In the early 1940s, Jacques Chonchol travelled with his father from Santiago to the south of Chile to visit a friend of the family who owned a large agricultural estate.
One day while exploring the property on foot, he was invited into the home of an inquilino – peasants who worked for only food, the right to build a shack and cultivate garden crops on landowners’ marginal fields. “Their homes were made of mud and bricks. There was no proper floor, just dirt, no bathroom, plumbing or drinking water,” he recalls. “I thought it was a scandal because in the main house they had everything.”
The asymmetry between rich and poor left a lasting impression on Chonchol. In November 1970, as the newly minted minister of agriculture for democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, he spearheaded a radical agrarian reform program under which thousands of privately owned farms were expropriated and redistributed to inquilinos as cooperatives, collective farms or agrarian reform centres. “The land is for he who works on it,” the Allendistas used to say, quoting early 20th-century Mexican peasant rebel leader Emiliano Zapata.
Fidel Castro, who had implemented Soviet-style agrarian reform in his country a decade earlier, approved. During a state visit to Chile in 1971, the Cuban dictator chided landowners and donned a poncho and straw horseman’s hat – the clothing of the inquilinos – in a show of solidarity.
But Chile’s experiment with agrarian reform failed – along with its very first harvest. Within months of Chonchol taking office, food staples began disappearing from shelves and people had to queue for hours to buy milk and bread. Radical socialist interventions forced upon other sections of the economy bore the same rotten fruit, creating Venezuelan-style shortages of everything from petrol to toothpaste.
Image: A Mapuche inquilino family | Courtesy of Jacques Choncol
On September 11, 1973, a constitutional crisis gave army chief General Augusto Pinochet the ammunition he needed to stage a successful coup d’état. President Allende suicided, the constitution was annulled and thousands of actual and alleged Allendistas were executed or disappeared.
When Chonchol’s name appeared on Pinochet’s ‘death list’, he scrambled to the Venezuelan Embassy in Santiago and waited nine months until a deal was struck and he was offered asylum in France. There, he taught agricultural economics at the University of Paris for 20 years, rising to the position of director of the Institute of Latin American Studies.
Now 93 and in the twilight of his life, Mr Chonchol, who is this reporter’s second uncle, is back in Chile and, like Kissinger, wholly unrepentant over the sins of his past. He argues the popular narrative demonises and distorts the legacy of agrarian reform in Chile, for it gave roots to the much more efficient and productive capitalist agriculture the country enjoys today.
In his latest book, For a New Agrarian Reform for Chile, Chonchol writes about new threats facing the string bean-shaped country’s limited farmland today: urban sprawl, the privatisation of water resources and forestry monoculture.
“All those stories about the inquilinos running expropriated farms to the ground and eating all the livestock were invented by the far-right in 1973 to justify the coup. Agricultural production actually increased while I was the minister,” he says, adding: “I was never a socialist nor a communist. I was always progressive.”
After interviewing Chonchol at his home in Santiago, I travelled 700 kilometres south to Araucanía, the wheat belt of Chile, to test his argument and gauge the long-term consequences of land expropriation.
Mr Chonchol was not the first politician to propose reform of Chile’s semi-feudal farming system. That honorific goes to John F Kennedy. In the early 1960s, his administration promised aid for pro-small-farmer redistributive programs to reduce the risk of the spread of the Cuban revolution in Latin American.
Then right-wing Chilean President Jorge Alessandri gave the idea lip service but focused on rural literacy instead. His successor President Eduardo Frie Montalva kickstarted the program in earnest, expropriating 1,192 farms between 1964 to 1971. But Chonchol radicalised it, with 4,303 farms seized in accordance with his motto – “Make it fast, drastic and massive.”
“Under Frei Montalva, the expropriations were slower and more organised. They focused on abandoned and unproductive farms. But under Allende, they came in so fast and focused on the owners’ political affiliations,” says Dr Carola Reichert, a third-generation landowner in Temuco, Araucanía’s capital. “My parents were right-wing so their dairy farm was one of the first to go.”
Dr Reichert is one of a dozen landowners who rubbish everything Chonchol said during our interview, especially his claims that only a fraction of landowners were kicked out of their homes as most were wealthy investors whose primary residence were in Santiago; and that either way, landowners were compensated for their losses at agrarian tribunals.
“I was living in Santiago at the time because I was at studying medicine,” Dr Reichert says. “I remember having to join a line of hundreds of people to buy a kilo of sugar at the time and seeing long lines of cars in front of gas stations. To save fuel, the drivers would get out and push their cars as they progressed in the queue.
