- Posted January 20, 2011 by
Puerto Natales, Chile
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Evacuation from Puerto Natales: Rebellion in Patagonia
Beginning in mid January 2011 a rebellion took place in the region of Magallanes in southern Chile, headed by a "peoples committee" called the Asamblea Ciudadana de Magallanes, with the stated intent to "paralyse" the region, to disrupt tourism and deny access to airports and the main regional park, Torres del Paine.
Even as the rebels had blockaded airports and roads, tour companies and airlines continued to pour tourists into the region, even when aware of the strife and blockades.
The Asamblea Ciudadana de Magallanes was formed in late 2010, describing itself as dedicated to promoting regional rather than national interests. It is an ad-hoc group with no legal basis, not elected but self-appointed. In one of their public declarations they insist that they are "the legitimate representatives of the people." The platform of the Asamblea includes objections to foreign investment in the Magallanes region as well as the salmon industry, which represents a substantial source of income for the region. Salmon farming, in the words of the Asamblea, threatens to destroy the inland waters of southern Chile.
Prior to the rebellion, the Asamblea issued a demand that the prices for heating gas in this region be frozen for the next ten years, irrespective of increasing costs of production or world market prices. The low gas tariff would be subsidised by the national government. The membership of the Asamblea includes labor and business unions, barrio organisations, and members of the regional communist party.
The rebellion, which effectively shut down most commerce and travel in not only the southern end of the continent but much of Tierra del Fuego and all ferries across the Straits of Magellan, was based on objections to tariff increases in heating gas. 80 percent of the cost of natural gas used for residential heating is subsidised by the national government. The price increase was to be the result of a subsidy reduction from 80 percent to 70 percent.
Once the "regional paralysis" was unleashed by the Asamblea, rebels halted the movement of vans, buses, and private cars that were delivering or removing tourists from the national park here. Tough-looking fishermen, taxi drivers, and others manned the roadblocks. Some of the passengers were elderly. Some needed medication. Others required canes or other assistance to walk. This was of no consequence to the rebels at the roadblocks, who kept their captives from passing, and from reaching food and shelter. The rebels offered local tap water in used soft-drink containers to travelers who needed water. At the roadblock near the Puerto Natales airport, the former governor of the province, Mario Margoni, offered the use of his own car to carry food from Natales to the tourists being held at the roadblocks.
The foreign tourists were targeted as a way of bringing foreign government pressure on the Chilean government to rescind the reduction of the gas subsidy. Only Argentina's diplomatic objections were publicised in international media, and then only in the Spanish. For the most part, a tight lid seemed to be keeping news of this rebellion from the English-language press.
Thousands of people were trapped between roadblocks, without transportation, effectively held as hostages whose only way out was walking. And many did walk out, the 25 km from Puerto Natales, up to the frontier and then down into Argentina, where sympathetic officials arranged for taxis to get them into the coal-mining town of Río Turbio in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz. The weather was not entirely cooperative, with rain and winds of up to 122 km/hour recorded in Punta Arenas.
Some travelers, trapped in the national park with no hope for transport and with food supplies nearly exhausted, formed what they jokingly referred to as a "Death March" of more than 60 km on the dusty gravel roads, as the condors and local camel-like guanacos watched from a safe distance.
Meanwhile, at the roadblocks near Puerto Natales, the Chilean police, including carabineros and PDI, stood idly or sat in their comfortably heated vehicles while rebels erected illegal barricades and prevented all motor vehicle movement. Not even ambulances could pass the roadblocks. The central government had determined that avoiding the possibility of bloodshed was more important than maintaining public safety, law, and order. The local police were waiting, they said, for the orders from Santiago before they could restore order in southern Chile. Those orders never came.
Yet in Punta Arenas, rebels clashed with carabineros in riot gear. Dozens of police were injured, and nearly 100 people were arrested or detained. Fires in that city, mostly at barricade locations, filled the air with acrid smoke. Local media showed gangs of youths with their faces partly concealed, setting fire to mounds of tyres. A number of vehicles were also burned. Southern Chilean papers covered the situation, which was largely ignored by international media and wire services.
