Posts Tagged With: copper mine

‘More Forceful’ Revolution Awaits A New Day In Chile


The night is still.

I lay in bed –

– my mind at rest.

The only sound I hear –

– the echo of my breath.

Distant drums break the night’s silence. It’s a rhythm that halts and haunts. I’ve heard these distant drums before. They come regularly with nightfall.

Just before the sun starts its descent and completely vanishes in the horizon of the silent desert, the syncopated slow bang begins, traveling like a creeping fog. I don’t know the reason for the drumming. I do remain curious and someday will have an answer. But as I lay here in bed studying the cracked ceiling, there’s that low rhythmic sound again of a single bass drum.

Boom. Boom.

Boom, boom, boom.

Boom. Boom.

Boom, boom, boom.

Boom. boom.

Boom, boom, boom.

Tonight, the drumming carries a special message – or so I imagine that it does – a message that revolt is in the air. A promise that it will come with the new day.

Boom, boom.

Boom, boom, boom.

Boom, boom…

My breathing locks in. I inhale with each BOOM, BOOM, BOOM of the drum, and exhale with every BOOM, BOOM. Then I wonder: what this city some like to refer to as “Calamity” instead of its true name Calama, will look like come Monday when its people take to the streets to stage a mass demonstration against the federal government in Santiago.

The leaders of Calama and residents say with the protest they hope to send a strong message to the federal government – that the people of Calama have clear demands and will no longer be ignored.

Translation: Use the copper to educate. Four students dead.

Long before I got here, there’s been protest in the air in Chile. Students have been on the streets for months, clashing with riot police in their quest for public education reform. In a nutshell, they want free college education for all.

Some of the demonstrations have been peaceful. Others have been extremely violent. Police have been seriously attacked and students severely beaten. Protesters have overturned and burned vehicles. Public and private property has been set ablaze and windows smashed. Trying to extinguish fires, firefighters have also been attacked. Molotov cocktails, rocks and all sorts of projectiles have been hurled at police vehicles with serious consequences and police have responded with tear gas and water canons.

School sessions at universities have virtually ground to a halt as the massive protests have spread across the country. The students are well-organized and prepared to disrupt. The government has rejected the students’ calls for free education for all Chileans, and so the students have increasingly grown more angry and violent. Chileans tell me they don’t like the violence that has interrupted day-to-day life and seemingly become part of the nation’s fabric.

Labor unions have also staged acts of civil disobedience for their own gains. And now, an entire city – Calama – plans a shutdown and challenge the government in Santiago, over money.

With the sunrise on Monday, another gauntlet of police will be on the streets of a Chilean city. This time the demonstrators will not be a bunch of idealistic youths, but city officials and residents of all stripes in Calama. This, you might say, will be a revolt organized by the establishment. And what do they want? A bigger piece of the pie.

Calama and the surrounding region is where the nation’s copper mines are located. With Chile’s standing as the largest copper producer in the world – the largest open-pit copper mine in the world is in Chile – the region draws billions of dollars in copper export revenue. But according to residents of Calama, most of the money goes directly to the federal government, which then decides how it should be spent.

According to the people of Calama, barely a drop is spent to improve Calama. The good people of Calama want a greater chunk of that revenue generated from the copper mines to stay in Calama. Calama needs it, they say, to improve the overall appearance of the city.

Posters plastered all over Calama announce the protest August 29, 2011

There is no argument Calama desperately needs improvements in its infrastructure and appearance. It’s one of the dirtiest, smelliest, ugliest cities I’ve ever seen. And I won’t get any argument from the people who were born and reared here. They’re the ones who say that Calama is the worst city in Chile and they blame the government for taking and not giving, at least not sufficiently.

There is plenty of money in the pockets of people in Calama thanks to the mining industry in the region. But many of the people who work in Calama escape to their homes in Santiago, Antofagasta and Iquique, or other towns miles away. That’s where they really spend their money. Most, if not all, the copper mine executives work Monday through Thursday in Calama and live in housing provided by the mines, then fly or drive home on Thursday, homes far away from Calama. They wouldn’t think of relocating their families to Calama. For them, Calama is just a place that allows them a well-paying job. So they take their paychecks to other cities they call home.

