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Magallanes: Lessons in People's Mobilization for Chile and the World

By Sergio Reyes, January 16, 2011

The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1989) divided Chile in 12 regions. Some regions coincided with the previous territorial divisions called provinces. The province of Magallanes plus the Antarctic is then the 12th region, the last southern region in Chile with about 151,000 inhabitants. About 116,000 live in the capital of the region, Punta Arenas. If you look at the map of South America scroll down to the southernmost tip of the continent surrounded by the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. Most people in the world will have a sense of the Magellan Strait or Tierra del Fuego. The temperatures range from freezing to sporadic 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 Celsius) in the summer time. The cold is increased greatly by constant winds that reach blizzard conditions.

Natural gas is one of the main sources of fuel for heating and even industrial energy. In this context the government of the right-wing president Piñera announced that it would increase the price of gas by about 17%. This announcement was not well received by the population in Magallanes for obvious reasons. However, it is important to point that in the midst of this proposed increase in prices, the government is also firing personnel in the region and the country.

Notably, a group calling themselves Asamblea Ciudadana de Magallanes (ACM - Citizens Assembly of Magallanes) has been calling the regional government to reconsider this situation. The government didn’t take this organization seriously and has not even received them officially. Political parties represented in the region, from the left, center and right, however, supported the demands of the ACM. Likewise did labor unions and neighborhood associations, students, teachers, the Municipal Council and the Mayor, elderly associations, transportation associations, and neighbors at large.

The ACM made a call to mobilize and demonstrate and the response was massive. Soon the people themselves escalated the mobilization to the level of a general strike. The people took over and closed the few roads that allow for access in and out of the towns, including the tourist attraction that this time of the year are frequented by international and national visitors such as Torres del Paine. Tourist from all over the world contacted their consulates informing they were stranded in Magallanes. Burning tires barricades were erected throughout the city of Punta Arenas. A drunken driver enraged by this “inconvenience” charged with his car against a barricade and killed two young women protestors, Melisa Silva Ruiz y Claudia Castillo Campos. The movement already has two unfortunate martyrs.

The gas protest transcended the region and reached the rest of the country where mobilizations in support of the movement have also taken place. Meanwhile the President justified the increase in the price of gas in Magallanes saying that it wants to “regulate consumption” that is to decrease consumption, saying that gas is being exhausted in the region. The President failed to accept that the main reason if the increase of profits for the private companies that sell this product.

As of this writing, the people’s mobilization has intensified as they buried their martyrs the barricades increase and the struggle continues. The Minister of Energy, Ricardo Rainiri, presented his resignation. The entire population has joined in this struggle in whatever capacity they can contribute, from transporting demonstrators to feeding them, to marching and rallying.

“We prefer to die in the struggle, than to die in the cold” is one of the many slogans raised by the this proud and brave people at the end of the world in the south, which the rest of the world rarely acknowledges. This time the people of the world should show them their admiration and support.

Photo credits: José Miguel Cárdenas Cerda (Facebook)