In effect, the central government had ceded control of the region to the rebels, who then determined who would open what stores and when -- if at all. Roving gangs threatened any business, office, or worksite that refused to join in the regional paralysis. People quickly learned to decorate their homes and cars with the symbols of the rebellion, lest they suffer from reprisals. In Puerto Natales, rocks were thrown at businesses that did not adhere to the orders, and in some cases at local citizens who attempted to help the tourists.
Travelers in Tierra del Fuego were also trapped on that island as rebels prevented access to the ferries across the Straits of Magellan. For the Argentine residents of Tierra del Fuego who have to travel through the Chilean side of the island to reach the ferries, the rebellion created a diplomatic furor since bilateral treaties between those countries provide for free movement of transportation of Argentines across Chilean territory here. Argentina supplies a significant percentage of the heating gas used in central Chile.
As more than 1000 refugees crowded into the town of Puerto Natales, the Chilean Red Cross brokered an agreement with the rebels which allowed the Chilean Air Force to fly a series of evacuation flights from the small airport, shown here, at Puerto Natales, to the main airport at Punta Arenas, where ongoing flights allowed local nationals as well as foreign tourists to flee the region. Chilean Air Force Squadron Commander Cristian Vega managed operational control of the airlift, or "air bridge" between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. The Chilean Red Cross also prepared a refugee center to serve as a coordination point as well as basic medical, food, and lodging services in a school. The Chilean Army provided buses.
In addition to the airlift evacuation, about 1000 people were taken by small buses from Chile to the nearby Argentine town of El Calafate, under arrangements made by the Chilean Red Cross.
Two people were killed in Punta Arenas, and others injured, when a driver attempted to run a roadblock. The "colectivo" taxi drivers alone reported a loss of more than US$300,000 during the rebellion -- an amount greater than the proposed rate hike for 40 years' worth of heating gas for their households. Losses for the region are in the millions of dollars, and the negative effect on tourism, with visitors being treated as "hostages," is expected to have a lasting impact on local tourism as well as southern Chile's previous image as a safe and desirable travel destination. As damage estimates are now being published in Chile, the central government indicated that the losses due to the rebellion will be more than US$14,000,000, with about 6 million of that in the tourism sector. This is apparently being viewed as a measure of success by the Asamblea Ciudadana de Magallanes, whose goals were to damage tourism. During the rebellion, many local residents indicated that tourism was a matter of monied interests outside of the Magallanes region and thus of little concern to them.
As of 19 January roadblocks had been removed but the Asamblea now maintains that it is "stronger than ever" after the weak central government backed down, and follow-on strikes and roadblocks remain a possibility. At roadblocks and during workers' gatherings, Chilean national flags were rarely in evidence, replaced by the regional separatist flags said to represent the "Independent Republic of Magallanes." Hundreds of tyres were burned on the streets of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, resulting in damage to the road surfaces. The Prensa Austral reported removal of 150 tonnes of trash produced by the rebels at their roadblocks.
Immediately prior to the rebels agreeing to a smaller rate hike, the central government of Chilean president Sebastián Piñera had indicated in a televised announcement that it would invoke the National Internal Security Law, which would have allowed the use of that country's military to restore order.
During the course of these events I met with the local governor, representatives of the Chilean Air Force and Army, the local law enforcement agencies (carabineros and PDI) as well as the local Red Cross in Puerto Natales. I also met with and recorded interviews with rebel blockade leaders as well as many of the travelers who were stranded in this region. For more photos and other details on this rebellion, along with dates and names of participants and copies of articles from Chilean papers and radio station websites, see the travel advisory section on allchile dot net.
Spanish language data on the rebellion can be seen on the website for Radio Polar in Punta Arenas, Chile.
I just learned that American author Thom Hogan was among the hostages. He published a very good summary of the experience, with his recommendations, on this site: http://www.bythom.com/hostage.htm
Additional news images from the Prensa Austral, the principal newspaper daily in southern Chile:
Meanwhile, on the usual CNN stories surrounding Chile, the same old stories from many months ago are still up, about butterflies, poetry, and events that ceased to be news long ago.
Recent BBC story prior to the evacuation - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12200792