An unquiet ocean

July 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

There must be something about being in Chile that makes me write blog posts. I wrote my last one here in September of last year, and now I’m at it again, a third of the way through a trip to Santiago and the south of the country.

My motivation this time is an important bit of international news that appears to have been neglected by English-language media, as far as I can see. This is, I suppose, understandable, given the extraordinary rush of major stories in the last month or so: Brexit, Nice, Turkey, Trump, etc. Still, I think it’s worth a few minutes’ attention.

I arrived in Santiago last Tuesday to find headlines declaring that Chile’s diplomatic relationship with its northern neighbour Bolivia to be at their lowest ebb in a hundred years. This is saying something: after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), fought between Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other, relations have never been exactly rosy. Indeed, the two countries have had only consular relations (rather than full ambassadorial links) since 1978.

A glance at a map of the region provides a hint as to why this is the case. As a result of the war, Chile occupied large parts of what had been southern Peru and western Bolivia, thereby cutting off Bolivia’s access to the sea. Bolivia and Chile only officially made peace in 1904, and that treaty establishes the border between the two countries, as well as Bolivia’s rights to use the ports of Antofagasta and Arica in Chile.

This all sounds quite clear-cut. Yet the two countries have never fully agreed on the interpretation of this agreement,  and they have been involved in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over Bolivia’s access to the sea for a number of years now (the case is ongoing).

Last week, the Bolivian President Evo Morales sent a delegation including his foreign minister, David Choquehanca, to carry out an ‘inspection’ of the ports of Antofagasta and Arica, apparently to check that Chile was fulfilling its side of the 1904 treaty. It appears that the Chilean authorities were not informed of this visit (so they claim), and they reacted furiously, revoking the diplomatic visas of the Bolivian consular delegation.

The Bolivian government, for its part, declared that Chile was failing to comply with the rules of the 1904 treaty, and laid claim to the moral high ground by stating that it would not rescind the visas of Chilean diplomats in the country. It has also accused Chile of ‘conspiring against [Bolivian] external trade and development’.

What to make of these crossed diplomatic swords? Here are a few tentative conclusions (I won’t comment on the validity of the Bolivian accusations, as I haven’t seen enough detail to make a judgement. There is a suggestion on the part of the Chilean government that Bolivia has failed to make the required payments for its use of the ports).

  1. Bilateral trade agreements are fragile (post-Brexit Britain take note).
  2. Historic international grievances remain a useful tool for governments wishing to divert attention from domestic problems and/or regain support (both Morales and the Chilean President Bachelet have recently suffered a series of scandals).
  3. Once started, this kind of conflict is difficult to control, and may escalate beyond the purpose it was initially intended to serve (see above).

I haven’t seen any suggestions that this conflict is at risk of becoming violent, but it nonetheless stands as evidence that the move away from international cooperation and towards the nationalistic affirmation of self-interest that we’re witnessing in Europe and the United States is not limited to those regions.

It also shows, though, that efforts towards international integration (e.g. based on trade) always have their limits and undersides. Since 2011, Chile has been a member of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc with some political integration, such as joint diplomatic missions (along with Mexico, Colombia, and Peru). Membership requirements include sovereignty over a portion of the Pacific Ocean; Bolivia is not a candidate for membership.





Capital city

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Santiago de Chile since last Tuesday, gathering materials and ideas for the next stages of my PhD research. It’s proving to be a somewhat piecemeal process, moving forward in fits and starts, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

One of the pieces thus far has been Santiago’s annual international film festival, SANFIC, which ran from 25-30 August. I saw several really interesting films from Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere, and hope to blog about a few of them over the coming days. The first I want to mention, Showroom (Fernando Molnar, Argentina, 2014), is a pitch-black comedy about a man who, after losing his job, is forced to move his family out of Buenos Aires to the Tigre Delta, a fairly remote patchwork of waterways to the north. Desperate to pay off his debts to his uncle and return to the capital, he takes on a job selling apartments in a new high-rise development (via the showroom of the film’s title). While his wife and daughter grow more attached to the slower pace of life in Tigre, the man (Diego Peretti) becomes obsessed by his work and the aspirations he tries to instil in others. The results aren’t pretty.


I wanted to start with this film because, oddly enough, it helps me articulate some of the aspects of Santiago which I find disturbing. This is odd because Showroom is on one level a very Argentine film: Diego Peretti, the lead actor, is a renowned comedian in his country, and the film plays with a roster of national stereotypes: the uncle, for instance, is a typical vivo criollo, someone out for their own gain at the expense of all others, but who hides their individualism behind a  front of affability and backslapping.

The name of the new high-rise development the protagonist sells, Palermo Boulevard, is also a nod to a phenomenon specific to Buenos Aires: the ever-expanding list of subdivisions which have been added to the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo in an attempt to marketise place and atmosphere: Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, Alto Palermo, Palermo Chico, Palermo Queens. This last one, it is worth noting, is simply the rebranding of a neighbourhood with its own historic identity: Villa Crespo.

So, much in Showroom has to do with the particular topography of present-day Buenos Aires. Yet in laying bare the ideology which presents quality of life as a form of capital, as accumulation of amenities (swimming pool, gym, security cameras) the film points at something which is easily visible on the other side of the Andes. In fact, as I walked out of the cinema last night, I passed a hoarding advertising a new development eerily similar to the one in Molnar’s film.

