that of the national capital, Santiago. Yet during the past two weeks the inhabitants of Aysén, a region in southern Chile with only 105,000 people but the size of Bulgaria, have been blocking highways, bridges and airfields in protest against the national government. Why would a region seemingly so prosperous go up in arms?
Aysén, located in the middle of the Chilean Patagonia, is a land of majestic glaciers and fjords, with no less than 17 national parks and reserves, and only one - mostly gravel - highway connecting it to the rest of the country. Economic indicators may give an image of a wealthy region, but the reality of daily life in this sparsely populated and isolated corner of Chile is quite different.
The cost of living is much higher in Aysén than in the rest of the country, and residents feel they’re lacking basic services available to other Chileans. The closest university is in Puerto Montt, more than 600 kilometres away (24 hours by bus) from the capital Coyhaique. There are only two proper hospitals in the whole region, supplemented by a number of small clinics. Residents must drive long distances, but pay high costs for gas. Electricity and water cost twice as much as in Santiago.
Because of all this, residents of Aysén claim the national government in Santiago, located 1,600 km away, is deaf to their needs. As a result, 25 organisations of fishermen, farmers, truck drivers, and students formed the Social Movement for Aysén Region to demand quality education and healthcare, as well as subsidies to help the local population cope with the costs of transport and food.
To get the attention of Sebastián Piñera’s government, they have since February 14 blocked roads, bridges and airfields in the region, effectively bringing the region to a standstill. Police forces have been deployed to the area, meeting protesters with tear gas and pellets, as Twitter users have documented under the hashtag #DespiertaAysen (“Wake up Aysen”). The fiercest protests have taken place in Puerto Aysén, a city in the region's west.
Meanwhile, the government keeps bringing up the region’s macroeconomic indicators as evidence that the claims have no foundation.
Puerto Aysén locals blocking President Ibáñez Bridge on national highway. Posted by OnativO on Youtube.
“It feels like we live on an island because we are not well connected to the rest of the country and everything costs more”
Alonso Núñez left his native Puerto Aysén to study music in Valparaíso. He returned just in time for the protests two weeks ago.
What is happening in Aysén is not new. This movement has been incubating for many years because people here feel abandoned by the national government. We feel that they come to the region to speak about economic development, but that this is only limited to support for the large salmon fisheries and ambitious hydroelectric projects like HidroAysén that the local community rejects. None of it is invested in the local population.
Of course, the economic indicators for the region sound very positive. Divide any budget among 100,000 people and the number will be high. But the truth is that this growth is measured by the performance of large companies, who are the ones really benefiting from the government’s investment. The reality on the streets is very different: it feels like we live on an island because we are not well connected to the rest of the country and everything costs more here.
Life in Patagonia is very expensive. The minimum salary is the same as in Santiago, but cost of life is easily twice as high. We pay almost double for petrol in a region where life requires a lot of driving. We also pay double for firewood, a much needed resource during the long winters. We grow up knowing we will have to leave if we want to pursue any university studies. And with flights to Aysén costing around € 230, it is cheaper for me to travel from Valparaíso to Buenos Aires than to visit my parents. There are very few specialists in our two hospitals. Puerto Aysén just received an ultrasound machine, but there is no one to operate it.
The Carabineros [Chilean police] promised they would not use force against demonstrators, but we were met with teargas and pellet shots. Their response has been brutal and disproportionate. Dozens of people have been wounded. One man, Teófilo Haro, lost an eye after being shot at point-blank range. Even then, protesters didn’t budge an inch, so after seven days, the police had to withdraw. We are still waiting for the national government to meet our rational demands.”
Protesters block President Ibáñez bridge in Puerto Aysén. Photo posted by Movimiento por Aysén on Twitter
Photo posted by Jorge Espinoza Cuéllar on Twitter
Protesters show pellets shells fired by Carabineros. Photo posted by Jorge Espinoza Cuéllar on Twitter
Protests in Coyhaique. Photo posted by Matías Nahuelquin on Twitter
One banner reads: "Joining Argentina would be better”. Photo posted by Jorge Espinoza Cuéllar on Twitter
Post written with freelance journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.