20 Year David and Goliath Fist Fight Saves Patagonia’s Futaleufu

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Endesa sought to build two dams on the Futaleufu that would capture its water for energy generation while inundating the river’s spectacular landscapes—the 800-megawatt La Cuesta facility nine miles from the village of Puerto Ramirez and the 400-megawatt Los Coihues dam across Inferno Canyon at the gateway to the river’s prime whitewater.

The picturesque farming communities above that dam would have drowned beneath 75 feet of water; mountainous rapids below the dam would survive only in the memories of those lucky enough to have experienced the unbridled river. The Spanish company hoped to sell the power from these installations to Argentina, or otherwise up north through Chile using a massive transmission line that was never built.

In a statement to the Chilean government, Endesa tabulated the factors behind its decision as:

“the high annual cost for the company to maintain water rights without using them”
the technical and economic difficulties facing the damming project
and, most notably, the lack of “sufficient support from local communities”
Fierce local opposition caused Endesa, two years ago, to suspend immediate plans to dam the Futaleufu, which has one dam near its headwaters in Argentina but flows free for 65 miles through Chile. Trapped between unyielding popular resistance and the escalating costs of its water rights, Endesa abandoned the project altogether. Endesa said its decision represents a $52-million haircut for its shareholders.

“This is an extraordinary triumph for Patagonia,” said Patrick Lynch, staff attorney and international director at Futaleufu Riverkeeper. “The victory belongs to a half dozen activist groups composed of local farmers, river guides, fishermen and outfitters, and to the thousands of river lovers around the world and the international environmental groups who supported the community fighting the dam.”

Reflecting on the long battle, Lynch told me, “It was always such an unlikely coalition. And yet this community won a bruising 20 year David and Goliath fist fight. We beat back an all-powerful international utility company that owned this river for more than 20 years. Now we need legal reforms to put an end to a corrupt system that still reward damming rivers for profit.”

The Futaleufu played a symbolic role in Chile’s struggles to restore her democracy, still reeling from two decades of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. “Pinochet’s regime was old school European corporatism,” the Chilean environmental and human rights activist, Juan Pablo Orrego, explained to me in 1993 soon after Pinochet left power. “He followed Mussolini’s scheme to merge state and corporate power and that meant handing Chile’s publicly owned natural resources—including our rivers—over to private corporations.”

Every tyranny includes efforts by powerful interests to privatize the public commons, but Pinochet’s regime turned the ideology of privatization into a religion. In what is now regarded as a cataclysmically failed social experiment in voodoo economics, Pinochet turned Chile over to a group of right wing theoretical economists from the University of Chicago, entrusting them with authoritarian control over virtually every aspect of economic life in Chile.

These acolytes of “free market” guru Milton Friedman, the so called “Chicago Boys,” used their unlimited power to impose a barbaric austerity on Chile’s poor and middle classes. They slashed taxes on the rich and corporations, discarded vital subsidies for fuel, school milk and other food staples, eviscerated labor unions, cut education and healthcare, and repealed environmental, financial and trade regulations. In an orgy of privatization, they auctioned off Chile’s public assets—including her roads, airports, airlines, telephone and electric utilities, her waterways and forests to multinational corporations at fire sale prices. “They literally liquidated our commonwealth for cash,” Orrego observed. “They obliterated Chile’s public spaces.” Pinochet’s henchmen gave away every Chilean river to private companies for damming.

These anti-democratic reforms were naturally unpopular with many Chileans, and Pinochet jailed, tortured and killed his program’s critics, murdering 3,000 dissenters, imprisoning 20,000 and forcing another 200,000 into exile.

My family has had a long history of friendship with Chile. In the early 1960s, Chile’s leftist democratic president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, became the closest Latin American ally of my uncle, President John Kennedy. Frei helped craft the blueprint for JFK’s Alliance for Progress. Both men hoped the “Alianza” would break the strangle hold of Latin America’s oligarchies who presided over feudal economies characterized by vast gulfs between rich and poor.

The oligarchs protected their wealth and privilege through seamless relationships with the military caudillos who ruled their nations with brutal dictatorship. That ruling coalition fortified itself in symbiotic relationships with all-powerful U.S. multinationals like Anaconda Copper, United Fruit, IT&T and Standard Oil, to whom the local oligarchs ceded their nations’ natural resources in exchange for a share of the profits. These colonial style arrangements gave the oligarchs unimaginable wealth and power, kept their people in desperate poverty and gave rise to a new derisive sobriquet for these countries, the “Banana Republic.”

Prior to JFK, U.S. foreign policy was to nurture these powerful oligarchies which unctuously served the mercantile interests of American corporations. But these policies, for JFK, represented a stark departure from American values—including our national anti-colonial heritage—and caused appalling injustice and poverty that was easily exploited by communist revolutionaries. Frei and Kennedy designed the alliance as a suite of reforms to rebuild Latin America as a collection of just, democratic, middle class societies. Chile, the continent’s beacon of middle class stability, democracy and freedom would be the template.

My father’s first public break with President Lyndon Johnson following JFK’s assassination was over Johnson’s subversion of the alliance. My father believed that the new U.S. president had abandoned the alliance’s idealistic goals and returned U.S. policy to its historical role of supporting the oligarchs and fostering corporate colonialism.

In 1964, my father infuriated Johnson by visiting Chile and advising its intellectuals and government officials to nationalize the U.S. oil and mining interests that were robbing the nation’s natural wealth. My father engaged in a heated debate with communist students at the University of Concepcion who showered him with spit, eggs and other missiles. He then made a harrowing trip headfirst into the depths of an Atacama copper mine on a tiny sled to meet with beleaguered miners. He returned to the surface to chastise the dismayed mine owner for mistreating his workers.

Just after dawn on the morning of June 29, 1973, I found myself with four others, including New York Times reporter Blake Fleetwood, on a remote Andean ridge near Chile’s frontier with Argentina earnestly digging in the deep snow to escape a hail of gunfire from half a dozen carabineros crouched in the valley 100 meters below us. The squadron had pursued us from the nearby military base as we climbed on sealskins for a day of backcountry skiing. Believing we were trying to escape across the border, they soon captured and detained us. The nation was on high alert. Unbeknownst to us, a tank battalion, that morning, had launched a coup against the regime of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende.

~~~  MAS  ~~~

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