By Joshua Frens-String, author Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile

Few sounds are more closely associated with social disquiet in contemporary Chile than the rhythmic, collective banging of empty saucepans. I remember first hearing the metallic beat of the cacerolazo in mid-2011 as I began research in the Chilean capital, Santiago—research that eventually culminated in the publication of my new book Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile. High school and university students had taken to the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities to demand major reforms to the country’s education system. The educational model is a besieged relic of the conservative dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and the resounding noise of the metal protest olla (pot), as well as the slogans the students chanted as they marched that year, called to mind similar demonstrations two and a half decades earlier that had helped end the repressive Pinochet regime.

However, through my research into an earlier period of Chilean history, I began to realize that the political significance of the olla was often quite literal. In fact, the pot’s emergence as a symbol of protest resided in the very product whose absence the familiar clanging sound enabled. Decades of struggle by Chileans to consistently access food associated with a healthy, dignified standard of living turned the olla vacía into a metonym for social discontent going back decades.

As I show in Hungry for Revolution, ordinary Chileans citizens’ anxieties about food—where it was produced, how it was distributed, how it was accessed, and when and under what conditions it was consumed—were at the center of how the country’s emergent urban working class understood concepts like democracy and development during the mid-twentieth century. In turn, it was through the creation of robust food policies—everything ranging from government price controls on essential comestibles to the promotion of agricultural reform—that the Chilean state sought to meet urban consumers’ demands, and thus contain the threat of social unrest. Working in state archives and reading a wide range of newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications, I found that studying the politics of food in Chile not only provided a unique lens into the process of modern state formation; it also unlocked new interpretations about the social and economic concerns that fed revolutionary dreams in Chile during those same decades—most notably those associated with Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity (UP) coalition (1970-1973).

To portray twentieth-century Chile as a country racked with everyday economic uncertainty—and to highlight the importance of food to that process—may not seem groundbreaking. But it’s a description that unsettles the foundational dimensions of Chilean “exceptionalism,” a narrative that thrives on anecdotes about Chile’s representative democracy and relative economic development, particularly when compared to many of its regional neighbors.

Consider the centrality of food to the social and political formation of Chile’s storied nitrate workers movement. As I suggest in the book, the hunger that such workers faced while they excavated nitrogen-rich salts that restored agricultural vitality to the fields of Europe and North America was lamented by turn-of-the-century labor activists as the great contradiction of working-class life. Food scarcity and the exorbitant cost of consumer essentials that were sold in company stores, or pulperías, became a rallying cry for laborers on the arid nitrate plains during the early twentieth century. The chasm between the nutritional abundance produced by Chilean laborers and the everyday experience of nutritional scarcity was enough to turn any worker into a political radical.

“The chasm between the nutritional abundance produced by Chilean laborers and the everyday experience of nutritional scarcity was enough to turn any worker into a political radical.”

Joshua Frens-String

After being displaced from the fledgling nitrate fields of northern Chile to cities further south after the European invention of synthetic fertilizers, many of these same ex-nitrate workers took their grievances to the streets of Santiago and Valparaíso in 1918 and 1919, marching under the banner of the curiously named Asamblea Obrera de Alimentación Nacional (Workers Assembly for National Nutrition, AOAN). As the AOAN’s name suggested, the rising cost and limited availability of food for Chile’s popular sectors was the movement’s principal complaint. “Agriculturalist politicians get rich, while the working people are left emaciated,” read one AOAN protest placard. Such language underscored protestors’ belief that the state’s failure to adequately regulate the food economy produced profound inequity. 

From the perspective of the Chilean state, the protests of those years represented a warning sign of things to come. In turn, state officials pursued key reforms with the goal of quelling discontent. In 1932, an executive decree established arguably the first permanent consumer price control office in the Americas. (That same decree, Decree-Law 520, would later form the legal basis for President Salvador Allende’s creation of a socialist economic sector). Other pieces of social legislation created social security programs and social welfare policies.  Under a series of popular-front style coalitions in the late 1930s and early 1940s, this reformist impulse included the establishment of agencies and initiatives committed to protecting popular nutrition, including a network of state-run popular restaurants, consumer stores, and “milk bars.” Two decades later, Chile’s Agrarian Reform initiative, one of the most ambitious in all of twentieth-century Latin America, sought to simultaneously integrate rural peasants into the nation, dismantle large landholdings, and break Chile’s overdependence on expensive foreign food imports.

In many ways, the 1970 election of Dr. Salvador Allende, a trained medical doctor whose intellectual training had occurred in many of the same laboratories where chemists assessed the nutritional value of vitamins and minerals in the 1930s, represented the culmination of decades of struggle over popular nutrition and working-class consumption. Allende promised that Chile’s democratic revolution would be flavored with the “taste of empanadas (hand pies) and red wine”—a catchy reference to both the unique national character of Chile’s experiment as well as its most basic material objectives. In the first months of the UP revolution, the Allende government’s policies appeared to do just that as the fundamental elements of dietary decency—meat, bread, and beans for workers and milk for children—seemed abundant. These essential products became defining elements of the “fiesta” that consumed Chile during the UP’s first year.

However, as economic challenges reemerged during the UP’s second and third years in power, food became the basis of counterrevolutionary critique as well. In late1971, the empty saucepan was brandished as a symbol of middle and upper-class discontent with a Chilean state that some argued was too interventionist. For arguably the first time in twentieth-century Chile, anti-Allende women’s groups argued that when it came to food, the state was interfering too much, rather than not enough, in domestic lives. In these protests, and others like it—for example, the October 1972 strike of Chilean truckers who argued that the Allende government was becoming too heavily involved in the distribution of basic goods in the country—were the seeds of the Chilean free-market counterrevolution that the Pinochet dictatorship would soon usher in.

It’s only been in the last decade that a new generation of Chileans has begun to call into question the economic logic that was planted by the opposition to Allende and then bloomed under Pinochet. Most recently, Chile’s estallido social (social uprising), which erupted in October 2019, produced a historic coalescence of social groups committed to rewriting Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution and refounding the country. (In mid-May 2021, Chileans took the next step in that process, electing a citizen-led constituent assembly to begin drafting a new national charter). 

While issues of food and hunger are no longer at the center of debates about equality and democracy, a commitment to guaranteeing the same basic social and economic rights that Allende had advocated in the early 1970s has returned. The unmistakable clanging of the empty saucepan again represents a cry of discontent and the promise of a more decent and dignified standard of living for all Chileans.

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