'Newspeaking' to deaf ears

Lezak Shallat

The language of euphemism and the inversion of customary meanings is alive and well in Chile, 25 years after Nineteen Eight-Four first appeared there in Spanish.

One evening in 1983, when Chile was under military rule, three young journalists discovered that all their peers had read the same ubiquitous edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist parable (thanks, probably, to US State Department largess). But none had ever heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A search of the city’s bookstores and libraries turned up a single copy – an expurgated translation from Franco’s Spain, shorn of the appendix that coined Newspeak as a language designed to ‘make all other modes of thought impossible’.

The trio, buoyed by visions of outwitting the censors with their own samizdat manuscript, started translating. Their task: to retell Orwell’s premonitory tale in the vocabulary of Chile’s daily terrors.

Night after night, they worked beyond curfew, the staccato of the manual typewriter absorbed into the din of cacerolazos (banging on pots and pans), blasts from water canons and gunshots on the streets.

These protests led to the relaxation of certain censorship bans. The translation saw the light of day as a flimsy paperback with the cryptic title spray-painted on its cover. Booksellers braved confiscation to sell it. The year was 1984, and Orwell’s eponymous novel was finally available to a generation of Chileans already schooled in its significance.

Newspeak Redux

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and almost two decades since the end of military rule here. But Orwellian manipulation of language did not disappear with the dictatorship. Rather, it has been extended and deepened during Chile’s ‘transition’ to democracy, evolving to reflect – and shape – the times.

The masterminds of this lexical makeover are not the political tyrants of yesteryear. They are the architects of Chile’s economic orthodoxy. Newspeak is the lingua franca of their neoliberal mindset. Its aim, like its Orwellian prototype, is to make alternative modes of thought unimaginable.

Terms like ‘class struggle’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘equality’ have been erased from the political lexicon. Take the disappearance of el pueblo (the people) – a rallying cry that has fuelled Latin American revolutionary dreams and leftist culture for generations. Pueblo has been replaced by gente, or ‘folks’ – a term with genteel connotations that also works well as the name of a glossy high-society magazine. 

Newspeak is the _lingua franca_ of the neoliberal mindset. Its aim, like its Orwellian prototype, is to make alternative modes of thought unimaginable

The obvious rationale for this substitution is to dissipate the ideological echoes of pueblo. But a closer look uncovers a more Orwellian Newspeak dimension. Pueblo, like people, comes from the Latin populus, the citizens who possess civic-political responsibilities and rights as members of an organized community. Gente comes from genus, for family or tribe. If gente expels pueblo from political discourse, the possibility of debate concerning people’s rights will also be silenced.

Lingua comoediae chilensis (‘the Chilean language farce’) is the name that author Luis Casado gives to this new political idiom1. It is a language intended to hide, not describe, the real world, and replace reality with the vocabulary of ideological expediency.

As salaried jobs get axed, legions of domestic servants, field hands, street hawkers and other labourers are transformed into self-employed ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ whose health and pensions benefits come out of their own pockets. In the vocabulary of neolengua (Newspeak), when an entrepreneur builds a clinic, it is hailed as an ‘investment’. But when the Government builds a hospital, it is regarded as ‘social expenditure’, tinged in red ink on the wrong side of the accounting ledger.

Thus, Chile’s much-touted economic ‘miracle’ has slashed the numbers of the country’s poor by redefining the way that poverty is measured. It is recast as a ‘situation of social risk’ and the poor are subsumed into ‘socioeconomic groups’, classified by purchasing power and access to loans. In this economy, no-one is too poor to consume on credit. To paraphrase Big Brother, Indebtedness is Democracy.

Deaf ears

On 13 December, Chileans go to the polls to elect a new President. The front-running candidates are Eduardo Frei Jr, former President and son of a President, bearing the standard of the ruling centre-left Concertación coalition; Sebastián Piñera, billionaire owner of the national airline and a TV station, making a second Presidential bid from the centre-right Alianza; and Socialist Party breakaway Marco Enriquez-Ominami, son of a slain revolutionary hero, running as an independent. Should no candidate receive an absolute majority (the most likely scenario), a run-off election will be held in mid-January. The successor to current President Michelle Bachelet will take office in March 2010.

The youth vote could easily determine the election outcome. But only one out of five Chileans between the ages of 18 and 29 is registered to vote, and some 2.3 million under-30s will stay away from the polls. 

The reason: ‘No estoy ni allí’ (‘I couldn’t care less’). This is not another euphemism but the plainspoken answer that most young people give for turning their backs on political parties and refusing to vote. The current political parlance of image over reality doesn’t speak to them.