Santiago is, in short, a city full of capitalised spaces. The film festival took place in two enormous Hoyts multiplex cinemas, one of which is located in Parque Arauco, a gigantic, luxury shopping mall in a posh neighbourhood. An odd setting, perhaps, for a film festival. But then the organisers have little room for manoeuvre: there are, I think, three independent cinema screens in all of Santiago. One film I didn’t manage to see at SANFIC, Chicago Boys (Carola Fuentes, Chile, 2015), in a sense explores how this situation came about: how, under Pinochet, a group of economists helped turn Chile in a laboratory for free-market economics pushed to extremes.

I can’t leave things so downbeat, though. Santiago is not a city that lavishes its charms upon you at first meeting: it can feel a bit grey, a bit tired, a bit too in thrall to commerce. It holds back, demanding slower, more painstaking exploration. But the rewards are not insubstantial: today, for instance, I discovered the Barrio Yungay, full of elegant old houses and vibrant murals. There is, moreover, the constantly consoling fact that on a good day, you can stand facing north at any major intersection, turn to your right, and look up at the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.

Writing twilight

April 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have a favourite time of day, but I couldn’t tell you when it is. It’s the point when daylight has faded so that everything has a kind of matt dullness, but it’s not ‘dark’. The sun might be behind the horizon, but there’s plenty of leftover light tingeing the sky. Streetlights are flickering on, but seem out of place, or mistimed. You can’t fix this moment to a point on the clock.

The photographs of Gregory Crewdson capture this spectacularly:


Gregory Crewdson
Untitled from the series ‘Beneath the Roses’
Digital chromogenic print
Width 2236 mm x height 1148 mm
Private Collection, courtesy White Cube
© Gregory Crewdson


Gregory Crewdson
Untitled from the series ‘Beneath the Roses’
Digital chromogenic print
Width 2236 mm x 1148 mm
Private Collection, courtesy White Cube
© Gregory Crewdson


There is an erosion of the categories of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ here, which becomes an erosion of the categories of ‘dream’ and ‘reality’: the scenes depicted are drab and suburban, and yet also otherwordly.

For me, the work of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño achieves the same effect in prose. Everyday objects are granted an unsettling, dream-like luminosity. And el atardecer, dusk or twilight, that point somewhere between afternoon and evening, is a time (a place?) his characters frequently inhabit. One of his stories is called ‘Últimos atardeceres en la tierra’. It gets called ‘Last Evenings on Earth’ in English, which lacks some ambiguity.

I’m reading his mammoth, posthumous novel 2666 at the moment. There are plenty of moments in it which evoke the otherworldliness of twilight: in its light, the city of Santa Teresa becomes a ‘ciudad fantasma’ (‘ghost city’), and colours become like ‘mariposas gigantescas danzando mientras la noche avanzaba como un cojo por el oeste’ (‘giant dancing butterflies as night limped forward in the west’). It is not an entirely comforting time, either: the dusk sky is described as ‘una flor carnívora’ (‘a carnivorous flower’).

It is Bolaño’s skill in painting that half-light in words, in evoking the utter strangeness of those fleeting moments, that makes reading even a 1,000-page novel by him a pleasure.


September 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

This time last week, I was on the other side of the Andes. I made a 4 day trip to Chile to see some friends from Cambridge and enjoy the ‘Fiestas Patrias’, independence celebrations centred around the 18th of September. As far as I could make out, Chileans seem to celebrate the event either with a barbecue at home with family and friends, or by heading to one of the enormous events called fondas in public parks. The couple we went to in Santiago had live music, cueca (a traditional Chilean dance), horses, and enormous quantities of food and drink. Some fairly unusual drinks at that, of which the most intriguing, and most deadly, was terremoto, a combination of wine made from discarded grapes, grenadine and pineapple ice cream.

By far the best part of the fondas, though, we found in the Parque O’Higgins on the 18th itself. This park, named after the liberator Bernardo O’Higgins, has an enormous military parade ground which on the 18th has a much better use: kite-flying. On that day, it was sunny, there was just the right amount of wind, and watching the hundreds of paper squares floating against the backdrop of the Andes was magical. We got stuck in ourselves, as well – though we discovered it’s not as easy as it looks. After (comparatively) shelling out for a slightly fancier model, we were off the ground, notwithstanding constant tangles with our neighbours.

We lost one of our patriotic kites as a result – the string was cut and it glided off to another part of the park, to make some kid’s day. A kite runner would have come in handy at that point. In fact, there are apparently clubs in Chile that organise kite duels à la Khaled Hosseini, with glass string and all. It must be thrilling – I can’t think how many years it had been since I’d flown a kite, but I realise now how much fun I’d been missing out on.

The other highlight of the trip was a day spent in Valparaíso – something I’d been meaning to do for a few years (probably ever since I saw The Motorcycle Diaries). This city, the major port of Chile, is simultaneously rather rough and grubby and very beautiful – it is a jumble of coloured houses and 100 year old funiculars spread across hills above the Pacific. There’s a great maritime museum, but most of all, it’s a photographer’s paradise, and allowed me to take some further (tentative) steps in working out how to use my new camera.

Strangely enough, Chile reminded me a great deal more of Peru than of Argentina, despite the fact that it’s much closer to the latter in terms of wealth and development. It may have been something to do with the accent, the slang, or the food. In any case, it had the pleasing effect of making going back to Buenos Aires feel even more like coming home.


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