Sewing dissent in Chile
I watched Maria Alicia embroider a stylized, typically Chilean arpillera - a tapestry. The detail she was working on was a red cloak caught in a breeze. ‘It looks like a cloak,’ she explained, ‘but really it’s blood. One day I spent hours sewing before I realized the pain I had been working into this scene. My fourteen year-old son, my youngest, was down in Valparaiso at a demonstration. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him, but I couldn’t stop him. He’s right - we have to resist, all of us. We don’t plan it, but we just sew our suffering into our work.’
There are eleven women working with Maria Alicia in a shantytown high on the hillside overlooking the bay. They are crowded round a small wooden table, embroidering tapestries and painting designs on tablecloths. Though they are bundled in worn coats and woollen scarves the women have to move back and forth to a charcoal pot to warm their fingers so they can move deftly across the designs.
‘We were desperate to earn money,’ says Elena, who is one of the organisers of the co-operative. ‘But really,’ and here she lowers her voice and her face tightens as she continues. ‘really the most important thing was to meet, to get together and talk about what’s happening in Chile. We women have to be involved in changing things. You can’t change what’s happening here without the women.
‘So we come to this hut and we sew. They can’t arrest us for having a meeting, because we are the women of the community - sewing. Do you understand? The military have an "office" in the apartment across the street. You can see it from here. They watch us all the time. But we are watching them even more closely.’
This women’s craft co-operative is a ‘development project’ and it receives backing from Western voluntary aid agencies. But it’s not what people would normally understand to be humanitarian aid. It is after all dedicated to changing the structure of life in Chile.
This is probably not the way the aid donors in Canada, or elsewhere, see things. Their letters and telephone calls carry different messages. ‘Last night on the news, I saw families sleeping on the streets, no food, no home, no work - just piles of rubble and babies crying,’ confides one caller to Oxfam-Canada* ‘I just want to help earthquake victims. But I don’t want my money to go to anything political. Are you a political organization?’
The question is understandable. Politicians, corporations and idealists are struggling over the complexities of economic and social change. Isn’t it possible to give aid without getting involved in all this. Aid organizations, however, have no option but to become involved. Every project has some kind of political effect.
Chile - and handicrafts - offer an interesting example. There are many different kinds of handicrafts projects. A totally different project, for example. is located in the lovely lake district of Southern Chile, where there are women knitting sweaters and polishing jewellery for the boutiques of Santiago, Paris and Rome. The women work individually in their homes but ample government subsidies ensure the high quality of the materials supplied to them.
The business, known as CEMA, is operated by the wife of General Augustino Pinochet, who has run Chile with an iron fist since the bloody coup of 1973. And while the craftswomen and their families do get income. the enterprise also produces publicity favourable to the regime both in Chile itself and internationally.
So both CEMA and the women’s craft co-operative improve people’s lives - in the short term. The real choice between them is political: make the situation more tolerable and give it a more presentable face, or support people who are working for change.
No development activity which is promoting change can be any more than a glimpse of a continuing process - similar to a frame cut out of a full-length movie. So let’s put the women’s craft co-operative back into that continuous film.
Chile is a country where high-rise luxury apartments and designer fashions thrive alongside dangerously overcrowded buildings and severe poverty. One out of three Chileans is out of work. As Canadian journalist, Lake Sagaris. who lives in Santiago puts it: ‘The stark brutality of the military is more than matched by the brutal economic conditions in the country. especially in the poblaciones, the slums, where millions of the poorest live.’
But Chile’s poor are not resigned to the poverty nor to the repression. And one way in which they can try to take control of their lives is through the co-operative movement. While Mrs Pinochet’s CEMA buys up large quantities of wool from an international trading group, the new co-operatives use the money they get from aid agencies to buy and distribute breeding sheep to families so they can supply their own wool. ‘The idea is to strengthen and unify all of our local organizations,’ says Isabel, who is co-ordinator of a federation of co-operatives.
