- Bread, Justice, and Liberty: Grassroots Activism and Human Rights in Pinochet’s Chile by Alison J. Bruey
The meaning of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973–90) and the subsequent transition to democracy have long been subjects of both scholarly and popular debate, [End Page 506] especially in the research on memory struggles that has boomed over the last 15 years. Studies have also explored the political and economic continuities between the dictatorship and transitional governments, as well as the roles and experiences of both workers and elites. Alison Bruey, however, focuses on often overlooked actors: the urban poor of the shantytowns (poblaciones).
It is now well known that pobladores were among the main protagonists of the mass protests of the mid 1980s. As Bruey points out, however, scholars, as well as the media and the political elite, have minimized the significance of pobladores’ contribution to ending the Pinochet regime by portraying their actions as uncalculated. As Bruey shows, the dictatorship branded the poblaciones as hotbeds of Marxism and targeted them for state violence. The transitional governments, however, did little to vindicate pobladores in the years following the dictatorship. Instead, they painted pobladores as delinquents engaging in unnecessary and undiscerning violence. This, Bruey contends, solidified the narrative of an electoral, peaceful transition to democracy steered rightfully by the elite political class and sought to justify the civilian governments’ own repression of pobladores.
Bruey debunks that myth by considering pobladores as legitimate political actors and agents of historical change. Drawing on oral histories and wide-ranging archival research, she argues that pobladores in fact made the fall of the dictatorship possible through a tradition of grassroots organizing that long preceded the 1973 coup. Furthermore, by emphasizing pobladores’ lived experiences, Bruey uncovers how local notions of human rights were fleshed out in concrete ways. Taking the emblematic poblaciones of Villa Francia and La Legua—commonly deemed violent and combative—Bruey explores the impact of Marxists, as well as Catholics who promoted liberation theology, on building a grassroots movement in the poblaciones. A major strength of the book is its treatment of generational divides over ideology and organizational strategy, findings stemming largely from indispensable oral histories. Bruey thereby allows readers to see pobladores not as one homogenous group, but as collectivities with varied actors and perspectives.
The book contains an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter 1 provides a history of La Legua and Villa Francia, in which readers are introduced to the Catholic and Marxist (and Marxist-Catholic) activists who helped launch organizing efforts for low-income housing in the 1960s and 1970s. The second and third chapters explore pobladores’ experiences and memories of the 1973 coup and the first decade of the dictatorship. A pivotal fourth chapter analyzes resistance and solidarity practices that emerged in the face of the regime’s repression. Here, Bruey discusses the diverse influences on grassroots organizing in the poblaciones and the spaces—like the Cristo Liberador Church in Villa Francia—in which the daily work of organizing took place. The last two chapters move into the resistance and mass mobilizations against the dictatorship in the 1980s, and the epilogue discusses the shortcomings of the human [End Page 507] rights discourses and practices employed by the transitional governments and the repression that continued as Bruey completed the book.
Indeed, Chile currently faces a social and political crisis that has called into question the economic and political legacies of the dictatorship and the civilian governments of the last 30 years. For many observers, the October 2019 mass mobilizations seemed spontaneous; however, Bruey’s work compels us to reflect on how marginalized sectors of society have maintained political consciousness and activism for over half a century, despite how they have been portrayed by the political class and in the media. Bruey’s book is essential reading for scholars and students who wish to understand the history of activism, human rights, and the urban poor under Pinochet, in addition to the...