Where the Roads Don’t Reach: Community Radio in the Aysén Uprising

October 26, 2012

In February and March, the Patagonian region of Aysén rose up against the Chilean state. The uprising began February 7, when fisherman used a boat with burning tires on its deck to blockade the Ibáñez Bridge, which links Aysén’s only deep-sea port to its chilly and mountainous interior. Soon after, radio host Claudia Torres of Radio Santa María called on her listeners, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers to coin a hashtag for the uprising. The winner was #despiertaAysén, and over the following days, Aysén indeed awoke: Barricades deploying whatever tools and materials lay to hand sprang up at other points of entry into the region, blockading it from the rest of Chile and effectively shutting it down for three weeks. Despite the serious inconveniences the blockade imposed on a population that depends heavily on imported food and gas, and despite the government’s violent and erratic response to this challenge to its sovereignty, polls showed that more than 80% of Ayseninos supported what was soon dubbed the Your Problem Is My Problem Social Movement for Aysén.1 The forceful outburst of regional solidarity surprised many observers and far surpassed the expectations of the movement’s leaders.

1355During the uprising, the sound of Radio Santa María, a regional community radio station sponsored by the Catholic diocese, was ubiquitous. With reporters scattered throughout the region in even the smallest communities, Santa María provided the best means for many Ayseninos to keep up with the volatile situation. The early days of the uprising saw several pitched battles between fishermen and police special forces on the Ibáñez Bridge, where six fishermen lost an eye to what the police claimed were rubber bullets but later evidence showed were steel. But the police were eventually forced to retreat from the bridge and tended to stay hidden during the day, emerging at night to carry out random strikes, mostly against families, including children, who had gathered around the community fires that had sprung up in many working-class neighborhoods. At first, people would call Torres’s show to inform their neighbors of police movements, until it became clear that police were monitoring the show and using these calls to identify the location of potential troublemakers. The show then served as an arena for denouncing abuses: When a police strike took place, Santa María reporters would rush to interview victims and witnesses, conveying these terrifying events to Ayseninos almost in real time through the link to Torres’s show.

But nighttime broadcasts provided more than information. In the uprising’s early stages, Torres, who normally hosts a music and news show in the early evening, decided to instead spend her nights at the microphone taking calls from anyone who wanted to talk, whether to warn of police incursions, describe their experiences on the front lines, or just discuss these astonishing events, until the wee hours of the morning.

Late one night in early March, I sat at the kitchen table of a friend in Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén, listening to Torres’s show, typically a mix of scary news, serious reflection, and sometimes hilarious ranting. I was particularly charmed by one man who, perhaps in his cups, repeatedly repudiated his Chilean nationality: “I already have some Argentine flags and I’m going to go out and buy some more!” he shouted. Meanwhile, my hostess was chatting on Facebook with a fisherman she had met while serving as a human rights observer at the Ibáñez Bridge blockade. Like us, he was listening to Santa María. He asked her: “How do you make a nation? You have to write a constitution, right?”

Radio Santa María provided a space to participants in the uprising for critiquing old communities and imagining new ones, and this space was intimately linked to the form the uprising took: the physical defense of a territory. The notion of rising up against the state was new for Aysén, which has been known in Chile as a conservative stronghold—the billionaire right-wing president Sebastián Piñera won over 60% of the region’s vote. Moreover, Ayseninos tend to describe themselves as pacíficos, peaceful, by which they mean on good terms with the government. The region’s dauntingly inhospitable terrain was colonized by Chileans only in the early 20th century, after border disputes with Argentina made its settlement expedient. Exercising sovereignty on the cheap, the government offered landless peasants from farther north large tracts of land on the condition that they clear it of its near impenetrable forests. Chile was “made” in Aysén, as the local expression puts it, through dramatic acts of individual and familial heroism. While many hardscrabble descendants of these settler-colonist pioneers like to grumble that the Chilean state’s gratitude for their sacrifices has rarely gone beyond lip service, they had never before dared to manifest their grievances so aggressively.

But tensions between the region and the central government began rising in 2006, when a consortium of Spanish, Italian, and Chilean capital floated a proposal to build five hydroelectric megadams on the powerful Baker and Pascua rivers in Aysén’s south. If implemented, HidroAysén, as the consortium calls itself, will generate 2.75 gigawatts of electricity for transportation north to Chile’s center along the world’s longest transmission line, together with estimated yearly profits of $900 million. Polls suggested that some three-quarters of Ayseninos oppose the dams, but Chile’s central government, under pressure to strengthen the electrical grid from the mining companies whose royalties are its single-largest source of revenue, has ignored Aysenino objections and thrown its weight behind the project.2 Large protests against HidroAysén’s May 9, 2011, approval by a regional cabinet of central-government appointees marked the first mass expression of regional discontent in living memory, as well as the first time the Chilean state deployed its broad array of anti-protest technologies against Ayseninos.