Nor does it speak to millions of other Chileans squeezed out by the language of economic orthodoxy and then erased by its circumlocutions. Another language is needed to reach the pueblo that those in power have ceased to name. Newspeak retains its hold as the language of power, but increasingly, fewer are willing to listen. Big Brother may not get the final word, after all.

Lezak Shallat and two friends translated Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into Spanish for publication in Chile in 1984. She still lives there, working as a freelance translator and writer.

  • Lingua Comoediae Chilensis, Editorial el afilador, March 2009, Paris, France.
  • Confucius goes to Chile

    Perched on a hill in the fashionable coastal town of Viña del Mar – adjoining the port city of Valparaíso – is Chile’s first Confucius Institute. It overlooks a cluster of buildings that could symbolize Chile’s long march towards globalization: the German School; the sprawling Jumbo supermarket (whose arch-rival Lider was recently acquired by US-based WalMart); and the Universidad Santo Tomás, the first Chilean university with a campus in China.

    Inside the Confucius Institute red paper lanterns, shiny new texts and teachers who never stop smiling exude the spirit of determined optimism essential to learning Mandarin in a city so lacking in Chinese culture that there’s no place to eat a decent plate of Peking Duck.

    Chile was the first country outside Asia to sign a free trade agreement with China and the Andean nation is positioning itself as a platform for Chinese investment in Latin America. No wonder, then, that Chileans are flocking to Chinese language classes.

    There are now two Confucius Institutes spreading the word in Chile. Another has just opened in Santiago, the nation’s capital. The Institute here at Universidad Santo Tomás (UST) opened in April 2008. On the first day of class in this April semester I am the first to arrive. Three Chinese instructors greet me. They get right to work, cajoling me into repeating Ni Hao (Hello), Ni Hao Ma (How are you today?), Xiexie (Thank You) – gateways to polite intercultural exchange. The head teacher is so effusive in appreciation that I feel sorry to tell her that I am only visiting.

    Three first-year students arrive and the real work begins. After 50 minutes of baffling tones and characters I wonder whether Confucius had penned the Chinese adage: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’

    Chinese philosophy, however, is not what this trio seeks. They want to become chefs and they believe that Chinese language skills and cuisine can spice up their careers.

    The second-year students are more appreciative of Chinese culture. The folk dances and tea ceremonies on the Institute’s calendar are aimed at expanding their cultural horizons beyond acupuncture and martial arts. But new students are mainly interested in learning Chinese for its future economic benefits, according to the Institute’s director, Lifen Sun.

    Former UST owner Gerardo Rocha shared that interest. When he invited the Confucius Institute to Viña del Mar, his sights were fixed on profits across the Pacific Ocean. His UST educational empire, with schools in 13 Chilean cities and alliances in 33 countries, opened its first campus in China in 2007 at the Anhui University.

    Rocha did not live to fulfill his ambition to ‘set up 100 universities in China’. In a bizarre incident, he died last year whilst murdering his wife’s lover.

    But his words still resound in the Confucius Institute’s classrooms: ‘Free from suspicion and formalities that hinder rather than help, we will be friends once we get to know one another. And this will smoothly evolve into doing business.’

    The question is whether this business will be two-way. ‘In the future, Chile will be full of Chinese,’ predicts student Camila Santibañez. ‘Just look at all the new businesses opening up in Valparaíso.’

    Lezak Shallat – a regular contributor to the New Internationalist – is a freelance journalist who has lived in Chile since the 1980s.

    Dust-up over mine

    An email circling the world has conferred upon the pristine waters of Chile’s San Felix Valley the unlikely status of urban legend. While there is nothing even remotely urban about this oasis of vineyards and olive groves, it lies downstream from an undertaking of legendary scale – the proposed Pascua Lama gold mine.

    Local residents liken the mine’s 18.3 million ounces (570 tonnes) of gold – worth some $9.5 billion at today’s record prices – to El Dorado, the mythical New World treasure that lured rapacious _conquistadores_ on crazed quests to strike it rich by vanquishing nature.

    Pascua Lama first grabbed world attention when Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation unveiled its audacious plan to ‘relocate’ three glaciers in order to get at the ore below. The ice fields, located between Andean peaks at 4,600 metres above sea level, provide water to the towns and valleys at the edge of the Atacama desert.

    Chilean environmental authorities later approved a revised plan on condition that the Canadian company steers clear of the glaciers. While Barrick says it has now been through ‘one of the most rigorous approval processes in Chile’s history’ and that it will have to adhere to ‘stringent commitments and controls’ to protect water resources, its modified plan has not mollified opposition. Environmentalists and local community leaders fear that the mine will have a devastating effect on the fragile eco-system of the Huasco province, downstream.

