Part II: Land Reform and the MIR

By Norman Gall

September 1972

In Chile, agriculture contributes around 11 per cent of the domestic product and employs about a quarter of the economically active population... -Chilean agriculture is characterized by a notorious incapacity to raise its technical standards and improve the living conditions of the population it employs. Over the last two decades, Chile has been facing a serious dilemma: whether to wait until the rural population has completely drifted away from the land, which in the long term would force land­owners to raise their technical levels, or whether to bring about planned reform of the agrarian struc­ture. The first option would mean a bottleneck in agricultural production that would hamper devel­opment and reduce the possibilities of creating new urban employment, thus increasing the likelihood that the population migrating to the cities would suffer a process of social degradation. The second solution would en tail a fall in agricultural produc­tion over a prolonged period unless it were pre­ceded by thorough technical preparation and could be given substantial financial backing. (From Celso Furtado.)

The name Mapuche means People of the Land. This is especially true in the province of Cautín in Southern Chile, where the estimated 173,604 Mapuche Indians living on 1,978 reducciones repre­sent 84 per cent of the rural population.  It also signifies the degree to which the agrarian power structure has been urbanized, even in one of Chile’s most rural provinces, with most big landlords living in the flourishing provincial capital of Temuco (population 100,000) and spending most of their lime running supermarkets or automobile distributorships or practicing the learned professions. The majority of agrarian reform officials who have descended upon Cautín over the past 18 months are also from the cities, as are the young cadres of the MIR—many of them secondary school drop­outs and former university students from Santiago and Concepción—who have so successfully organized the tomas that, together with the agrarian reform, have imposed major changes in the province’s land tenure structure.

It could be argued that the agrarian reform is the apogee of urban influence in the countryside. As explained to me recently by a senior official in the land reform program of President Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), “there had been talk of land reform in Chile for a few decades, but it took outside influences like the rise of Fidel Castro and the Al­liance for Prowess to light a fire under the land reform movement.- The romanticism of the intel­lectuals concerning agrarian reform was coupled with the realization that, while Chile has urbanized rapidly, all the virgin lands had been occupied by persons not using their lands to their full potential, while agricultural production per capita had been declining steadily in recent decades. At the beginning of the Frei regime we undertook land reform with the knowledge that it would impair production at first, but this didn’t worry us because agriculture was only one-tenth of national production and copper prices were high enough to import food if necessary. While the Christian Dem­ocrats under Frei didn’t have a chance to expro­priate much land, they were able to greatly in­crease rural wages and to promote the organization of peasants into unions.”

During part of my three weeks in Cautín I con­ducted interviews with members of the MIR, both in Temuco and traveling among a number of seized fundos that are being turned into collective or cooperative enterprises. These interviews were extremely revealing as to how the agrarian revolt in Cautín was prepared and executed in the months before and after Salvador Allende’s election. According to Sergio, a 21-year-old high school dropout from Concepcidn who had been living with the Mapuches in Cautín, “I went to live in Lautaro on November 23, 1969. Students from the University of Concepción, which the MIR con­trolled, previously had run a summer camp for social projects in the communes of Lautaro Nueva Imperial, making contact with the Mapuches by conducting a medical clinic, literacy classes, polit­ical lectures, and movies. We started in Cautín working with students at the University of Chile’s branch in Temuco and in the secondary schools. But we soon decided that what counted was con­tact with the masses, so at one meeting we decided to split up and go to live in the reducciones. It took a lot of patient political work to give the Mapuches a new revolutionary consciousness be­fore the corridas de cercos (literally, fence-running or seizures of disputed portions of large farms) and the tomas of entire farms.”

The MIR is organized on strict Leninist prin­ciples of a small revolutionary vanguard party that is extremely selective in recruiting new members. However the youth of some of its key cadres is somewhat astonishing. The person introduced to me as the coordinator of MIR activities in the rural zones of Cautín was called José, a 21-year-old former sociology student at the Catholic University in Santiago, who dressed conservatively and spoke very politely and had the neat, serious look of those American college students of the 1950s who were known as the Silent Generation.

“My father is a professional man, a Christian Democrat, an admirer of Eduardo Frei,” José told me. “At the Catholic University we were studying an American-style sociology, methodology and Tal­cott Parsons and that kind of thing, which didn’t have much to do with the Chilean reality. When I got involved in politics I gradually moved out of my house, sleeping elsewhere, so there would be no problems with my parents and my six brothers and sisters. When I arrived in Cautín in August there already were 10 MIR cadres here. We always saw the South as a social base for guerrilla war. This followed the theory of the foco of Regis Debray, who was wrong because he viewed revolution as being dependent on an elite and not on the masses. We were carrying forward a plan for guerrilla insur­rection in the South until Allende’s election victory, which surprised us greatly and led us to change our tactics by discarding guerrilla warfare in favor of a radicalization of the agrarian process. Between May 1970 and Allende’s election on September 4, there were some 40 corridas de cercos in Cautín and Malleco Provinces. A week after Allende’s election, we formally organized the Movimiento Campesino Revolucionario (MCR) on September 12, 1970, and at the end of November we carried out our first toma, seizing the Fundo Tres Hijuelas of Carlos Taladriz, who belongs to one of the most important landowning families in Cautín.

