The Chilean Coup Set Environmental Policy Back Decades

Before Chile’s coup, Salvador Allende’s government was engaged in plans to reform the environmentally destructive copper industry. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship put a stop to them, crushing organized labor in the process.

Workers of the Codelco Ventanas smelter protest to demand greater investment in pollution mitigation on June 14, 2022 in Puchuncaví, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, on September 11, 1973, Chilean armed forces traversed the Quintero Bay and stormed the Ventanas copper smelter and refinery, breaking into its fences from the beach and swiftly occupying the factory. The CIA-backed coup d’état against Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government is usually visualized through the traumatic images of Hawker Hunter jets bombing the presidential palace and soldiers dragging thousands of political prisoners to Santiago’s National Stadium, where many faced torture and assassination.

While those gruesome scenes played out, the army took over the country’s key industries such as the copper-processing factories and other strategic sectors. The aim was to attack the strongholds of labor militancy on which Allende’s government had sought to rely for a transition to socialism. Almost fifty years later, copper is center stage again. S&P Global, a financial information and analytics firm, claimed that — if the shift from “a fuel-intensive to a mineral-intensive energy system” gets on track — copper demand will double by 2035 and continue to increase afterward. However, the growing gap between supply and demand could, the firm warned, endanger the energy transition and become “a key destabilizing threat to international security.”

The horrific record of Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal dictatorship in terms of killings, tortures, forced disappearances, and political detentions is by now clear, even to liberal and conservative apologists for his crimes. The ecological impact of the dictatorship has, however, garnered less attention. The industrial area of Ventanas, known today as Chile’s most emblematic “sacrifice zone” (areas permanently altered by environmental damage), is a dramatic example of this. There, the dictatorship cut short a plan to upgrade the Ventanas copper-processing complex that was proposed under Allende’s government in response to pressures by factory workers and local farmers, who had complained of the noxious impacts of pollution. Absent reform, the nearby towns like Puchuncaví and Quintero were subject to almost two decades of unrestricted pollution.

From a broader perspective, Chile’s neoliberal dictatorship — by reversing Allende’s attempt to further industrialize recently nationalized copper production — entrenched the economy of the country in its colonial function as an exporter of primary products. This extractivist strategy was pursued with no qualms about pollution and health impacts, adding to the abrupt violence of political repression and the slow violence of toxic contamination. The long-term consequences of these harms offers important lessons for how we ought to think about the energy transition today.

A Toxic Coup

The construction of a copper-processing complex in Ventanas — an agricultural and fishing community in the town of Puchuncaví, bordering with the town of Quintero — began in 1960. The Chilean authorities had tasked a West German consortium with building the complex and established the state-owned Chilean Mining Company (ENAMI) to take it over. Although the technology was in existence when the project started, ENAMI’s plant did not feature an emission-capture system. Despite this, delays, cost overruns, and accidents became the norm throughout the building process.

“The machinery,” reported a worker in the pages of the left-wing La Unidad, “was so faulty that we entered at 7am but never knew when we’d get out . . . we had to lift and check approximately 3,000 bars weighting 120 kilos each. . . . And, worst of all, the product was worth nothing, because the chemical tests delivered bad results.” So chaotically planned was the plant that one of its managers, frustrated by the problems he encountered, attempted suicide.

When the leftist coalition Popular Unity (UP) brought Allende to the presidency by winning the September 4, 1970 elections, a new cohort of young, left-leaning graduates and students began crossing the factory gates. The main UP parties — the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and Popular Unitary Action Movement (Left-Christian) — all had factory groups in Ventanas. José Carrasco, president of the Ventanas workers’ association, was a Communist Party member. The extraparliamentary Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) also had a member on the association’s board, Guillermo Sotomayor, also known as Caballo Loco (Crazy Horse). Nonetheless, the centrist Christian Democracy kept a large following, and the debate among the workers was thus lively and sometimes harsh. So when on July 11, 1971, the Chilean Congress unanimously approved the nationalization of all large-scale copper mines, which Allende called “the wage of Chile,” support was broad among the population, including Ventanas’s workers.

At Ventanas, workers denounced a long list of health and safety hazards: toxic gases and powders containing sulfur and arsenic, extreme temperatures, heavy weights, dangers of falling, ergonomic injuries, and overly long hours. Despite this, the company insisted that there were no “no toxic gases and that ulcers are not occupational diseases” associated with working within the plant. Before the coup, UP was gradually implementing preventive measures and protective equipment to improve conditions for the factory’s workers. In 1972, ENAMI constituted a national bipartite health and safety committee, which drafted a scathing report about the plant stressing its urgent need for reform.

Although concern for the environment is often seen as a recent development, many Ventanas workers and farmers were concerned with the destruction that the plant was wreaking on the nearby land and water. One white-collar employee we recently interviewed recalled that “people were very aware about the environment in those times, because they saw the impacts of sulfur pollution, and the workers had raised the issue. We wanted filters, new technologies, many things, even at that time! But then with the dictatorship we couldn’t do it.” By early 1973, ENAMI had prepared a plan featuring the installation of a sulfuric acid plant to capture part of the sulfur dioxide emissions coming from the factory, a flash smelting system, and other more up-to-date technologies.

Factory life was soon caught up in the troubles caused by the US-backed economic boycott and coup preparations, and intraleft divisions emerged around how to respond to these developments. Some workers made political contacts with the pirquineros, the small miners whose copper ENAMI was tasked to buy and process. The pirquineros were mostly left leaning and — more importantly — regularly handled dynamite as part of their job. Yet, eventually, the militant workers scrambling to prepare for the coup were faced with the abysmal asymmetry of firepower between the labor movement and the armed forces.

“We held meetings in the factory itself,” recalled Rafael Maldonado, a former ENAMI Ventanas employee and later political prisoner, “and people were desperate because they saw the coup coming but didn’t know what to do. . . . So we used to guard ENAMI’s transmission towers and, among all of us, we didn’t have one rifle! . . . The army knew very well what to do, they cut the telephones and attacked [ENAMI Ventanas] from the beach. And met no resistance. They occupied the factory in five minutes.” The coup brutally quashed any open form of labor organizing, and Ventanas was no exception. “For over one year we worked with armed soldiers in uniforms running the factory,” one worker recalled.

Witnesses of the coup estimated that hundreds of workers in Ventanas were laid off after Pinochet came to power, chiefly because of their political commitments. Of these, many were imprisoned and tortured in different detention centers. Once released, some went into exile, while others faced a life of deprivation on the blacklists of Pinochet’s government.

As well as the rampant abuse of human rights, Chile’s neoliberal dictatorship oversaw deindustrialization, destroying organized labor where it was strongest, and preserved an economy primarily orientated around the export of minerals and monocrops. In Ventanas, the coup prevented the upgrading of technology, which would have saved lives and mitigated the long-term degradation of the nearby natural environment.

It would take until the return of democracy in the 1990s for the factory to begin work on an emissions-capture system, after two decades of dictatorship and the destruction of large sections of the organized labor movement. By this point Chile’s left faced an uphill battle in its attempts to fight for equality and environmental justice.