    Pascua Lama’s massive open pit will use a cyanide-based leaching process to separate minerals from crushed rubble. Tailings contain poisonous metals like arsenic, mercury and lead, which can contaminate groundwater. Francisco Bou’s third-generation family winery uses water from mountain streams to distill _pisco_, the local brandy. He slams the Huasco Water Users Co-operative, to which he belongs, for agreeing to a $60 million deal with Barrick to shore up irrigation and monitor water quality. ‘The farmers are selling out,’ he says. ‘They are putting the future of this valley at risk for a short-term golden fix.’

    The mine will straddle the Chile-Argentina border, 150 kilometres southeast of Vallenar (Chile) and 300 kilometres northwest of San Juan (Argentina). It is the world’s first bi-national mining project, made possible by a 1997 treaty that critics say effectively cedes sovereignty to Barrick, the world’s largest gold producer. Construction of the $1.5 billion mine is scheduled to start late this year.

    Surely gold mine proponents had hoped that by sidestepping the glaciers, public outcry would melt away. Instead, the opposition has broadened its sights, and new groups are emerging in response to the dispute. The mine has become a rallying point against a development model that critics say lures foreign investment with lucrative economic incentives and lax environmental controls. In Chile a straw poll conducted by a local newspaper revealed that just two per cent of the 28,000 votes cast welcomed the gold rush.

    Opponents are reaching across the Andes to activists on the Argentine flank, where municipal authorities have twice blocked a referendum on the future of mining. Pascua Lama is also being firmly drawn into the international campaigning movement to clean up gold mining. A recent International Day Against Transnationals and Pascua Lama mobilized protesters in Barcelona and London with the battle cry: ‘Water is more precious than gold.’

    Lezak Shallat.
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    Give them credit

    Photo by Lezak Shallat

    Gimnasia bancaria – bank gymnastics – is a widespread exercise-routine and a legitimate excuse to arrive late to any mid-morning meeting in Chile. It involves something that can quickly work up a sweat – juggling funds between accounts. And its popularity flows from the bank and department store credits that are allowing almost anyone to live beyond his or her means.

    Many people no longer view debt as a repayable, finite concept but as a permanent condition akin to indentured servitude. The combination of low salaries and high monthly payments is breeding a frightened workforce living off tomorrow’s earnings.

    Typical of the architecture in any mid-sized Chilean city is the central Plaza de Armas – several bank clusters adorned with a battery of ATM machines, armed guards and lofty, interchangeable names like ‘Development’, ‘Investment’ and ‘Security’. Within driving distance are those glass and chrome temples of the consumer society – the malls. Yet while only a small segment of the populace has money to burn, Chile’s malls are churning with people waiting for their chance to partake of the feast.

    Hemmed in by high-rises branded in neon, choking under a blanket of smog, Santiago, the capital, is the hub of this frenzy. The city’s magnificent Andean backdrop disappears behind a forest of billboards selling shampoos, mobile phones, banks, beers and cigarettes. Poverty here used to be more threadbare. Today it is cluttered with plastic. Food and a roof no longer define the minimum. Most people would also include as necessities a mobile phone and a TV – connectivity that can be purchased by instalment.

    It is easy – indeed tempting – to confuse this consumption with participation. Or maybe the market can somehow transform shoppers into citizens who don’t feel marginalized and instead identify with modernity and progress.

    Micaela, a chatty woman from the countryside, spent 28 years on this earth without a telephone before buying two mobiles – one for herself and the other for her large family back on the farm. Then the phone company offered her a landline. Never mind that she didn’t need it and had already run up large unpaid bills on the two phones she already had, both of which had been cut off for non-payment. For Mica, the telephones were powerful symbols of having arrived at a new level of social and cultural attainment.

    Consumed by consumption

    Most people don’t earn enough money to pay for the consumer lifestyles being dangled before their eyes on TV screens, billboards, newspapers, mobile phones and laptops. To feed the shopping binge, they look to that universal token of membership in the consumer society: the humble credit card. Department store credit cards (and, increasingly, department store banks) cater to the low-income customers whom banks may refuse. Monthly payments with a slab of plastic are the way that 50 per cent of Chileans usually pay for their goods.

    ‘I consider it a success if I get through the month without adding to my bills, let alone pay them off. And that’s just the basics, like food and rent,’ says Marcela, a teacher.

    Marcela is not alone. A November 2005 report by the governmental regulatory agency Superintendencia that included a survey of 1.9 million bank clients, found that bank debtors on average spend 20 per cent of their monthly incomes in paying off consumer loan balances equivalent to 7.5 months of salary. The report concludes: ‘At the lower income levels, financial charges appear extreme, especially considering that housing, education and other expenses that can be an important part of disposable income, are not taken into account [in these loan repayments].’

    Debt is a national household malaise. Four out of ten Chilean workers ‘suffer’— in terms ranging from ‘worry’ to ‘desperation’ — over repaying their debts, reports a recent study by a Santiago business school. Half hold doubts as to whether they will escape the burden of payments and loans.