“When a toma occurs, we generally leave behind an armed fighting group, with rifles and machine guns, to protect the toma until CORA intervenes and expropriates the property,” José continued. “This is necessary because, almost immediately, the reactionary landlords formed their own armed groups to retake the fundos from the peasants. Our big problem is an insufficient number of armed groups of our own to protect the tomas. We must train the peasants to defend themselves and arm them, but this involves great problems of training and discipline. We must take five or six fundos at the same time in a contiguous area so one armed group can protect more than one fundo at once. There often have been conflicts among the camp­esinos themselves between the outsiders who took the farm and the inquilinos [tenants] who some­times have lived there for generations. We have always told the Mapuches that the inquilinos are exploited also and we must unite with them. Our only failures came when we didn’t unite with the inquilinos. Although the agrarian reform law allows expropriated farmers to keep their buildings, machinery, animals and a minimum reserve of land. we decided to seize the farms a puertas cerradas [literally, with all doors closed], not allowing the landlord to take anything out and forcing CORA to expropriate the whole farm and everything on it. We felt that, with the houses, machinery and animals taken away from the peasants, the fundo would be completely decapitalized and the risk of economic failure would be much greater. If the landlord keeps his minimum reserve of land, this means he stays as a neighbor and a bad influence over the peasants, with a tendency for old feudal relationships to be revived. On the contrary, the peasants must be free to develop their own leader­ship. After a year of working in the countryside in Cautín we realized that most of our MIR peasant cadres were the sons of Mapuche minifundistas who worked as afuerinos because there was no land at home. Before that we gave them the ridiculous label of ‘small proprietor without land,’ not rea­lizing that to be a proprietor one has to have land.”

The rural agitation and corridas de cercos in Cautín in the months before the 1970 Presidential election Were a variant of the MIR tactics at the time of urban land seizures by squatters, especially in Santiago and Concepción, as well as wildcat strikes and seizures at factories and peasant “mobilizations” in the parts of the Central Valley where tomas were later to occur.3 Four months before the election the MIR publicly discounted the possibility of a leftist victory and suggested the possibility of a revolutionary situation developing from the political campaign: “If the election re­sults in a triumph for the Unidad Popular, which we believe to be extremely unlikely, we proceed from the assumption that a reactionary military coup will try to block the people’s access to power. In that case we will not vacillate in placing our incipient armed apparatus, our cadres and all else that we have in defense of that which the workers and peasants have conquered.” Once Allende had won his narrow election victory, the MIR reiter­ated: “In May of this year we sustained that the increase in social mobilizations were the most rele­vant political fact of the period; that the elections would fit into the framework established by these social situations; that we would not participate in the election campaign as such, but would invest our efforts in pushing mass mobilizations by revo­lutionary methods and in developing direct actions linked to these mobilizations; and so we did. We developed this policy in distributing expropriated money [obtained in bank robberies for which the MIR claimed authorship] among the pobladores in the 26 de Enero squatter settlement; in the direct actions in the Helvetia and El Caucho factories; in the mobilization at Sigdo-Kopers, Muebles Roma, Carbón y Textiles de Tomé; among the pobladores in seven land seizures in Santiago and other urban tomas in Concepción, Tome, Coronel, Chillán and Los Angeles, in the peasant mobilizations of Chillán and Colchagua, in the corridas de cercos among the Mapuches of Cautín, and among the secondary and university students throughout the country. This policy permitted an enormous or­ganic development, an increase in our operational capacity and a significant influence among the masses, contributing also to the political and com­bative unity of the workers.”

Allende’s victory immediately provoked a finan­cial panic in Santiago as thousands of Chileans fled the country and New York banks suspended routine commercial credits to Chile, and all this was further complicated by the assassination by right-wing terrorists of the army commanding officer, General René Schneider, a few days before Al­lende’s confirmation by the Chilean Congress. However, the MIR emerged from the crisis period of the 1970 elections with its organization greatly expanded, with great freedom of action and con­siderable support from within the new Unidad Pop­ular government.

Until 1970 the MIR’s main sources of strength were among the students of the University of Con­cepción, where the MIR was founded in August 1965, and among the influential group of ultra-left journalists and politicians who ran the Castroite biweekly magazine Punto Final in Santiago. That group included Clodomiro Almeyda, leader of the Maoist wing of the Socialist Party and now Chile’s Foreign Minister; Senator Carlos Altamirano, who was elected Secretary-General of the Socialist Party two months after Allende’s inauguration; Carlos Jorquera, who was appointed Allende’s press sec­retary; Jaime Faivovich, legal counsel to CODELCO, the state corporation running the newly nationalized copper mines, and Augusto Olivares, who was named head of one of Chile’s three television networks. Shortly after his inaugu­ration, Allende freed some MIR members who were jailed for terrorist activities, while other MIR cadres became presidential bodyguards. As the months passed there was increasing talk in political circles of “double militancy” on the part of many members of Unidad Popular coalition parties- es­pecially the Socialists and MAPU, the leftist splin­ter faction that broke away from the Christian Democrats before the 1970 election—who were also collaborating with MIR while conducting a running battle with the Communist Party for con­trol of key state agencies. This was especially true of the agrarian reform bureaucracy, where the bat­tle was joined between the Communist David Baytelman as head of CORA and the hard-line Socialist Adrián Vasquez as head of INDAP (In­stituto de Desarrollo Agropecuario), which is sup­posed to give organizational and technical assis­tance to peasants outside the reformed sector. Characteristically, the Secretary-General of the MIR in Cautín, Juan Saavedra, was an INDAP of­ficial who visited fundos in a government vehicle shortly before they were seized by the peasants. In an internal document leaked to the press after the Unidad Popular coalition suffered its first major political defeat in parliamentary by-elections last January, the Communist Party complained: “One of the reversals that should concern us more is what we are experiencing in the countryside. We have expropriated fundos at five times the rate of previous governments. Nevertheless, we do not gain strength in the countryside. Doubtlessly funda­mental is the lack of a common agricultural policy within the Unidad Popular. Of the agrarian sector one can safely say that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. The policy applied is bulging with subjectivism, and is influenced by ultra-leftist conceptions. The state apparatus itself is strongly penetrated by ultra-leftist elements.”


