The kingdom of heaven vs. the fiefdom of man


Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

Except for inflation, the economic indices were good as Salvador Allende took power late in 1970. Copper prices were strong and unemployment was about 3 percent. Allende moved quickly to socialize the economy by seizing some foreign firms and taking over banks. He also encouraged tomas (seizures) of farms; French writer Suzanne Labin described one: "A band armed with clubs and rifles forces its way onto a farm, orders the whole of the owner's family to pack their bags, pushes them out into the road, gathers together all those who work on the farm, tells them that it is their property from now on, and sets up a banner with the words, 'This property has been seized by the people.'"

Allende explained his objectives in a 1971 interview with France's Regis Debray: "As for the bourgeois state at the present moment, we are seeking to overcome it. To overthrow it [and ...] expropriate the means of production which are still in private hands.... To open up the road to socialism. Our objective is total, scientific, Marxist socialism."

Food output fell sharply. In December 1971, thousands of Chilean women marched in the streets of Santiago, banging on empty pots and pans to dramatize the growth of shortages and skyrocketing prices. Leftist counter-demonstrators threw rocks at the marchers and attacked with clubs, carabineros came with tear gas, and Allende imposed a state of emergency that allowed him to censor newspapers, close radio stations, and ban demonstrations. He soon announced that the government would be in charge of all food distribution, and "neighborhood vigilance committees would watch for black-market or other non-approved activities." He seized control of the Kennecott and Anaconda copper mines and provided no compensation to their owners, with the obvious result that foreign investment in Chilean industries decreased sharply.

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As the economy shrank while government spending increased, currency printing presses worked overtime and inflation leaped. The consumer price index, which stood at 100 in December 1970, was at 122 a year later and 322 in December 1972; in September 1973, it was at 942. Money in circulation soared from 3.7 billion pesos when Allende took office to 74 billion in September 1973. Runaway inflation received the most attention early in 1973, along with Education Minister Jorge Tapia's announcement that the government would establish a single nationwide curriculum, modeled on East Germany's, that would include compulsory courses on Marxism.

The current government's plans are much more modest, and do not involve doing away with the relaxed relations of church and state. That understanding is evident in lunchroom signs at municipal Escuela Rayen Mapu, a 584-student public school several blocks away from the Fundación Miguel Kast's center in Buin; one sign reads, Dejad que los ninos vengan a mi, por que de ellos es el Reino de los Cielos. That picture of Jesus letting the little children come unto him, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, is diminished in force by a picture of the four food groups drawn in exactly the same shrine-like, reverent style.

Students at the municipal school as part of their school week have two hours of religion classes (Catholic or evangelical), and all pray for people who are sick. And yes, the school has a sick look, with dirty walls distinguished largely by graffiti. Bathrooms that were officially cleaned 15 minutes before are still dirty. "Yes, we have a problem," acknowledged school official Jose Quiroz. "The bathrooms were cleaned badly. No supervision." But problems go beyond the janitorial, Mr. Quiroz said. The school has a sports teacher, but he is old; besides, the government has sent no sports equipment. The school has a good library room has no books in it, because the government provides books for classes but not for libraries. The government gave the school Ping-Pong tables but they were left out in the rain because the government did not supply a convenient storage room. The government does not allocate money for repairing broken things.

That litany from Mr. Quiroz is common, said Maria de los Angeles Santander Meersohn, a specialist in education policy issues. "The government gives money but doesn't let schools decide how to spend it. A powerful teachers union has pushed for municipal schools to receive a 20 percent supplement to their regular funding if they are failing; the result, Mrs. Meersohn said, is that schools have "incentives to be the worst." But Mr. Quiroz says his hands are tied: "We cannot get better teachers because they do not want to come to this school. They say the students do not have clean habits. They know that some are violent."


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