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Recently, I caught up with Manuel Cabieses, the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper. During the one hour interview, Cabieses discussed his own background and opposition to the Pinochet government, Chile’s free trade agreement with the U.S., the state of social movements in Chile, Hugo Chavez, China’s rising profile in South America, and the current position of left media in Chile.
NK: Could you tell me a bit about your personal background?
MC: I originally worked in an oil company as a young man. We created a union there, and I was responsible for the labor newspaper. Through the paper I got involved in journalism; I never studied journalism in a formal setting.
NK: How did you get involved in politics?
MC: I first got interested in a party which no longer exists in Chile, which was called Falange Nacional. This was the precursor to the Christian Democratic Party. I got interested in it because my mother was Catholic and friendly with various leaders within the party. I was never a militant however. Then, when I started working I got interested in the Communist Party. I wasn’t such a militant there either, but I got interested in Marxist books. Later, for work related reasons I emigrated to Venezuela, this was during the 1960s. In Venezuela I had contact with the Communist Party of Venezuela which at that time had initiated armed struggle. I later returned to Chile and became more active in the Communist Party. I took up work as a journalist at the Communist Party paper for example. Later I broke with the Communist Party and I became a militant within the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its Spanish acronym MIR). This was up to and even after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. Later I was imprisoned and expelled from the country. Subsequently I returned in secret to Chile as a MIR militant.
NK: Could you explain a bit about prison and exile?
MC: (long pause). I was detained 2 days after the coup, in the street.
NK: Nearby to your offices here?
MC: Yes, here in downtown. I was in a car. We were all obliged to get out of the vehicle, and someone in the street recognized me. The dictatorship had issued advisories, warning that certain people should hand themselves over, including me. I was imprisoned a little more than 2 years, in different prisons all over the country. Finally I was expelled along with my family. We went to Cuba. I was there for around 4 years and later I returned secretly with my woman, that Senora outside who you saw in my office. We spent almost ten years living in secret here in Chile, working with the MIR. That’s about it in summary.
NK: How strong are social movements here and to what extent can they push the government to the left?
MC: They’re very weak and atomized. The dictatorship, through repression and imposition of its economic model, were able to fracture social movements, and almost succeeded in liquidating any kind of left political movement. The labor unions today are far fewer in number than in the 1970s. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the emergence of a potent social movement here like in other countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador for example.
NK: What about students?
MC: The student movement last year was very strong in the sense that there hadn’t been a movement like that for many years. But intrinsically it wasn’t very strong in terms of organization and wasn’t able to mobilize on a national level. This year the student movement hasn’t advanced at all.
NK: What about the Indians?
MC: After the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Mapuche Indians have been politically active on a sporadic basis. But, as with other sectors of society, it’s a very atomized movement and there is no national Mapuche organization. The most radicalized Mapuches have been very beaten back and repressed.
NK: Could there be more social conflict here if poverty increases?
MC: Chilean economic development has reached a threshold. The economy was growing at a rate of 6-7%, but last year it went down to 4%. This year it’s hardly expected that it will significantly increase beyond this rate. The dynamism of the neo liberal, export model, seems to have reached a plateau because Chile lacks necessary infrastructure. Fundamentally, the export model is based on mining, especially copper, the rest is fruit and wood. But there’s no capacity to promote greater development and we lack diversified technology to compete. As a result the economy grows slowly, and a high number of people, some 500,000 individuals, are unemployed on a permanent basis.
NK: Has poverty been reduced?
MC: There has been a reduction in poverty in terms of percentages, but what has advanced more rapidly is extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority. Investors have reaped fabulous profits in the last few years, but meanwhile salaries and pensions have suffered. In this manner, the contradictions between extreme poverty and wealth have been sharpened. At the same time, the political parties have been delegitimized. The same political conditions are being generated here that we observed before the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Ecuador on a permanent basis, or Bolivia. These conditions will generate a difficult political and social milieu in future.
NK: How does society view Chile’s free trade agreement with the United States?