“But my family never lived anywhere but Araucanía. And we didn’t have ‘slaves’. All our workers were paid, and we had a very good relationship with them. Their children were my friends. When I was young and used to play in their homes, I clearly remember them having electricity. But then the socialists came, and everything changed. They took half our farm, 1,000 hectares, and gave it to strangers and some of our workers. We were supposed to get compensation but like everyone else we got nothing,” (a 1979 study published by the International Journal of Agriculture and Natural Resources shows compensation received by landowners during the Allende period totalled less than 10 per cent of the value of expropriated land).
Inquilino man chopping wood | Courtesy of Jacques Chonchol
“It was incredibly hard for my father,” Dr Reichert continues. “We had two barns next to our house and one was declared the property of the state. He didn’t want strangers trespassing on the land they’d left him, so he dissembled one of the barns and reassembled it by hand on the other side of the property. Then, on September first, 1973, they sent us a 15-day eviction notice. They were going to take the rest of the land and our house. My mother spent weeks moving all the old furniture out, all our family heirlooms, but then the military took over on September 11 and we got to stay. But lots of people I know lost their houses. Our neighbours were evicted, and their house was turned into a school. Later it was destroyed.”
She adds: “I hate Jacques Chonchol. I don’t understand how someone so intelligent can be a socialist. Walk into a forest and there are big trees and little trees. It’s the same with people. Some want to work hard, others don’t, so some will have things and others won’t. But he wanted everyone to be the same.”
Elizabeth Dreckman de Roth, owner of a 3,000-hectare canola, spud and dairy farm 30 kilometres south of Temuco, voices similar disdain for the former minister many in Chile call ‘Attila’. A German migrant who married an Araucanian landowner in the 1960s, Dreckman de Roth has had the misfortune of having her home expropriated twice in her 80 years.
The first time was during WWII when her parents were ordered to billet her fanatical Nazi schoolteacher and other administrators of the Third Reich. The second time was in 1971 when the Allende Government took half her in-laws’ 3,000-hectare farm. “The rage you feel when someone takes your home, it never leaves you,” she says. “Not even after 50 years.”
Dreckman de Roth’s in-laws lost all hope for Chile and moved abroad after the seizure. But she and her husband stayed on, working double-time to grow what they could to survive. “Do you know why we have the biggest house in this area?” she says. “Not because we took advantage of our workers like your uncle claims. It’s because my late husband was the first one to get up for work in the morning and the last one to go to bed at night.”
“THE RAGE YOU FEEL WHEN SOMEONE TAKES YOUR HOME, IT NEVER LEAVES YOU,” SHE SAYS. “NOT EVEN AFTER 50 YEARS.”
Her son-in-law Sven Bergstrom says Chonchol’s claim that inquilinos toiled without wages is false. “They didn’t work for free, they were paid, but there was a special system in place. In those days, all these farms were remote. There were very few roads and only landowners had cars. The inquilinos had no way to get to the stores, so once a month their boss drove to the nearest town and bought food and whatever else they wanted on their behalf. Did some landowners abuse this system and overcharge their workers? Yes, abuse was widespread. Probably half of the landowners did it, I’d say. I remember visiting farms when I was a kid and seeing inquilinos living in abject poverty.”
Chonchol’s belief that he still did the right thing despite the food shortages his policies caused is based on his claim that agrarian reform freed tens of thousands of inquilinos from inter-generational slavery. “Afterwards they were able to organise, form unions and negotiate better working conditions and pay,” he says.
But according to the World Bank, the impact of land reform on poverty in Latin America has been “disappointing ” and Araucanía, where Chonchol focused his efforts, remains the poorest region in Chile.
Bergstrom takes it one step further, arguing the descendants of the inquilinos – the overwhelming majority of whom are indigenous Mapuche – still live in poverty today because of land reform in the 1970s. “When the socialists gave them land, they didn’t have the skills, capital or experience in managing farms. They all sold their little plots the first chance they got. Most of it ended up in the hands of the ‘Chicago Boys’ – powerful industrial families that planted millions of hectares of pine and eucalyptus in the south of Chile. Forestry is now the second biggest export earner in Chile after copper, but it employs fewer people than grazing or farming. So they were left with no land – and no jobs.”
ACTION AND REACTION
Back in Santiago, Chonchol explained how food staples became scarce during his tenure as Chile’s agricultural minister despite his claim that agricultural output increased during his tenure.
“Food shortages were caused by reforms Allende implemented in other parts of the economy. He was nationalising the banks, the copper mines and creating all kinds of economic contradictions. He increased the minimum wage and that created much more demand for food. Inflation shot up. And in 1972, we had a very hard winter. Lots of crops failed.