The relationship between this opposition to HidroAysén and the regional social movement was complex. Its complexities expressed themselves in tensions over how far Ayseninos could take the claim of ownership over the region they derive from their pioneering history. Patagonia Without Dams, a coalition of local, national, and international organizations organized to fight HidroAysén, was only one of 24 organizations participating in the movement, while the rest were mostly gremios, or occupational guilds. The 11-point list of demands the movement presented to the central government was focused primarily on demands for social policies that would help Ayseninos with the special difficulties of living at the ends of the earth. Including higher salaries, lower costs for fuel and other basic goods, the establishment of a duty-free haven, and improved health and education services, these demands simply reflected promises Piñera had made to the region during his presidential campaign but failed to fulfill. But the list also included several demands that extended and affirmed the claim on territory Ayseninos feel they have earned, calling for binding regional plebiscites to be held on megaprojects like HidroAysén, for Aysén to be recognized as a “reserve of life” in territorial planning, and for ceding control over resources like fish and water to the region. The leaders of the movement tended to minimize these demands in their negotiations with the central government, but it is difficult to imagine that the mobilization could have taken place, much less on the extraordinary scale it did, without the reserves of indignation accumulated during the extended struggle against HidroAysén.

Channeling these reserves into the social movement was in no small part Radio Santa María’s accomplishment. Founded in 1979, before any terrestrial link had been built between Aysén and the rest of Chile, Radio Santa María’s motto is “We go where the roads don’t reach.” In much of Aysén, this is quite literally true: Outside the major urban centers of Coyhaique and Puerto Aysén, much of the region’s population lives much as the pioneers did, on widely scattered single-family homesteads connected only by foot and horse paths, where weeks can pass without any encounter between neighbors, especially in the cold, dark winters. As the sole connection to the outside world, the radio is a constant sonic backdrop in the Aysenino countryside. It also compensates for a number of the deficiencies imposed by a lack of roads, notably the lack of information. In Cochrane, the small town at the proposed site of the dams in southern Aysén, the Sunday edition of the national newspaper arrives on Tuesday, the only delivery of the week. Expensive and out-of-date, the newspaper has a readership that is in any case limited by low levels adult literacy: Few rural Ayseninos over the age of 35 have more than a fourth-grade education. While television is supplanting radio as a source of news in town, where satellite dishes have proliferated, it cannot reach the countryside. Radio is Aysén’s common denominator, its most authentic voice.

On Santa María, this voice has become one of regionalist opposition to centralist impositions. Mandated to take an anti-dam stance by Aysén’s bishop—who authored a celebrated 2008 pastoral letter, “Give Us This Day Our Daily Water,” that calls on Christians to respect this sacred gift of God to all humans—the station served as a central clearing-house for dam-related news and debates in the months leading up to HidroAysén’s approval and its aftermath, must-hear radio for anyone concerned with the controversy. During the uprising it played the same role: Policemen as well as protesters would stop to listen whenever they heard a portentous “¡está pasando!” break into the omnipresent background noise of Santa María’s regular programming to bring us the news. The centrality of radio listening helped link these two moments of Aysén’s “awakening” through the characteristic rhythms and sounds of the station’s programming—its introductions, its hosts’ favorite songs, the timbre of their voices—as much as any explicit message.

By inviting other voices to participate in these rhythms through her nighttime broadcasts, Torres gave Aysén’s regionalist voice new legitimacy and power. She has said that her intention was to provide people with a means of self-defense, and she did. But Torres’s show was also a space for sharing. Callers were allowed to talk more or less as long as they wanted on almost any topic, although they mostly talked about the uprising. People cried with rage at the injustices they were witnessing: Why was the government treating Ayseninos like criminals when all they wanted was for it to keep its promises? Did no one in Santiago understand how hard it is to make a life in this place, the toll it has taken on Ayseninos’ comfort, health, education, and sometimes lives? How dare the government use force to reclaim the roads from Ayseninos when Ayseninos had made the roads with their own hands! How could Ayseninos, who had always treated police as honored members of their communities, ever again respect a paco, cop?

Some had clearly thought out their piece beforehand, concluding their reflections with a “That’s all, thank you!” Others, like the man who wildly threatened to buy more Argentine flags, seemed moved by a spirit of rebellious spontaneity. So many people called in drunk that Torres had to ask them to stop, because, she said, it was making her jealous. One fully sober woman called from what she described as the “Dehesa of Puerto Aysén,” a reference to an upscale neighborhood in Santiago, to complain about the disorder produced by the blockades. This spurred further callers to mock the absurdity, patent to anyone who has ever visited this rugged port, of such a comparison.