In the confused months following Allende’s inauguration, the MIR in Cautín Province was able to make extraordinary progress in consolidating its base among the Mapuche peasantry through a swift and dramatic series of land seizures. Following the toma of the Fundo Tres Hijuelas on November 30, 1970, a protest was made to the press by the land­lord’s brother-in-law, Ricardo Henzi, a Temuco optician of Swiss descent who also owned a fundo in the vicinity. Henzi reported that the Mapuches earlier had seized 30 acres of the Fundo Tres Hijuelas in one of the corridas de cercos that the MIR had organized in previous months. According to Henzi, “the same conditions exist on a nearby farm of my father-in-law, Carlos Paslack, who also has problems with the Indians who have invaded his land. They have carried out corridas de cercos cut down trees, plowed pastures and done count­less harm. Only today on the Fundo Tres Hijuelas they have slaughtered and eaten two prime steers. Señor Taladriz, after the first invasion, got a court order in his favor, but the authorities have refused his request for a police detachment to evict the Indians.

The new Communist Governor of Lautaro De­partment, Fernando Teiller Morin, told the land­lords that he preferred to use persuasion rather than force in dealing with the tomas, and was later suspended and ordered to stand trial by the Chilean Supreme Court for “failing to duly coop­erate in the administration of justice.” In April 1972 the suspended governor told me that the land seized by the Mapuches in the corridas de cercos had been in dispute for many years with the farm’s previous owner, against whom the Indians had brought a lawsuit for usurpation. “The case was won by the Mapuches in three different courts—the Juzgado de Indios, the Appeals Court in Temuco and the Supreme Court in Santiago,” Teillier said. “However, under prevailing law the landlord was able to appeal to the government to expropriate the land in his behalf, so the Indians lost out anyway.”

Two weeks after the toma of the Fundo Tres Hijuelas, the conservative National Party deputy from Cautín, Hardy Momberg, charged on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in Santiago that the Mapuches had denied the farm’s owner access to the fundo to transfer his animals and machinery to his other properties. “On that fundo there are per­sons who are not Mapuches or laborers,” Momberg continued, “but who form a kind of militia with uniforms, special shirts, boots, berets, and machine guns hanging at their sides, who live in tents beside an effigy of Che Guevara. These are the ones who give orders. . . . Provoked by these to mitt some­thing very serious may happen soon. What farmer doesn’t have a shotgun, rifle or pistol in his house? With this wave of land seizures in the Province of Cautín, it may be reasonable to expect that one day a farmer will fire in desperation at one of these militiamen or agitators or workers and a clash will come.”

Events in the province of Cautín over the next two months came so swiftly that they are hard to reconstruct. On the day that the Fundo Tres Hijuelas was seized, the Lautaro landowners’ asso­ciation charged that more than 5,000 acres had been taken since August 1970 by the Mapuches from 26 of its members. While these corridas de cercos, however, had been partial seizures of fundos often involving lands in dispute, what fob lowed in the summer of 1970-71 (December through February) were tomas of entire farms, sometimes at the rate of three or four a day, amounting to some 25 tomas in Lautaro alone by mid-December and leading Domingo Durán, presi­dent of the Consorcio Agricola del Sur, to speak of the “desperation and anguish of the agricultural producers of the South” at a meeting in Santiago between President Allende and 40 representatives of the principal landowners’ associations. In reply, Allende described the tomas as being “ill-advised” and added: “Since November 4 we have been con­cerned with defending the institutional order, undoubtedly not because we like this order but because we have committed ourselves to act within these institutions. We have been the principal de­fenders-of this order so we can change it, gentle­men, change it... We have information regarding landlords’ organizations, about arms contraband, the use of farms along the Argentine frontier and about people who have small landing strips in this area. Although we are aware of this, we have not wanted to denounce it because we know that the institutional order is not in danger, first because we know how to defend it and secondly because we have the majority support of the country.”

This meeting was followed promptly by the arrival in Cautín of the Ministers of Agriculture and of Lands and Colonization, who made inspection visits to some of the seized fundos. Five days after the Santiago meeting Allende himself came to Temuco and spoke for an hour before 7,000 per­sons gathered in the Municipal Stadium for the closing session of the National Mapuche Congress. “I have come to tell the landowners that we will also respect the legitimate rights of landlords who have respected the law,” Allende said. “And I want to tell our Mapuche companions that they should completely end the tomas and corridas de cercos, because they are exploited politically by the enemies of the People’s Government and they hamper a rational and technical application of the agrarian reform. I want to tell you that the agrarian reform will be accelerated, that in this province of Cautín this accelerated process of land reform will begin by my own personal order. And I have told my friend, the Minister of Agriculture Jacques Chonchol, that he should establish himself in the province of Cautín for a period of one or two months if necessary, beginning on January 2nd, to set in motion an emergency plan.”  The arrival in Cautín of Chonchol—a Food and Agriculture Or­ganization adviser in Cuba in the early years of the Castro regime and a leading agrarian reform official of the Frei government before he broke with the Christian Democrats—was greeted by an editoirial in the conservative El Diario Austral, which coldly observed that  “Chonchol is to private property what a tiger in the jungle is to a gazelle.”