MC: There are labor sectors who look favorably upon the treaty. They believe what the media has told them, that the prosperity, this dynamic export economy, will filter down from the top towards the bottom. There are sectors of society which are not numerically insignificant, which have benefited in some way from the export model. For example, in terms of credit. Credit cards didn’t exist here before. But today a great many Chileans, even those earning low salaries, have them. We have also seen massification of cell phones. In Chile there are 14 million cell phones, and the population is some 16 million people. Support for the export model is clearly demonstrated in the electoral arena. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, between the electoral vote for the Concertacion and the right, more than 90% of Chileans have chosen to support this model. That’s because a political and social alternative hasn’t yet arisen.
NK: What have been the advantages of the model?
MC: There’s been a great modernization, growth in telecommunications, roads, airports, ports, and all sectors linked to export.
NK: Yes, the airport is quite impressive!
MC: If you go out into the countryside, a half hour out of Santiago, you’ll find agro export farms. There has been prosperity in that sense. Each year the companies register an increase on the stock market.
NK: Is there any chance Chile would back out of the free trade agreement with the U.S.?
MC: No, and in fact every day Chile signs a new trade agreement with other countries.
NK: How do you see China’s rising presence economically speaking?
MC: China is becoming more important. One sign of this is the anticipated copper profits from sales to China, amounting to $ 500-600 million dollars. China pays in advance.
NK: What do social movements have to say about China’s rising profile?
MC: Social movements are passive towards these types of issues. There are some labor leaders who are sympathetic towards China because they think it will have a respectful attitude towards Chilean interests. I think they are mistaken. The Chinese are doing business at the same velocity and lack of scruples as the United States.
NK: How strong is left wing journalism here in Chile?
MC: In television there’s nothing, there’s no station that identifies as leftist. There’s a radio station which belongs to the Communist Party, and there’s a few progressive radio stations. In the press there’s only two bi monthlies, El Siglo, of the Communist Party, and Punto Final, both have low circulation. We have no publicity and experience distribution problems. On the internet there’s more diversity but in Chile most people don’t have access as this is just beginning here.
NK: In Venezuela Chavez has created a lot of state television media and there’s been an information battle going on. Is that possible here?
MC: (long pause). You say, here?
NK: Yes (laughs). Are you surprised by my question?
MC: In Venezuela, you have that situation because there’s a government that confronts the private media. Here, the media is completely identified with the government. The government is the Concertacion, but the party shares power with the right. The media meanwhile is totally on the right.
NK: How strong is CNN and U.S. media here in Chile?
MC: Very strong, but amongst the middle and upper middle classes.
NK: Is Telesur (a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela) beamed here, and could it compete?
MC: There are some regions of the country, for example in the center, where you can receive Telesur and even Cuban TV. Otherwise however, only people who have access to Direct TV can watch Telesur. You need a long range antenna.
NK: Have you ever had any contact with the U.S. Embassy here while working for Punto Final?
MC: I have never had any contact with them, expect for one time when I applied for a visa to visit Puerto Rico. I was turned down. But, the embassy subscribes to Punto Final (laughs).
NK: It seems to me that Chile’s relationship with the U.S. is a bit ambiguous?
MC: I don’t think Chile has criticized the U.S. in a very direct way as some other Latin American governments have done in the past. Chile is located here by a geographical accident, in the Southern Cone of Latin America. With the exception of the Iraq War, Chilean foreign policy is completely identified with U.S. and European interests.
NK: You interviewed Chavez, what was your impression and what do you think will happen as far as Chilean Venezuelan relations?
MC: In 1994 I met Chavez in Chile. He was on a tour of Latin America and in Chile no one wanted to receive him. No leftist party wanted to associate itself with him because he had this image of being a military coup plotter. But we at Punto Final interviewed him. We went to his hotel and did a two page spread. These days I have a very high opinion of Chavez. I think he’s matured as far as his political ideas, he’s made them more solid, firmer. Sometimes to my mind he uses strident rhetoric when characterizing certain foreign leaders and doesn’t think before he acts. As far as Chilean Venezuelan relations, I don’t expect much. I think optimally what one might hope is that Chile may retain a respectful attitude towards Venezuela. But, I don’t think it will be friendly. Perhaps friendly between high profile politicians like Bachelet and Chavez, but this won’t extend to deep relations between the two governments.
Manuel Cabieses is the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper.