Lecciones de Chile: Las Tomas de Terrano

By C.R.

May 1, 2020

In Latin America, there is a rich history of popular resistance to capitalist and colonial domination of the political economy. For nearly 3 years in the early 1970’s, the working and peasant classes of Chilean continued that legacy, and paved the way to a more equitable, and post-scarcity society. When Salvador Allende came to power with help from the popular front, the movement of the people was already at a gallop towards land reform and taking strides to appropriate land and buildings for themselves. The landless and poor had begun to seize unused lots, abandoned warehouses, and other properties left neglected by the big business owners, and petite bourgeois landowners. The people renovated these previously unused properties into community bases from where trade unions and other organizations involved in the Popular Front would rally and organize the peasant and working classes. For all the individuals, parents and children involved in the land seizures, the campamentos represented a reprieve from houselessness and deprivation. For the students and activists involved, the campamentos were an advancement in the revolutionary positioning of the country.

These “Campamentos” or shanty towns were not just housing and education centers, they were militant bases for organizing against the capitalist system. The Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario utilized their ties in the shanty towns to struggle ideologically with the “old left” in the trade unions like the CUT (Central Unica de Trabajadores) or FEC (Federacion de la Universidad Concepcion). The Campamentos were considered the capitol of revolutionary politics for Chile. By the early 70’s, many popular Latin American figures such as Fidel Castro and Miguel Enriquez delivered stump speeches, attended conferences, and participated in the people’s congress assemblies in the campamentos (Resumen). The people utilized their power to draw focus away from the capitalist legislative infrastructure, by building dual power they eventually used the people’s assemblies to craft new laws and began remaking society in their image.

Popular political identity is not uni-lateral. The urban poor claim many identities, from workers and union members to voters, family members, neighbors, and it is very important to understand that this progress was not made by the concerted efforts of leftists of any caliber, but rather by the masses acting in their interest. At times, the left put the cart before the horse and pushed for changes that were so radical and that the masses were unprepared for. This predilection for left-oppurtunism sealed the fate of the revolutionary left in Chile, and by the end of the fascist dictatorship, many MIRistas, syndicalistas, popular leaders were murdered, the movement was routed. I will be discussing the contradictions in Chilean society that produced the conditions that motivated the masses, and the power of the masses united in their interests.

Liberal regimes such as Eduardo Frei Montalva of the Christian Democrats consistently failed to address major contradictions in Chilean society. Seeking to provide housing, the Christian Democrats implemented policies from the Desarrollo Social De America Latina, but this ivory tower institution was far removed from reality and no amount of slow paced, tedious reform could solve the homelessness crisis. Many activists and contemporary authors point out the same socioeconomic circumstances are still a driving issue today. The rapid urbanization of the 60’s and 70’s brought on, the largely ignored massive inequality of income, as well as low quality of life for the impoverished of Chile. ( Edward Murphy 69)

One significant portion of the total population of destechados were from immigrant back grounds. Migrant status was another point of contention as it is in imperialist nations such as the USA. The colonial capitalist society they wished to integrate into rejected their needs because these people migrated from the countryside to the city, with a different attitude and culture. In the 1960s-70s hundreds of thousands of campesinos made their way into the industrial zones and began to seize unused land, “by 1970 the toma de terreno had become part of a well scripted repertoire of action by pobladores in Chile. As state development strategies turned concepcion province into an industrial center in the mid 20th century, region experienced rapid influx of migrants” (Schlotterbeck 64) Like the American industrial revolution nearly 100 years prior, a huge mass of humanity uprooted from a rural lifestyle to improve their lives but they did not arrive at the “Chilean Dream”. Their destination was the spare rooms of relatives or in cramped quarters in slums, both Schlotterbeck and Murphy describe an objectively low quality of life without plumbing, electricity, or any of the amenities that an American observer would consider rudimentary and a necessity for life. The residents of the city were openly hostile to the newcomers, and they faced increased stigma for their homeless status.

While not all of the people who participated in land takeovers came from the same background, one commonality they could all claim as common was their stigma. There was tremendous stigma attached to landless status; one director of a neighborhood committee made this plea to the minister of housing and urbanism: ‘senor ministro, excuse our frankness, but when some families don’t have a meter of their own land, people often say that they are naked, beggars, without morals or honor’ this follows these families into political representation, and in the economy in search of jobs. (Murphy 74) Ownership definition excluded renters, adults who live with family or fictive kinfolks, and squatters. These people were labelled poblaciónes callampas (fungus population), they lived without basic amenities in their homes such as potable water or electricity, and proper land titles. In these conditions many faced the added oppression of being a racial or ethnic minority, plus the other spurious discrimination common to colonial states such as sexism, and homophobia. The government used the stigma to justify attempts “sanear” or “sanitizing” the neighborhoods these people lived in, by attempting to destroy shoddily crafted scrap metal dwellings. This along with a sense among Chileans of what constituted a proper home (Chilean Dream), encouraged the urban poor in these conditions to organize for their defense which lead to improvements to their conditions and the iconic Campamento. 