One could have expected that the landlords’ reaction would be strong. Politically, Cautín is one of Chile’s more traditional provinces, where in the 1970 elections Allende finished a poor third with about 23 per cent of the vote, while his conserva­tive rival, ex-President Jorge Alessandri, led with 43 per cent, his largest plurality among all of Chile’s provinces. In Cautín, rural property is far more evenly distributed among the “Chilean”—as opposed to the Mapuche—population than in the more fertile Central Valley, which traditionally has been dominated by great haciendas. Making this comparison in the early l930s, MacBride observed that in the South “a casa de hacienda is seldom seen; nor do miserable ranchos of inquilinos line the roadside. The medium-sized rural dwellings and their wide distribution over the countryside give the social landscape a different aspect from that of the hacienda-land farther north. This is clearly a country of smaller holdings, of more equal distri­bution of the land. In a region whose basic wealth is the soil this means less inequality of status among the inhabitants. Social and political condi­tions must follow the lead of this land distribution, and the traveler realizes that he has left the home of the Chilean aristocracy and has moved into provinces marked by far more democratic ways.”

But land has become increasingly scarce. Two decades later Ricardo Ferrando, today a leading Christian Democratic senator, wrote that “Cautín was a kind of American Far-West. It attracted peo­ple not for the gold of its mines but for its agricul­tural wealth and for the ease with which landed property could be obtained; that is, snatched from the Indian who had no system of private property. This accumulative process increased while there still were lands available, while the great deforesta­tion proceeded and a stable rural life was orga­nized. Today the province of Cautín is a region tilled to capacity within its present economic sys­tem, and this is so true that the population actually declined between the 1940 and 1952 censuses while the rest of the Chilean population was growing, signifying a substantial out-migration from Cautín in this period.”  Although Cautín has followed the general Chilean pattern of rapid urbanization in recent decades, but at a slower rate, its basic wealth remains in the land. Although the MIR appears to have been reluctant to carry out tomas against “Chilean” farmers living on their land, such tomas have taken place. To nobody’s surprise, landowners began organizing self-defense vigilante groups to patrol country roads at night and “retake” (retomar) farms seized by the Mapuches.

The first important outbreak of violence came on December 24, 1970, just four days after Allende’s speech in Temuco. It occurred at the Fundo Rucalán, a 1,500-acre farm near the town of Carahue in the heart of the Mapuche country west of Temuco, which had been seized by 38 Mapuche families from a nearby reducción at 3:30 A. M. on the morning of Allende’s visit, ejecting the owner and his family in their nightclothes. Three Mapuches were wounded when the Fundo Rucalán’s owner and a large group of his friends, heavily armed, chased the Indians from the prop­erty. This was the first bloodshed issuing from the land seizures in Cautín, and a public scandal devel­oped when the fundo‘s owner, Juan Bautista Landarreche, and his two sons were arrested for a violation of the State Security Law for retaking the property by force. As in virtually all the rural land seizures in Chile during this period, the Carabineros (police) did not take any action apart from visiting the scene and making a report. However, the accu­sation against Landarreche occasioned a major political trial, with one of Chile’s most famous criminal lawyers flying down from Santiago to con­duct the landowner’s defense and the full 15,000-word transcript of the trial pleadings pub­lished in three consecutive editions of El Diario Austral. Landarreche was quickly freed and the MIR began to complain of “armed groups of latifundistas” and charged that “a team of ten right-wing lawyers went to the province of Cautín to study, case by case, all the possible expropria­tions that the government would attempt. The fight will take place in the courts, where the judges always have shown a strong weakness for the land­owners.” When I visited the Hacienda Rucalán more than a year later in the company of a young MIR activist named Alejo, he told me: “The Mapuches here have shown a strong will to fight. This fundo changed hands five times in tomas and retomas before it was finally expropriated.”

The retoma of the Fundo Rucalán began a series of sporadic clashes in the countryside of Cautín that left a total of five persons dead and more than a score wounded. These deaths occurred in what were, after all, minor and isolated incidents which, while most unusual in Chile, have not produced any sign of major political and social forces massing for civil conflict. On the contrary, these clashes were the exceptional cases in which the Mapuches involved in a toma encountered resis­tance from people living on the property. Needless to say, none of these tomas probably would have succeeded against the will of a government bent on stopping them.


The real impact of the tomas throughout rural Chile, but especially in Cautín, has been of panic and chaos among agricultural producers that tends to worsen the already critical economic problems of the Allende regime, perhaps out of proportion to the real level of violence in the countryside. The Association of Agricultural Employers listed 694 illegal seizures of farms in Chile between Allende’s inauguration and the end of September 1971. Of these, 555 farms were later returned to their owners. In Cautín, however, the impact of the tomas was especially strong, with only 41 of 95 seized farms returned to their owners.

Shortly after he established his temporary head­quarters in Cautín in January 1971 on President Allende’s orders, Minister of Agriculture Jacques Chonchol spoke at a labor union rally in Temuco’s Municipal Theater to outline his plans. “It is the decision of the People’s government,” he said, “to carry out a land reform in depth in this province. The momios [mummies: a slang word meaning reactionary that became popular during the 1970 election campaign] say they agree as long as it is done within the law. It will be done within the law, but the law will be applied in depth, compañeros, to its last article. Tomorrow they should not come to tell us that their fundamental rights are being trampled, because here the People’s government will apply the law from the people to the momios and not by the momios against the people.”

