Tales from Valparaiso (and beyond) No. 10

There are a number of stray dogs who live on our street – as in every street here. Walking uphill with Adriana the other day she said hello to all of them in turn (“fuerte! you're a big strong boy!”). Only one of them, as far as I know, she knows by name, a rather elderly more-or-less-alsatian called César who is always asleep around the corner, along with a rather meaty black dog. The town centre is full of them, usually deeply and peacefully asleep among the passing feet. Dogs exhibit aggression when they think they are defending their territory – especially when a fence allows them to be all bark and no bite. Living on the street they have no need for any of that, and are relaxed and off-duty (with a few exceptions which I'll come to). I have only once in all my time here seen an undernourished dog – and that was out in the country near Quintero. Generally people look after them well. They put cardboard out for them to lie on and leave piles of dried dog food in strategic positions. The pet food industry does a roaring trade here (the dogs do pretty well out of the rubbish collection system here too, seeing as there are no dustbins, only plastic bags left on the street – the whole bottom stretch of our street was like a landfill site the other day after the contents of a dozen or so bags had been dragged out across the tarmac for canine inspection). Of course, what the dogs leave behind means that you have to tread very carefully around town – and, there being no rain, it takes a while for the dirt to turn to dust, as it were. They have embarked on a programme of sterilisation of street dogs here – they wouldn't dream of anything more drastic.

But I was going to come to the exceptions – one in particular. On Saturday, because Ann had a huge backlog of marking to do over the weekend, I headed off on my own for a long walk – ten miles or so – up and over the hill behind the town - past the prison with washing hanging outside the cell windows; through the new cemetery; across the main Santiago road and, after a moderately unsuccessful attempt to find walk-able paths, down along the road to Laguna Verde. Arriving hot I made for the beach for a swim. The ramshackle shack-type houses stretch across a flat area above the beach with sandy tracks between. It was when I had slogged it through the village, across the recreation field where children were playing football, past the school, and when I was within twenty yards of the beach that I was suddenly confronted by a massive pit bull terrier, one of a pair of dogs who seemed to take issue with my right of way. Used to the lovable city dogs, I tried ignoring them and walking on, but the pit bull rounded on me and blocked my way, standing snarling about three feet away, looking up, muscles taught. Naturally I stopped. I thought to go back, but my turning to go back seemed to infuriate the dog more, so I stopped again and stood there stock still, which seemed to be the only way to keep the snarling from escalating. I noticed a group of people coming the other way, a family group coming from the beach, which I hoped might defuse the situation, but, sensibly, seeing what was going on, they turned back. For quite a long time I stood still saying “good boy” gently in English (the dog knew thereby that I was not only insincere, but a gringo). Eventually I found that I was able to edge gently backwards without causing offence until there was enough distance between us for it to be acceptable, according to pit bull codes of honour, to turn and walk away (passing the family coming along the parallel track).

We spent last weekend in Buenos Aires, where Edgar Ferrer,who teaches at a music conservatory there, kindly let us photocopy a heap of tango music. He told us that, once the banks had gone bust ten years ago or so, everything got better – I thought that might be encouraging for you Europeans to know. Some friends with whom we stayed were infuriated by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's clumsy Peronist populist policies. Juan is currently president of a national committee looking into hydrocarbon issues (his day job is working for Petrobras) and he was in despair about the ineptitude of the government – he said he couldn't think of one intelligent thing which any politician had done in Argentina in ten years. In particular he was angry that the Argentine government had allowed the national oil company to be bought up by the Spanish, thereby denying themselves any possibility of having a say in planning the future of that industry – or, indeed, planning beyond it. We both spoke fondly of Norway, and how that country had, over many years, managed its natural resources wisely and to the benefit of its people.

Piñera, Chile's president, has also been cocking things up on that front here – allowing himself to be ludicrously outmanouevred by Anglo American Sur in the state-owned mining company, Codelco's, attempt to buy their way into a couple of lucrative new copper mines up north. Codelco, the last vestige of the nationalised copper industry which Pinochet largely privatised, have a statutory right to buy 49% of this mine – an opportunity which opens up every two years it seems – but, having announced in advance that they intended to take up this statutory option come January, Anglo American had plenty of time to sell 24% of it to Mitsibushi instead, so that the 49% would no longer be available (so there!) Piñera has made a few muted comments (at a dinner attended by Anglo American grandees, amongst others), and Codelco are taking Anglo American to court over it (fat lot of good – the deal's already done). The big transnational companies seem to have free rein here – a perfect unregulated environment. The whole issue of copper, and the fact that (unlike Norway) the country's unbelievably rich natural resources bring hardly any benefit to ordinary people has become part of the rhetoric of the students' movement – the slogan “Copper is the answer to Education” much daubed around the town. The old imperialist exploitation seems to go on the same – except that it's now largely copper and lithium, rather than silver and gold. Piñera seems happy to take the coloured beads – and to let the clever foreigners take what they want if he can occasionally be allowed to dress up and sit with them at table. The Spanish, for example, now not only own all Chile's telecommunications industry, but also, in theory, all of Chile's rivers. They can do what they want with them and are doing just that – and the campaign against the ruinous hydro-electric damming of several rivers down south seems to have fizzled out completely. The student movement has also largely run out of steam – or, at least, has fractured. Chile rolls over onto its back like a street dog – where's that pit bull spirit? No Pasaran!

Robert McFall

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