    Poverty here used to be more threadbare. Today it is cluttered with plastic

    So why overspend and get into debt in the first place? For a start, it’s impossible to ignore the marketing blitz for banking services. The best TV ads feature charming losers in debt up to their ears, and darling children asking Daddy for gifts. There’s easy credit for students, and even easier credit for young singles who hearken to the ads’ seductive cries of ‘Me! Now!’

    And there are other reasons. For many people, consumption is a substitute for affection – a consolation for the vortex of modern urban life. Some people shop to fill a void; others to create one.

    ‘It’s all about envy and outdoing the next guy,’ thinks Manuela Gajardo, a shopkeeper in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. ‘It’s amazing how far out on the edge some people will go to trump their neighbour’s mobile phone.’

    Ignacio Larraechea, director of the Center for Business Services of Santiago’s Universidad Central, explains it in terms of arriviste anxiety and the ‘colossal’ disparities in wages created by the economic model: the poorest 10 per cent receive under 2 per cent of income and consumption while the richest 10 per cent take home 47 per cent.

    Statistics like this are often hidden by Chile’s outward appearance. Across the region, the country is viewed as an economic tiger, a trendsetter and a model of successful neoliberal economic policies – a triumph of the open market, foreign capital and privatization. With its fiscal sobriety and record-breaking copper bonanza, the economic health of the country appears sound.

    Which is more than can be said for the financial and credit health of its consumers.

    Lezak Shallat

    Journalist *Lezak Shallat* has lived in Chile since 1982.


    Donned spontaneously by thousands of young women streaming into downtown Santiago to celebrate the electoral victory of Michelle Bachelet on 15 January 2006, Chile’s tri-coloured presidential sash suddenly became the fashion statement of a generation.

    Bachelet, a 54-year-old former health and defence minister, handily beat her opponent to become the first woman elected to govern Chile. And while their platforms were barely distinguishable – jobs, social welfare, market-oriented economic growth and global integration – the contenders starkly epitomize two contrasting faces of contemporary Chile. On the one hand there was the Harvard-trained billionaire entrepreneur from the political right, espousing his Catholic faith and traditional family values. On the other there was the public health paediatrician and socialist militant, professed agnostic and single mother of three, who had once been detained in a torture centre and later exiled.

    Bachelet belongs to the centre-left _Concertación_ coalition that has governed Chile for 16 years, since the end of military rule in 1990. The recent elections also swept its candidates into a Congressional majority, allowing the new President a running start on her pledge to increase spending on social welfare. Pension reform is high on her agenda, as are improvements to public education and health services.

    During his six-year term, outgoing President Ricardo Lagos kept the business élites happy, signing no less than half a dozen free trade agreements. Concessions for roadways, utilities and other public infrastructure not already privatized by his predecessors were sold to the highest bidder. In one of his farewell appearances, Lagos reaped almost as much applause as Bono in a U2 concert in Chile’s infamous National Stadium, site of deaths and detentions following General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup.

    Pinochet, now 90, bequeathed to Chile what may be his final ignominy when US banking authorities uncovered his personal fortune of at least $27 million stashed in secret accounts. Indicted on charges of tax evasion and false passports, he’s been in and out of house arrest for ongoing murder and torture investigations and is more likely to die than be sentenced.

    Far from the political turmoil and brutal repression of the 1970s and 1980s, today’s Chile is peaceful, democratic and prosperous – for the privileged. But this narrow strip of land between the Pacific and the Andes, spanning deserts and icebergs, has social and economic inequalities as extreme as its geography.

    In Santiago’s ubiquitous skyscrapers and shopping malls, modernity and wealth are everywhere to be seen. An estimated seven million mobile phones out-chirp the birds; car alarms are the new national anthem. It’s easy to be blinded by the glitter and the glass into seeing the sheen of success reflected across the social spectrum.

    But behind Chile’s reputation as a Latin American economic tiger is an income distribution so skewed that it ranks among the worst in world, in the same league as Namibia, Brazil and South Africa.

    Around a million Chileans earn the minimum wage of $225 a month. Not that a full-time job guarantees an exit from poverty: in this nation of runaway consumer credit, personal indebtedness is more widespread than malnutrition, and even the pizza parlours offer slices by instalment.

    Popular movements are more quiescent than restive these days, product, some believe, of the consumer culture: the ‘haves’ are consumed by consuming and the ‘have-nots’ are consumed by survival. The revolutionary transformations that inspired so many to fight for freedom and democracy in the past are being carried out by new and re-emerging social actors, including environmentalists, urban cyclists, women, university students, indigenous rights activists and the indomitable poor.

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