Inicio / Home arrow 2006 - 2007 arrow Volumen 17: 1 arrow Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002.
Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002. Imprimir E-Mail

PETER WINN (ed.), Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

If the myth of “The Chilean Miracle” is dying a slow death (among academics, at least), then Peter Winn’s edited volume Victims of the Chilean Miracle is akin to an anxious and skillful gravedigger. For three decades economists and political figures in and outside Chile have touted the neo-liberal economic reforms put in place by the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) and the so-called Chicago Boys—young Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. Even Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, a strong critic of the “Chicago School,” neo-liberal economics in the developing world, and corporate-led globalization, identified Chile, in 2002, as what amounted to a neoliberal success story in a region replete with neo-liberal catastrophes.

Macro-economic statistics compiled during the Pinochet regime and during the subsequent democratic governments of Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos are good enough to impress nearly everyone. However, Winn’s volume directs our attention away from such things as GDP (a gauge that does not adequately depict the social depth of economic wellbeing) and toward what happened to Chilean workers in a few key sectors of the country’s export economy during the period 1973 to 2002. In short, this collection of essays by Winn, Volker Frank, Joel Stillerman, Thomas Miller Klubock, Heidi Tinsman and Rachel Schurman not only questions whether workers benefited from the boom but also argues that the miracle came at a high social price.

Winn opens the book with a clear and concise account of the Pinochet regime’s economic program and its treatment of labor. As Winn explains, labor organizations were destroyed, outlawed or severely limited during the 1970s and decree-laws reshaped employer-employee relations in ways that increased employer flexibility, decreased job security for workers, and reduced labor costs. Chile’s economic collapse from late 1981 to 1982 made workers’ lives even more difficult, as the industrial sector shriveled, bankruptcies multiplied, unemployment and inflation soared and real wages fell dramatically. Economic “recovery” by 1985, brought on by a devalued peso and other reforms that broke from the orthodox neo-liberal rulebook, did not manage to save the regime. Opposition political groups began to reorganize in the mid-1980s, the labor movement found new boldness, and the plebiscite of 1988 gave hope to millions of Chileans seeking the return of democracy. But, as Winn and other historians in this volume point out, workers and the labor movement still experienced the tribulations and limitations of “neo-liberal democracy” after the fall of Pinochet.

Among the book’s interesting and insightful essays are those by Schurman, who deals with workers in the ever-important fisheries sector, and Tinsman, who focuses on female agricultural workers. Schurman’s essay describes the building of an export-oriented fishing sector that now employs some 200,000 Chilean workers. Specifically, Schurman’s subjects are the fishermen, seafood-processing workers and salmon farm workers in the Lakes Region. What began as a wild fisheries boom (with rather low wages) during the 1970s and 80s in the country’s south became, by the early 1990s, an industry fueled by farmed salmon and, due to a tight labor market, one in which wages improved. However, competition in the international marketplace and high production costs during the late 1990s motivated salmon producers to lay off workers, and the Asian financial crisis, which affected the Chilean economy in no small way, made matters worse. Unemployment in the fisheries region nearly doubled between 1999 and 2002. Real wages increased by only 6 percent between 1997 and 2001, while the salmon industry’s output nearly doubled during the same period. Moreover, the harsh working conditions faced by both male and female fishermen and seafood-processing workers as well as “nature’s agency,” as Schurman puts it, clarify just how exposed these workers have been and still are to the constant shifts in a pivotal export sector of Chile’s neo-liberal economy.

Tinsman’s essay begins by questioning the tendency within existing scholarship to cast female agricultural workers as passive and complicit victims of neo-liberalism. As Tinsman notes, “However unwittingly, this view [that women are principally victims] builds on the notion that men are somehow sturdier that women when it comes to weathering extreme exploitation or that it is more appalling to underpay or overwork women than men” (p.264). Tinsman proposes an alternative framework for dealing with questions of gender, work and authoritarianism—one that focuses on the complicated and contradictory impact that agricultural work had on women’s lives. Indeed, Tinsman argues that not all changes in the lives of women amounted to exploitation. Although neoliberalism brought many hardships to the Chilean countryside, women gained bargaining power, lessened their dependence on men and took advantage of new apertures to become leaders in activist struggles against employers and the military regime.

This volume will appeal to historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists and activists interested in labor, gender, authoritarianism, policy, neo-liberalism and globalization. The collection, quite simply, is strong from cover to cover, although readers may wonder what happened (and is happening) to workers outside the more conspicuous sectors under consideration by the authors, namely agriculture, fisheries, forestry, textiles, mining and metalworking. It would have been interesting to learn something about neo-liberalism’s impact on, say, street peddlers and domestic servants. This reviewer also would have enjoyed reading a rigorous essay in defense of neo-liberalism and employer-employee relations during the Pinochet and post-Pinochet periods—perhaps written by someone in the Chilean government. There would probably have been simply too many potential contributors from which to choose.


Patrick Barr-Melej Iowa State University


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