Similarly, the government takes most of the revenue out of the Calama area to be spent nationwide. Calama residents say that’s unfair, that their city bears the brunt of the mining operations, is severely impacted by the mines and the people they draw, and for that reason Calama should be allowed more of the money generated by the mines.

And so the stage is set for civil action Monday, in a bid to retain some greater portion of the billions of dollars generated by the copper mines.

After months and years of talking to Santiago and getting nowhere, Calama has decided to take it to the streets. It will be the second time they stage a citywide protest – the last one was in June – but city officials promise this time action will be “more forceful” so that “everyone in Chile hears us” and so that “we get a more concrete response from the government.”

Most businesses will not open on Monday. Marches through city streets and rallies will be held. And the aggrieved students fighting for a free education will sure to join in. And the “more forceful” approach to be taken?

As I lay here in bed, the drums banging slowly, accompanied by the echo of my breath, I think “this is Chile,” and that “more forceful” approach could really mean something – or nothing.

Off the wall?: "Students For A Right" to a free education

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I Could Get Used To This, But Not A Chance!

Dressed for the office

This isn’t how I had envisioned my life at this point in time: after a long day at work, headed home in a chauffeured sedan to a four-bedroom house with three bathrooms, small but functional kitchen, laundry room, large living room, cable TV, a gated driveway and enough yardage for an adopted, sprint-happy German Shepherd renamed “Honey”.

As the dark gray sedan got started toward my home for at least the next five months, I thought this all so jarring to my compass, and that instead of the backseat of this shiny late-model car I should be somewhere in the Andes Mountains or salt flats of Bolivia, making my way from the northern arid deserts to the cool blue southern glaciers of Chile, with an overstuffed backpack firmly attached to my probably aching back.

But life throws up detours and sometimes roadblocks and it’s left to us as individuals to decide what’s the wisest choice: take the road and forge ahead; scale the obstacles or turn back – in essence quit – and just go home.

This was a big one. While I was in Peru the call came: come to Chile for six months to teach English to the bigwigs of one of Chile’s several mining companies. Many of these executives and managers need to learn English – or in some cases just improve what they already know – because English has become necessary in their jobs. Chile exports billions of dollars worth of copper to the world and the men and women who run these mining companies sometimes travel abroad or do business with others who speak English and little or no Spanish. So there’s been a push for English lessons at these multi-billion dollar corporations.

I must say I have actually been enjoying. Of course, there’s been a few glitches here and  there, but that’s the case in any job. Nothing ever goes smoothly 100 percent of the time. And yet, the experience is one that I won’t shed any tears over once the fancy car is gone, the house has been vacated and the job is done. Such is my love for travel and to explore the world. Being stationary for a total of six months – I’ve been on the job for a month now – was never part of “the plan” when I left Miami in February. Eight to 10 months in South America, tops, and it was supposed to be “Hello Europe!”

But I had made a decision last month, not knowing exactly what to expect, and it has turned out to be a wise move, even if I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I have gone from sometimes sleeping in a tent and couchsurfing the homes of perfect strangers or toughing it out in crappy hostels, to now working on a luxurious corporate campus where I’m fed each day a fantastic lunch and evening snack while I rub shoulders with men and women the miners and other workers practically bow or curtsy to and treat with the reverence reserved for religious figures or heads of state. I watch as some of these top executives walk down a hallway or through a lobby and how employees quickly move out of their path and greet them with the tip of a hat. Power. Powerful.