What this meant in practice soon became clear. Under the Chilean labor code, the Ministry of Labor is empowered to appoint interventors to manage any production unit that is paralyzed by a labor conflict. Because most tomas have involved peasants already working on the farm as well as others from outside, they can be formally defined as a labor conflict and an interventor appointed to run the farm. The interventor is empowered to hire as many new workers as he deems necessary and contract any debts that he deems advisable, with the proprietor obliged to repay the debts. In many cases the landowner finds it preferable to sign over his property to CORA than risk being mined h~ such indebtedness. Often the interventors in rural tomas are members or friends of the MIR who as a matter of routine hire onto the permanent payroll the peasants from outside who seized the farm.

One of the most spectacular tomas of the last year was the Fundo Loberia owned by Domingo Durán, president of the southern regional land­owners association and brother of a leading conser­vative senator. Loberia was one of four haciendas which until the early l960s formed a single 5,000-acre estate, much of which was a drained swamp used for cattle-fattening until a large part of it sunk beneath the water line in the 1960 earth­quake that caused widespread devastation through­out Chile. On the night of October 16, 1971 more than 100 Mapuches from a neighboring reducción seized the four farms and removed the plank bridge that connected the haciendas with the outside world. After Durán agreed to the expropriation, a municipal water inspector from the nearby town of Puerto Saavedra was named interventor for the four fundos. When I visited the site—traveling in a launch from a place further up the river because the plank bridge was still out—a gaunt but tensely talkative man named Juventino Velazquez, told me: I am a member of the Socialist Party, the son of a peasant inquilino de fundo, and most recently a mechanic in the water supply department of Puerto Saavedra. I was involved in the planning and preparation of this toma during the five months before it took place, since I am also coordinator of the Peasant Council of Puerto Saavedra. The toma involved 94 families from three different reducciónes, where 110 families had been sharing a total of 375 acres, much of it uncultivable. These four fundos together cover about 7,500 acres, but the titles cover less than half this area. Since becoming interventor I have put all the Mapuche men on the payroll at 30 escudos per day, and we have brought in two Czech tractors. The peasants decided to seize this land because all other solutions were blocked, but we still had to play the legal game by tilling out papers for CORA and drafting petitions for expropriation for the Peasants Council of Puerto Saavedra. After all, Domingo Durán is the president of the latifundistas of Chile.”

Part of the “legal game” calls for CORA offi­cials to visit the farm and appraise the installations, machinery, and animals for compensation to the former owner. Theoretically, if the expropriated owner thinks the payment fixed by CORA is un­fair, he can appeal his case to one of the Agrarian Tribunals established under the 1967 land reform law. In fact, however, most of the judgeships on the Agrarian Tribunals have remained vacant because the Allende regime has refused to make appointments to these courts. Ironically, the same travesty of justice is being practiced against the landlords that was carried out against the Mapuches a half-century ago.

The kind of confusion that can arise out of this state of affairs is illustrated by events following the toma of the nearby Fundo Nehuentue, which I Visited two weeks after its seizure in late March 1972. As in the case of nearly all seized fundos, there was no place for the invading peasants to live, so the 30 families who seized the Fundo Nehuen­tile settled into a barn, which soon became filled with children and smoke from cooking fires inside the building. The barn was partitioned into sleep­ing quarters for the 30 families, most of whom came not from Mapuche villages but from the neighboring town of Nehuentue, where they were stranded for 12 years in government-built emer­gency shacks built after the 1960 earthquake, which had destroyed the town of Puerto Saavedra, where most of them had previously lived. These shacks were grouped in a barren, unpainted clap­board compound that rotted for a decade alongside a road that wound through a strikingly beautiful countryside of fertile pastures and bread-loaf hills leading down to the Pacific Ocean a kilometer west of the town. The people who had lived in these shacks seemed singularly unequipped for agricul­ture, and quickly came into conflict with the workers who were already established on the fundo.

“Most of our children have gone to Santiago because the owner of the Fundo Nehuentue refused to give our families work,” one of the housewives who lived in the barn told me. “He brought in people from outside because he didn’t want problems with local people. Now that we have taken the fundo, it seems that many of the inquilino families already inside are complaining that they want their patroncito [dear, little boss] to come back. They complained so much that we finally told them: ‘If you want your patroncito so much, you should go where he is. Either join with us or get out.’ ” There was a rough numerical equality between those who seized the fundo and those living on it before the toma, but a few days later six of the old inquilinos were expelled from the farm for allegedly refusing to stand guard duty at night.

According to the MIR representative who accompanied me to the farm on my first visit there, the toma of the Fundo Nehuentue had been in preparation for eight months. “There was much discussion, planning, deciding what to do, talking about what socialism is,” he told me. A few days later I asked Mario Alvarez, the former owner of Nehuentue, whether he had heard of the toma in advance. “We heard for months that a toma was coming, that meetings were held in the town. I rode fences night after night with my inquilinos for months, and nothing happened. So we got tired of riding fences and then the toma came one night when I was away from the farm. I know the MIR regarded me as its enemy because I participated in the retoma of the Fundo Rucalán in December 1970. My property is surrounded on three sides by Mapuche reducciones, so we knew anyway that our turn might come soon. When the tonic, did occur, I filed a complaint with the police to inform the courts. When I filed a formal complaint with the local court, the judge issued an order for the arrest of all persons involved. But the provincial head of the Carabineros in Temuco refused to carry out the arrest order, saying he didn’t have enough men. When the judge who issued the order was informed of the Carabineros’ inaction, he declared himself incompetent to hear the case. Then the case file was sent to another court in the county seat of Nueva Imperial, which asked for a new report on the toma. Meanwhile, I had 175 acres of wheat being grown on contract with the State Bank as high-quality genetic seed that was needed in the province for fall planting. If the wheat were left standing much longer, the grains simply would fall to the ground and be lost for seeding purposes. There was a Communist official of the State Bank [the agency through which public credit and agri­cultural supplies are provided to farmers] who was very concerned about a seed shortage in coming months, so both he and I spoke with leaders of the MIR. It just happened that Juan Saavedra, the Secretary-General of the MIR in Temuco, was au old schoolmate of mine, and he thought I had an effective eviction order against the toma. So after a lot of talking, I was finally allowed by the MIR to bring a crew into my fields and harvest the wheat. But they were very careful not to allow me to go near my house or other installations.”

