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Wed 3rd July Meeting of the 17 Group

The next meeting of the 17 Group will take place on Wednesday the 3rd of July at 7 pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End. The speaker, currently visiting from Chile, will be Penny Glass. Her topic is LIFE IN CHILE UNDER NEO-LIBERALISM.

Summary: It is well-known that Chile’s military dictatorship was used by the Chicago Boys as a testing ground for neo-liberal economics. With no unions or political process to impede them, they implemented a range of measures from privatisation to Constitutional reforms allowing for profit from education. These measures have only been superficially reformed by subsequent social democrat governments. 40 years on from the coup, and ruled by a right wing coalition government: how are the social costs of neo-liberalism experienced day-to-day in the so-called “economic jaguar of Latin America”?

Despite being accepted as a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2010, Chile has many unresolved socio-economic problems. Chile’s poor and marginalised poblaciones have been rendered invisible, while the country projects to the world an image of economic success that hides the flaws. Nevertheless there is no shortage of statistics that paint a very clear picture of the ‘other’ side of Chile.

The measure that speaks most resoundingly about the reality of present day Chile is income inequality. Chile has the highest income inequality of all OECD countries, with a Gini Index of 0.50, much higher than the OECD average of 0.31 (Society at a Glance, OECD Social Indicators, 2011). In the world context, Chile’s Gini Index comes in at number 15 out of 136 countries (Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook, 2009). “OECD Secretariat calculations suggest that the country would have to invest less than 1% of GDP to lift all households above the current national poverty line” (OECD Economic Surveys, 2012). Nevertheless, successive governments have not made this investment.

In order to survive, and to fulfil the media-created aspiration to consumer-based happiness, Chileans turn to credit cards and loans which are easily available, with scandalously high levels of interest: “Household indebtedness… has almost doubled over the last ten years, reaching 70% of disposable income in 2010” (OECD Economic Surveys, 2012). A “better life” is economically unattainable, and this creates tensions and depression in many people’s lives, particularly those who live in the poblaciones. Typically, the issues pile up: an illness can destroy a family’s economic situation; access to “quality education” is very costly and not guaranteed to bring either quality or economic returns (higher education is among one of the most expensive in the world -Chile has over 40 private universities); wages are low and the working week is long, so that many parents are completely consumed by work, leaving children in the care of extended family members, or left to fend for themselves. The impoverished and under-resourced public education system (primary and secondary) discourages critical thinking. In the poblaciones there is a high rate of scholar desertion, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, as well as increasing child prostitution. During the dictatorship, constant and violent repression destroyed social organisation, and drug traffickers took hold of the streets (Cisternas, Miquel & Neculqueo, Changes in social and political participation after the military dictatorship in Chile: 3 zones of the Santiago Metropolitan Region. Thesis from Universidad Academia Humanismo Cristiano, 2008). High material aspirations juxtaposed with the reality of life in the poblaciones leads many people to seek economic mobility on the edge of legality: through informal and black market labour and business; or directly through criminal activity, prostitution and/or drug trafficking.

There are many people working to reverse this, but their efforts are extremely hampered by overwhelming indifference and individualism. Voter turnout in elections at the end of 2012 was 35%. Nevertheless, in 2011, university and high school students began a struggle against “education for profit” that has seen schools and universities occupied over many months. The movement was quieter in 2012 but has recently re-radicalised. This is an election year.

My life in Chile and my work with theatre in Chilean prisons and poblaciones over the last 15 years have provided me with ample “insider” knowledge of the social cost of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is a worldwide phenomenon, Chile provides a clear example of where it is heading in human terms.

Bio: Penelope Glass is a theatre worker on two continents (in Australia and Chile). She has worked in community theatre and arts since the 1970s, particularly in Brisbane, and is happiest when she is working with other people to create theatre that takes a critical and/or satirical eye to society. She firmly believes in the power of collective work and collaboration. Since 2002, she co-directs a continuous theatre experience in the Colina 1 men’s prison in Santiago-Chile, and in 2012 founded a theatre collective called Colectivo Sustento which continues the Colina 1 experience outside the prison, while building on organic gardening as a means of sustainability. She returns to Brisbane for part of each year, and at present is co-directing a theatre and arts workshop with young refugee adults in an ESL class at Logan TAFE, in conjunction with Griffith University, and writing a PhD on the Colina 1 prison theatre experience. Her work has become a constant “provocation of the possible”.

Round at Leon’s, the usual crowd of supporters were there:

On our mentioning the topic, one of them said “Well what could you expect after the line Allende took?” and then, glancing fruitlessly for approbation to the great man, launched into a diatribe about it. I quote him from memory, but it went like this:

“The term Popular Front (or People’s Front) was coined in the 1930s and referred to an alliance of the workers’ parties (Communist and Socialist) with so-called “progressive” bourgeois parties (Liberals, Republicans, Radicals, etc.). The two classic examples of this were in France and Spain. In 1931 and again in 1936, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) joined a coalition with bourgeois parties. The same happened in France in 1936. the Communist parties were also part of these Popular Fronts. Both the Communist and Socialist party leaderships played a treacherous role in holding back the revolutionary movement of the working class. This prepared the ground for the victory of reaction. In Spain it lead to the terrible defeat at the hands of Franco.

The same theory of the Popular Front was applied in Chile, 1970-73, by the leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties. It prepared the ground for the Pinochet coup!”

Leon Davidovich, however, was taking little interest in this. He was at his table looking up abstractedly at an old print of Pharlap, with Gulliver’s Travels open at the fourth book in front of him beside a typescript boldly entitled My Life as a Horse in Australia. Didn’t even notice we were there. If anyone wants him to come to the meeting let him or her go round. We give up. When we left he was still in a trance and the vocal supporter, heads nodding all round him (whether in agreement or drowsiness it skills not to say), was just getting into his oratorical stride.

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