Out the front door. The garden needs work 🙂

These thoughts racing through my head are interrupted by the chauffeur. I hear him call out “Don Misha-El” – most people in Chile mispronounce Michael as it would be pronounced in Spanish. He asks where I wish to be taken. He just picked me up at a park area in Calama, Chile, that doubles as a pickup, drop off point for commuters. I tell him “home” and repeat the address he already had been given by dispatch. “But don’t call me ‘Don’,” I tell him. “I’m no ‘Don'” Maybe out of force of habit,  a sense of respect or decorum mandated by his employer, he insists on “Don”.  I stop correcting him after three or four tries.

For those who – oh, heavens! – are not regular readers of this blog, get up to speed on how I got the job and ended up in Calama, Chile. Do it now then come back and pick up the story here. Or do it after 🙂 For the rest of you keeping up with this twisting travel saga, read on for the scintillating details of my day in Corporate Chile. [Hmmm…why doesn’t that have the same stinging ring as Corporate America?]

My new routine: Twice a week and soon-to-be three times a week, my alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Those days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with Thursdays to be added in August. At 6:10 a.m., my ride arrives. “Good morning Don Me-sha-El” – “Good morning. Just Michael, please.”

He drives me to Monolito Topáter – a monument to the Chilean heroes of the war fought against Bolivia and Peru, known as the Pacific War. The monument is a rendezvous point for vans and buses that take workers to the copper mines and other work sites.

At Topáter I leave my chauffeured car and board a large private bus – soon to be upgraded to a corporate van – reserved for executives of the company. The bus is very comfortable, has cushy seats that recline, with pillows and blankets provided. Given the hour and the length of travel, most people just grab a blanket and a pillow and go to sleep. The trip from Topáter to Mineria Gaby, a copper mining business co-owned by a private consortium and the government of Chile, is 1 hour and 30 minutes. I arrive at Gaby by 8 a.m., when I sit down with my first bleary-eyed student. For now I have a total of eight students at Gaby, but I will take on several more. Each individual lesson is 90 minutes.

I conduct the lessons in the offices of each executive, a challenge because some of them can’t seem to turn off work, hold off on their calls, for the duration of the lessons.

At about 1 p.m. it’s lunch time. I head for the “casino” – that’s what Chileans call a cafeteria or dining hall. There, hundreds of miners and other company employees are chowing down on what is usually a fantastic lunch prepared on-site. Lunch options are three to four options with a variety of salads and desserts. And of course, cold beverages, tea and coffee are always on the menu.

After lunch, I conduct workshops that usually include speaking and working on grammar or on whatever weakness the student wishes to work on. The workshops are voluntary by I encourage them to come, especially the ones that need it.

My afternoon continues with more lessons, usually three or four more students. By 8 p.m., I’m making a mad dash to Bus No. 3 that will take me back to Calama where my car and driver await. An impressive caravan of buses leave the corporate campus with miners and other workers assigned to specific buses. Bus No. 3 is reserved for the executives, managers and other administrators and their assistants.

On the bus, I watch a movie on my laptop – I’ve been catching up with missed episodes of “Lost” – or simply plug in my iPod and go to sleep. I arrive in Calama at 9:30 p.m., home by 9:40 p.m., in bed by 11 p.m. or by midnight.

On Mondays, I teach English at the language institute with whom I have a contract to teach at Gaby. The institute is located right across the street from where I live. At the institute my students include everyone from execs to students to housewives. That breaks up the monotony of just dealing with corporate types. I walk home for lunch on those days 🙂

Since my days are long when I am at Gaby, I get three days off – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Works out great for me because I can use those perennial three-day weekends to explore the region. I’ve already gone off to San Pedro de Atacama, a small desert town I really like. Other towns reachable by bus in a matter of hours include Iquique, Antofagasta, Chui-Chui and several others worthy but not in any tourist guides.

I’ve slowly gotten used to the routine of working in Chile among Chileans. But as I sat on that bus home, looking at the mass of people on the bus, tired from a long day on the job, I think to myself, “What am I doing here? I did I get here?” This, working in Corporate Chile,  the house, the car, the dog named “Honey”, was the farthest thing from my mind. But I automatically smile and say “I like it. Just don’t get too used to it!”

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