This freewheeling and horizontal communication both mirrored and propitiated the new forms of sociability that living under the blockade demanded, not only of the families joining community fires, but everyone else as well. As supplies of gas ran out, the distinctions between Ayseninos who drive—an expensive proposition in a place where gas costs almost $2 per liter—and Ayseninos who do not became less significant. Most people went about on foot; in Coyhaique, the horses that had been all but banished from downtown for at least a decade reappeared. No longer separated by their speeding vehicles, Coyhaiquinos had many more opportunities for collective discussion than before, while the need to bum cigarettes, which had run short early on, likewise forced many strangers into conversation. These chats, as often as not, extended the radio transmission of the evening before. All of the good or controversial calls were rehearsed and parsed, as people on the blockades or simply going about what they could of their business in these exceptional circumstances passed the time and tried to make sense of what was happening. In the weeks following her call, “the woman from La Dehesa” became a meme for the delusional arrogance of those who didn’t support the movement, something one could laugh about in almost any context.

The radio thus gave meaning to the space that the blockades claimed as the region’s own territory, allowing those inhabiting this space to imagine ourselves as united. My most powerful experience of this imaginary came late in the uprising, after the blockades were lifted everywhere but Puerto Aysén, when the government responded to a breakdown in negotiations by sending more special forces to the region via Puerto Cisnes, a tiny port in the north. Warned on Facebook that troops had embarked on a boat leaving the island of Chiloé the night before, a hundred or so inhabitants of Puerto Cisnes, including children, went down to the jetty and formed a human chain to prevent them from landing. When they arrived at about one in the afternoon, the troops blew through this line in minutes, using tear gas and more rubber bullets. From distant Cochrane, I and most of the rest of Aysén followed the slow progression of the troops southward on Santa María, listening as people in the small community of Mañihuales described how they were violently dislodged from the bridge, where they tried to stop the advance. “The war is very unequal,” reported one woman, summoning the spirit of Chilean national hero Arturo Prat, as he went down to defeat at the hands of the Peruvian enemy. “We’re not capable of [handling] such atrocities,” panted a man.

Listening on throughout the afternoon, we heard reports of the troops’ movements from callers on the highway, as the host of the afternoon show speculated whether they were heading toward Coyhaique or Puerto Aysén. Rumors circulated that they had been detained by blown-out tires along the terribly maintained highway. By the evening, they had arrived in Coyhaique, where they pushed through a chain of 300 people trying to block the bridge at its entrance by setting fire to its environs. Subsequent reports were chaotic and scary: tear gas in Coyhaique’s central plaza; women taken from the bridge to the police station and forced to strip; vandalism of the stores (but not those owned by people from the region) on Coyhaique’s main strip. Nothing could have better sketched the difficulties of Aysén’s terrain and the heroism of its inhabitants, and never had the sense that this was a foreign invasion been so strong.

Aysén’s blockade challenged the Chilean state’s claim over the region, and Claudia Torres was made to suffer for giving this territorial maneuver its distinctive means of expression. Once the uprising subsided, regional authorities accused her and Radio Santa María of “promoting sedition,” a serious charge in Chile, where much of the law is still shaped by frameworks enacted during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Torres counters that her reporting was always objective: If the show stirred up passionate sentiments, it was because Ayseninos were experiencing an extraordinary reality. While the charges were eventually withdrawn, regional Piñera supporters still make hateful comments and innuendos about Torres on their Twitter feeds and in private conversations. But her example has also inspired community radio stations elsewhere in Chile, where social conflicts like Aysén’s are increasingly common, to play a more active role in those conflicts. The humblest of mass media, community radio is free to travel beyond conventional journalistic roads.

The uprising ended after 40 days, when a group of the movement’s leaders decided to break through the impasse they had quickly reached in negotiations with regional representatives of the central government by traveling to Santiago to speak with the minister of the interior in person. He welcomed them, in a move to save the face of a government that had been widely condemned for its bumbled handling of Aysén’s brave and—Chileans generally agreed—justified rebellion. Agreements to address many of the 11 points followed in short haste, but few of them have been honored subsequently. Most blatantly, a provisional agreement to study the possibility of holding regional plebiscites on dam projects before proceeding further was violated only days after it was signed, when the regional cabinet approved dams for the Río Cuervo, above Puerto Aysén. Shortly after, Patagonia Without Dams abandoned the negotiations, but not—the group has repeatedly insisted—the social movement itself. Over the exceptionally harsh winter that followed the uprising, Aysén has struggled with the perennial hardships imposed by its climate, along with the new challenges of disillusionment and division, which the government and would-be dam builders have been eager to exploit. But Aysén may again awaken when spring comes. If it does, Santa María will be the first to let us know.



Carlota McAllister is a sociocultural anthropologist who has been working on Aysén’s dam conflict since 2006. She teaches at York University in Toronto and is the co-editor, with Diane Nelson, of Aftermath: War by Other Means in Post-Genocide Guatemala (Duke University Press, 2013).



1. El Diario de Cooperativa (Santiago), “Cuatro de cada cinco ayseninos apoya el movimiento social en la region,” March 6, 2012, available at cooperativa.cl.

2. El Diario de Cooperativa, “Tres de cada cuatro ayseninos están en contra del megaproyecto hidroeléctrico,” May 17, 2011.


Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."


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