The military recognise this as a political move. Any strengthening of local democracy like her are risking their lives by continuing their work. ‘We have many problems with the carabineros - the local police. To them, all members of co-operatives are "communists", They follow us in vehicles, They come to our homes and frighten us,’
The growth of independence and self-reliance is exactly what aid agencies want to invest in, This is why agencies from North America and the Netherlands are helping co operatives in the countryside to buy ploughs, fertilizer and seed potatoes - and to pay for health and nutrition workshops. Their aim is to foster change.
And change is never neutral. The assumption that aid can be neutral is as shaky as the now-discredited notion of ’value-free education’. If there were a kind of education not based upon any values, would you want it for your children? If there existed value-free aid to people in the Third World, would it be effective help’?
This is not to say that there are no projects which fit, chameleon-like, into their surroundings. These could be mistaken as neutral - they fit into the current practice, they cause no disruption and have a profile so low as to occasionally border into invisibility. But the fact that they fit so well into the system which causes poverty is clear indication that they are part of the problem and not a part of the solution.
How, for example, should outside aid be given to Chile’s education system? Should aid make up for its deficiencies or actually try to change it?
Education in Chile has traditionally been democratic. But the dramatic reduction in funding to the public schools is now excluding tens of thousands of children from decent education. Many are also excluded by poverty, because they can’t afford shoes and aren’t allowed in the classroom without them, The aid agencies could respond to this situation by giving money to the Ministry of Education - or they could give money to the churches to set up alternative schools.
But this would do nothing to affect education policy in Chile, which is effectively to starve the public system and confine education to a small and wealthy elite. Oxfam-Canada chose to support regional workshops for the newly-formed teachers association, which is working for free, quality education for all children.
The military, however, are under no illusions about the neutrality of the teachers’ approach. They regard them as working for political change and have made teachers, along with religious and labour leaders, a prime target for arrest, torture, exile and execution.
Underdevelopment is not an accident. It is the result of a complex and continuing system which works to the benefit of some people and the detriment of others. If poverty were merely the result of earthquakes or failed crops or a depressed world economy, then the solution would be to do everything possible to alleviate suffering. Many development organizations, however, now take the view that poverty is not accidental and that the best use of funds is not to alleviate suffering but to work against the creation of poverty.
This naturally produces a response from those who benefit from the existing system. A fair distribution of the world’s resources will mean the poor taking a greater share. When Chilean peasants take back their land to grow food for the community they are treading on the territory of the landlords and the foreign corporations who consider that the land could be ‘better’ used for the extraction of tin or copper. And when the poor ask for health services or education they are asking for a larger share of public funds, most of which in Chile today are used to maintain the very armed forces that keep the poor in line.
‘When I feed the poor they call me a saint,’ says Dom Helder Camara of his work in the slums of Brazil. ‘But when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.’ And this is the same response that any community group or voluntary aid agency can expect when they take the issue of poverty seriously.
Given the media’s penchant for crises, the most saleable news about underdeveloped countries is still an earthquake, a coup or a famine, We get the kind of quick, disjointed frames popularized by Sesame Street which catch our attention but don’t take it anywhere. We have to work hard to fill the spaces between the frames. What we don’t see are the people who put their lives on the line every day so that their children can have a better chance. We don’t learn about the co operatives, the teachers associations, the farmers, who are the participants in their own real and continuing dramas.
With the images that the public get of poverty in the Third World it is not surprising that they expect little more of the aid agencies than direct relief of suffering. But there are more and more churches, aid organizations and mass movements which are challenging the limits of public expectations and speaking out against injustice rather than helping the poor adjust to it. By investing money in change they have chosen to risk criticism and in some cases losing their legal charitable status. But the risk of silence is that poverty will remain an institution.
The poor aren’t interested in charity. They want justice. And they are going after it.
On a few barren acres of muddy land skirting the Santiago city core 20,000 homeless people set up a makeshift camp of tents and wooden huts. For three days they fought off local police with sticks and stones until they had claimed the land us their own. ‘Chile is ours,’ says an old man. ‘It doesn’t belong to the Dictator.’
Walking towards the centre of the camp, I noticed, stapled to the side of one of the huts, the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. A very political statement.
* There are Oxfams in several countries. Though originally launched by Oxfam in the UK, each is now a separate and independent organization with its own policies and programmes.
Mary Corkery is a staff person with Oxfam-Canada in Ontario.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7