As a result of such tomas and the legal expropri­ations carried out by CORA, there have been major changes in the land tenure system in Cautín Prov­ince. While the Frei regime had created 30 land reform settlements through expropriations that brought roughly 1,000 families into the reformed sector in Cautín, by April 1972 the Unidad Popular government had increased this total to 151 settle­ments incorporating 5,096 families in Allende’s first 17 months in power. In the Department of Lautaro, where the greatest number of land sei­zures have occurred, all of the 47 fundos were expropriated that, according to the 1965 Agricul­tural Census, were more than 1,250 acres (500 hectares) and occupied more than 125,000 acres together. Also expropriated were one-third of the 60,000 acres in medium-sized farms between 500 and 1,250 acres. These expropriations in Lautaro have created a reformed sector of about 1 50,000 acres to benefit some 1,297 peasant families with­out, however, making any great impact on the shortage of land and jobs in rural areas.

According to one land reform technician with many years’ experience in Cautín, “the great need and the conscious purpose in the new land reform settlements has been to absorb more labor. Plant­ing beet sugar and potatoes absorbs lots of labor, but this can be done only in certain places in Cautín. Our beet sugar crop throughout the coun­try has suffered this year because private farmers are reluctant to hire labor to plant and harvest the beets, fearing that these men will form groups to take over the farms where they’re working. These problems really are very complex. Despite the fact that wheat, meat, and milk are scarcer commodi­ties in Chile than in Argentina, the Chilean prices for all these commodities have been kept artifi­cially lower to protect the urban consumer. Declining yields have resulted over the years because of a lack of production incentives and planting marginal soils with wheat and rapeseed [to make vegetable oil] that do not belong there. No well-worked farm should produce wheat yields of less than 30 or 35 quintals per hectare, yet because of soil exhaustion and poor farming prac­tices in both the minifundia and commercial farming sectors the average wheat yield in Cautín Prov­ince is around 15 quintals per hectare. Now with so much land in the reformed sector, even these low yields are being undermined by organizational problems and late arrival of seed and fertilizers. The planting for the 1971-72 harvest was delayed because the necessary machinery, seed, and nitrate fertilizer arrived in June and July instead of April or May when they were needed to plant winter wheat. This year the 1972-73 harvest is being delayed by the lack of phosphate fertilizer, which is desperately needed in our volcanic soils. Unfor­tunately, 80 per cent of our phosphate must be imported and is a drain on our foreign exchange reserves.”

The demographic pressures on a stagnant pro­vincial agriculture have been aggravated both by production declines and logistical snares in the agrarian reform bureaucracy. The new organization emerging in Chilean agriculture—that of coopera­tive or collective settlements guided from day to day mainly by government technicians—is the result of an urgent quest by Latin American land reform specialists for a formula to absorb the most surplus peasant labor possible into an obviously inadequate supply of available land. Since Chile is already a net food importer with chronic balance of payments problems except in years of high world copper prices, and since those three-fourths of all Chileans who live in towns and cities must get most of their food from the one-fourth of the population still living on the land, it seems that a fundamental conflict is being posed between the demands of redistribution and productivity.

According to the respected survey of the Economics Workshop of the University of Chile, ‘available information for the 1970-71 agricultural Year shows an estimated growth for the whole sec­tor of 5.8 per cent above the preceding year. Since a greater increase is expected for the economy in general, the agricultural sector in 1971 will repre­sent less than 8 per cent of Gross National Product although the farm sector employs nearly one-fourth of the country’s labor force. This again demonstrates the profound disequilibrium between the agricultural sector and the rest of the economy, which has a per capita product three times greater than that of agriculture. On the other hand, imports of food products are growing in 1971 at more than 64 per cent. Supposing that the figures on production increases are correct, the rising imports could be explained by the redistribution of income that would mean an increase in food con­sumption by the low-income sectors of the popula­tion and also by increases in the majority of world food prices. Surveys of intentions to plant for the coming year show that the best we can hope for is a drop of 2.5 per cent beneath this year’s agricul­tural production. It is disturbing to think that the agricultural sector has received an increasingly pref­erential treatment in recent years in terms of polit­ical and social policies expressed in terms of devel­opment plans, agrarian reform, etc., without any positive results showing from the vantage point of the whole Chilean economy. It is possible that this is due to the slight emphasis placed on problems of productivity and production. ... The above pro­duction estimates do not take into consideration the problems arising from the acceleration of the agrarian reform in 197 1 nor the effects of the pro­liferation of tomas and the climate of effervescence that has reigned especially in the South.”