Given the intense stigma, the people were often at a disadvantage when attempting to fulfill their needs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Understanding the difficulty, the “población callampa” faced with securing healthcare, electricity, safety, it is no wonder they took it upon themselves to deliver it. The people of the shanty town didn’t decide to become a base of revolutionary activity overnight, among the people of the shanty towns were students and MIRistas who guided people offering aid as well as knowledge for the projects that they simply sought to take care of the needs that the government failed to fulfill, “los pobladores se dieron su propia organización, construyeron su policlínico gratuito, su centro cultural, su escuela República Popular China, el tatami, sistema de defensa del campamento, su propia justicia y un sistema altamente organizado de autogobierno.” (Resumen) Building their own hospital, their own school, and system to defend from government forces out of necessity due to a lack of provision or outright hostility from the established Chilean capitalist bourgeois government. This is in line with Murphy’s discussion of a Popular ideology, that included the desire for a home, and the amenities needed to operate it. The Chilean people did not seek out or coax the leftists into attending them, the revolutionary movement found a home amongst the everyday Chilean struggling to get by, and life a fulfilling life.

The consensus from these writers, is that a large swath of the Chilean urban population existed in this underclass. Boris Schmeisser adds more qualitative and quantitative data in El movimiento de pobladoresen el Gran Santiago: Las tomas de sitiosy organizaciones en los campamentos 1970-1973. Schmeisser crunches numbers and is able to synthesize statistical figures to represent the lives of the poor working class. “Según el censo de población y vivienda de 1970 en el Gran Santiago habitaban 3.230.790 personas, de las cuales 2.272.826 residían en zonas urbanas de la capital. Así los más de 500 mil pobladores que habitaron en campamentos hacia 1973 equivalían a casi el 20% del total y a cerca del 25% de la población urbana de Santiago” (Schmeisser 139). The data shows how widespread the aforementioned conditions were. It illustrates that this was not some small segment of society or a homogenous population. It was not an insignificant population on the fringe, but it was actually the majority of working families made to live in the margins.

The Government of Chile at the time was not aware of seriousness of the housing issue, nor were they capable of providing housing for approximately 60,000 families. Schmeisser in the same work mentions the way that land seizures could accurately report the number of people taking part in the collective action initially and kept track of the population as the campamento was settled safely. Contrasting the governments success figures, “Un mes después, según (Government agencies report on campamentos), el Minvu registraba 54.710 familias en 312 campamentos, y, según El Mercurio, el Programa Habitacional de Emergencia del gobierno ubicaba la cifra en 60.000 familias, es decir, hacia mediados de 1971 el número de familias que habrían habitado en los campamentos era de entre 54 y 60 mil” (Schmeisser 138). These figures dwarfed the expectations and projected figures of the government’s programs. This was felt by all of Chilean society, we can safely suppose this was a major propaganda tool for the working class and spurred greater growth of campamentos in the similarly plighted areas in Chile’s cities.

It is evident that the compounding factors of societal stigma against houseless people, the discrimination against migrants, the unreliability of the bourgeois state to pursue working class interests culminated into a push for land takeovers. The people drove at their issues themselves, and conscientiously put aside differences to unite and fight for the dream that they had been sold. The mainstream of Chilean society invented a metaphysical depiction of Chilean life that created a largely unattainable standard for the masses. Given the subjective conditions imposed by the rich, and the concrete objective conditions of their reality, people approached the contradiction and overturned it themselves. Ultimately the reactionary forces in the country united around the fascist dictatorship that followed Allende, but for a brief moment in the early 70’s, it looked as though for the people advancement of their socio-economic position was entirely in their hands, and they were posed to strike back at the imported colonial rule. Sadly, the masses were misled, but their power remains, waiting for the guidance of a truly revolutionary movement to emerge again and claim what the workers of the world are owed!


Barría, Felipe Sánchez. 2018. “La Criminalización De La Protesta En El Sur Austral De Chile. Los Propietarios Agrícolas De La Provincia De Llanquihue En La Reforma Agraria De La Unidad Popular, 1970-1973.” Cuadernos de Historia 48 (June): 127–59. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=130507308&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Murphy, Edward. “In and Out of the Margins: Urban Land Seizures and Homeownership in Santiago, Chile.” In Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, edited by Brodwyn Fischer, Bryan McCann, and Javier Auyero, 68–101. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ecn&AN=1523220&site=eds-live&scope=site.

“Presentamos Video Sobre La Historia Del Campamento Lenin.” Resumen.cl, Periódico Resumen, 3 Sept. 2015, resumen.cl/articulos/presentamos-video-sobre-la-historia-del-campamento-lenin.

Schlotterbeck, Marian E. [VNV]. Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile. University of California Press, 2018. http://bibliotecadigital.academia.cl/bitstream/handle/123456789/1588/ElMovimientoDePobladoresEnElGranSantiago.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y