In this context it is especially revealing to exam­ine the impact on the national food supply of recent developments in Cautín Province, which is a leading producer of wheat, oats, barley, vegetable oil (rapeseed), peas, beef, and milk. According to statistics supplied me by the Empresa de Comer­cialización Agricola (ECA), the public agency in charge of food imports, the key items of wheat, powdered milk, vegetable oils, and beef have accounted for most of the explosive growth of food imports over the past decade; between 1963 and 1971 the volume of these items imported grew from 101,000 to 569,400 metric tons, while in value these imports grew from $16.4 million to $128.4 million. Over the past two decades, Cautín Province had remained Chile’s largest wheat pro­ducer, growing more than two million metric quin­tals in a good harvest year. However, the urban population of the province has grown from 27 per cent in 1940 to 35 per cent in 1960 to 50.4 per cent in 1970. with this urban population growing at the rapid rate of 5 per cent annually over the past decade. This burgeoning of town-dwellers has meant, according to ECA officials interviewed in Temuco, that Cautín itself today consumes one-­half of its own wheat production and thus can send less and less outside the province to feed the rest of the Chilean population. This fact gathers signifi­cance when one considers that the 1972 wheat har­vest in Cautín was one-third below the previous harvest, according to Agriculture Ministry officials in Temuco, and even less if one listens to the government’s enemies.


The problems generated by revolt and reform in the Chilean countryside must be viewed in terms of an historically stagnating agricultural economy and constantly expanding urban food requirements. The declines in wheat, milk, and sugar beet produc­tion, the clandestine slaughter of beef and dairy cattle by frightened farmers trying to defend them­selves against land seizures and confiscatory expro­priation all must be judged, however, in terms of an exceptional situation which will surely pass, but will just as surely leave residual problems that may take decades to resolve.

This exceptional situation has been explained best to me by some of the young technicians who run the present agrarian reform at the grassroots level. In the words of José Ovando, the 25-year-old director of the CORA office in Lautaro, this year’s production declines in Lautaro—Chile’s leading wheat-producing county—can be explained by several causes. “In the first place,” Ovando told me, “many of the tomas and expropriations of fundos came just before the fall planting of winter wheat, our most important crop, and we just didn’t have the manpower or resources to cope with the confusion. Not only did seed and fertilizer arrive late for the planting, but we had and still have a critical shortage of technicians to work with the peasants on the expropriated fundos. To work among some 60 farms now in the reformed sector in Lautaro, we have only ten technicians, and they must walk or hitchhike from farm to farm because there are not enough vehicles to go around. The lag between the takeover of the fundos and the training of a new work force has been taking too long, and this has been complicated by other fac­tors such as too much rain and wind during the fall sowing season and poor applications of insecticide. On top of this, CORA is without money and the State Bank recently cut off credit advances to our land reform settlements because they didn’t make their expenses during the 1972 harvest. This meant a cutoff in the daily wages of 1,500 men support­ing some 7,000 people. This is why the peasants recently moved into Lautaro and occupied the offices of CORA until we met their demands. The problem was settled in their favor when we appealed to Santiago to overrule the local State Bank officials’ decision.”

On the Fundo Tres Hijuelas, 22 peasants were employed as a result of the land reform where, in the past, five workers were enough to make it one of the best wheat farms in the district, and this pattern of overemployment is visible throughout the reformed sector. “Because of the MlR inva­sions, too many peasants have stayed on too many small farms,” said the young CORA field worker who provides technical supervision to Tres Hijuelas and six other seized farms in the district. “The MIR has the great advantage of living with the peasants, which government officials never do. The MIR is disciplined and hard-working and its cadres live on the asentamientos, but never appear before strangers. In Lautaro these days there are no more tomas because there’s nothing left to take. Now that the tomas here are over, we find the big prob­lem for the peasants is communal living. Although most of them were grouped together in reduc­ciones, they worked their tiny plots of land indi­vidually and are totally unaccustomed to working in groups with a common purpose and without constant fighting. The president of the asenta­mien to theoretically is in charge, but he has little authority to get people to do what they don’t feel like doing. The peasants are benefiting from the process without understanding it. They can’t believe the land is really theirs and that they have a stake in their asentamientos to develop them more. They just feel that the government has become the new owner, and their wages are much better now in terms of the ‘labor advances’ paid by the State Bank.”

These “labor advances” paid at the rate of 30 escudos a day to peasants on all land reform settle­ments in Chile by the State Bank has become crit­ical to the reformed sector. According to another CORA official, half of the 32 million escudos lent by the State Bank last year to the reformed sector in Lautaro went for these advanced wage pay­ments. Not only does the government undertake to supply the expropriated fundos with seed, fertil­izer, and machinery, but through these wage “advances” it in effect guarantees a minimum annual wage to all peasants in the reformed sector. When loans advanced for wages and farm supplies cannot be repaid—as is often the case—blame is rightly laid at the door of the land reform bureau­cracy for its apparent incapability to get seed and fertilizers to the farms in time for planting. When one views this problem in the context of the land reform’s main objective of maximizing farm employment, however, it becomes clear that the payrolls on the expropriated farms have been expanded by the agrarian reform far beyond the capacity of most production units to repay the wage bill advanced by the State Bank. Since one of the main lures held out to peasants preparing land seizures in Cautín is hope of exchanging the abject misery of subsistence farming for year-round wage employment, the urge to hold onto this wage advance is very strong. As in the case of other money-losing state economic operations—including some of the recently nationalized factories, banks, and distributorships—the only way of avoiding chaos is for the government to print more paper money to make up for losses. Thus the amount of currency in circulation increased in Chile by 120 per cent during 1971, and continues at the same rate for 1972. During the first five months of 1972, inflation has been running at an annual rate of 60 per cent.

President Allende seems unable to take decisive action to deal with the agrarian crisis. He cannot send the army into key areas to impose order or to offer guarantees or incentives to the private sector, along the lines of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, because this would antagonize important elements of his Unidad Popular coalition. He cannot impose lull state control of the agricultural sector because the opposition is too strong for the government to do this, legally or illegally, Besides this, the resources of the state administrative apparatus are Already enormously over committed as a result of the seizure or expropriation of 263 factories  and thousands of farms that have been absorbed into the public sector Also, the agrarian reform bureaucracy has becomy honeycombed with rival political actions. In a recent interview, Agriculture Minister Chonchol bitterly complained: “The government apparatus in the agricultural sector is bad. We Inherit a structure in which 30 different organisms Operate under four or five ministries... The problem worsens if we consider that middle-level management is divided among different parties within the Unidad Popular We adopted this prin­ciple to avoid that a government agency might become the fief of a single party, but in practice these organisms tend to wear their own colors. To remove a single functionary you sometimes have to fight a whole party. This wears you out.”

The three months of my visit to Chile— February through April 1972—saw an alarming and accelerating deterioration of the Unidad Popular government’s position, a decline which has con­tinued since then. In the first five months of this year the Unidad Popular has lost three major elec­tions among the three social groups on which it counted for the strongest support: peasants, stu­dents, and workers. It is hard to say which of these defeats did more harm to Allende’s coalition—the parliamentary by-election losses in the rural prov­inces of O’Higgins and Linares, the resounding defeat of the Unidad Popular candidate in the Uni­versity of Chile’s elections, or the massive Christian Democratic vote in the formerly Marxist-domi­nated labor confederation CUTCh (Confederación Unica de Trabajadores Chilenos). But it was the January 16 by-election in Linares that showed the failure of Allende’s agrarian policy of accelerating the legal process of expropriation while allowing free rein to the MIR to carry out tomas. In his landslide defeat in Linares Province of Sra. María Elena Mery—the widow of a Frei regime land re­form director there who was killed by a landlord while carrying out an expropriation—the candidate of the conservative National party, Sergio Diez, announced in his campaign that “I am doing battle against the government and the MIR” in response to a radicalized land reform program drawn up by the MIR and the Unidad Popular parties in Linares shortly before the election, and to the large num­ber of land seizures and expropriations taking place in the province while fear was spread among peas­ants by the opposition that all expropriated lands would be turned into state farms.

  After the Linares voting, the MIR representative in the province, who helped run the defeated Uni­dad Popular candidate’s campaign, told a reporter for the opposition magazine Ercilla: “The result of this election proves that electoral struggles play an important role in the strategy of fascism, which thus accelerates its offensive plans to weaken the government in order to overthrow it...  The elec­toral result shows the need to intensify our offen­sive with a program to unite all progressive social sectors to defeat the fascists, a program elaborated by the masses and not by the political parties. In this sense we of the MIR believe it is becoming necessary to intensify the work of our militants in the province of Linares and, in general, in the whole Central Valley. Our militants will come here to perform this task and win over the peasants to the revolutionary process.”

It is amazing how much, through the whole period of Allende’s rule so far, a small group like the MIR has remained at the center of the ideologi­cal debate in Chile not only between the govern­ment and opposition, but even more importantly among the Unidad Popular coalition parties them­selves. Although not itself a member of the ruling coalition, the MIR has played the ambiguous role both of revolutionary vanguard and of viper at the bosom of the Unidad Popular government. When the MIR sent its cadres into the Central Valley during the 1971-12 harvest season, its economic and social impact was much less than in Cautín the year before, but politically it was the perfect target for attacks against the government by the right-wing press and the Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura (founded in 1838), which for more than a century was Chile’s most effective political party and whose powers of persuasion never should be underrated. The rural agitation in the Central Val­ley this year bore most heavily upon Nuble, which is Chile’s second most important wheat-growing province (after Cautín) and the leading producer of beet sugar. In Nuble the MIR cadres were formed largely by students from the University of Chile’s Agronomy School in the provincial capital of Chillán, some 63 fundos in the province were re­ported seized by March 1972, another 17 on strike and another 13 being managed by government interventors.26 These strikes and tomas seemed part of a contest between the extreme left and the agrarian reform authorities prior to the legal expropriation in late March of 137 fundos in Nuble to see how many farms would be expropriated without any land, machinery, animals and build­ings left to the previous owners, and which political faction would win the loyalty of the peasants.

This political contest is being duplicated today on mimeograph machines and in street fights else­where, to the degree that, if civil war is a reality in Chile today, the contending factions are the MIR and the Communist Party. Throughout the summer and fall of 1972 this dispute became increasingly acrimonious and harmful to the Allende regime, especially after a MLR student was killed in May by police during street fighting in Concepción prompted by MIR efforts to stop an antigovern­ment protest march. Increasingly, the MIR has insisted on defining recent events in Chile as part of a polarizing struggle between socialism and fascism, while the Communists have attempted to move into middle ground to neutralize antigovern­ment feeling and consolidate the badly shaken Uni­dad Popular coalition. Increasingly engulfed by intractable political and economic problems, Presi­dent Allende has seen his capacity for maneuver rapidly diminish and the survival of his government increasingly in doubt. His friends on the extreme left—both within and outside the Unidad Popular coalition—increasingly see Allende’s fall as inevi­table and feed their imaginations with dreams of repression and guerrilla warfare. As a young MIR activist told me recently on a spectacular autumn afternoon as we rode together in a jeep through the Mapuche country of Cautín: “There is a great sense of failure and frustration in the country toward the Unidad Popular, and we believe Allende will fall. We think it much better for the future of the Left and of socialism in this country for Allende to fall by an act of force against a legally constituted government than to be rejected overwhelmingly by the electorate. For this reason we are trying to create a situation of disorder and tension to pro­voke the reactionaries into a coup d’état.”



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