Jacques Chonchol with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro | Courtesy of Jacques Chonchol
“We hoped to recuperate the next summer, but then the truck drivers went on strike and that disrupted the supply chain. There was also lots of speculation going on where investors were buying large amounts of grain and storing it to push the value up so they could sell it for a much higher price later on.”
Chonchol also points the finger at U.S. meddling: “Allende had nationalised the copper mines and refused to compensate the American companies on the ground as they’d already gotten very rich doing business in Chile. Nixon was never going to tolerate that and so he made it difficult for Chile to sell its copper overseas.”
Erik von Baer, a German migrant who owns a 175-hectare seed farm on the outskirts of Temuco is uniquely positioned to comment on Chonchol’s interpretation of history. From 1969 to 1974, he was a senior technician for the Ministry of Agriculture in Temuco where Chonchol based himself during his first two months in office.
“Most of what he said is true,” Von Baer comments. “Yes, the truck drivers were on strike but why did they on strike? Because Allende nationalised the trucking industry and expropriated all the trucks. But the drivers rebelled and removed the carburettors from their trucks, making them useless.”
Yet did agricultural output really increase as Chonchol claims? Data from the National Institute of Statistics of Chile show the opposite is true. The International Food Policy Research Institute concurs, concluding agrarian reform in Chile had “a direct and negative impact on production, measured both by gross output and by output per worker”.
Von Baer also recalls specific significant reductions in supply chain efficiencies for wheat during the socialist period. “The wheat we were storing in Temuco, 35 to 40 per cent rotted. That’s exactly the same level of rot the Soviet Union had at its big state farms. Collective farming doesn’t work because it lacks economic incentives.
“One day during the socialist period, I was sent to a wheat farm to see if I could improve their yield. When I arrived at 10am, the labourers hadn’t even started working. When I asked them why, they said because their colleagues hadn’t arrived and they would all get paid the same no matter how many hours they worked, so they didn’t think it was fair for them to start work until the others did too. I asked them what time they started work under their old boss and they said 8 am because unless they had a good excuse they could be fired.”
Image: Jacques Chonchol preaching to the converted | Courtesy of Jacques Chonchol
Von Baer says Chonchol’s lack of remorse is a symptom of his fanaticism.
“One of the characteristics of fanatics,” Von Baer says, “is that they don’t listen – they go through life with blinkers on. Your uncle continues to be a fanatic in that he still thinks taking peoples’ farms was the righteous thing to do because his intervention started a chain reaction.”
Chonchol’s hypothesis – that without the shock of reform in the 1970s Chile would not have enjoyed dynamic growth in the decades that followed – is supported by a number of historians and academics. But an opposing camp, Von Baer included, points out the hypothesis calls for a counterfactual that’s very hard to prove: “By those lines,” he says, “one could also argue the reforms, the way they took so much private property so violently and so quickly, caused an equally violent counter-reaction: the military coup and dictatorship Chile endured for 16 years.
So, the dictatorship and all the people who were killed, according to his argument, that was his doing, too.”
Fourth-generation canola farmer Francisca Roth sums up Chonchol’s legacy in simpler terms. “I get it,” she says. “He saw poor people and wanted to help them. But instead of giving them his own things, he took our things to give to them.”
JACQUES CHONCHOL ON...
Fidel Castro “Physically he was a very big and imposing man, quite macho and very convinced of the righteousness of his ideas. He was very interested in our experience with agrarian reform in Chile. We spent lots of time talking about it.”
Che Guevara “I saw him a few times while working for the UN food program in Havana in the early sixties. The most memorable occasion was when I was asked to translate at a meeting between Che and a French politician called René Dumont. Che kept unusual hours and the meeting was set at his office at 3 am. But when Dumont and I arrived, we were told he was held up in another meeting. Half an hour later, his office door swung opened and Che strolled out with an American man wearing a big cowboy hat. It was C Wright Mills, the famous sociologist.
Hugo Chávez “I met him when I visited Venezuela when he was president. I was attending a conference with a few other academics and he spent two or three days showing us around. What surprised me most about Chávez was how much of an environmentalist he was. He was very interested in anything to do with conserving nature.”
Nicholas Maduro “He's no good. Chávez was much smarter. Venezuela is a mess. But military intervention is not an option. In Latin America, the idea of foreign invasion is anathema to most people, no matter how bad things get.
AFTER THE FACT...
It wasn’t easy for me to write this story – in more ways than one.
Logistically speaking, I spent two months travelling around Chile trying to pinpoint people willing to recount how their farms were seized and other painful events that took place nearly half a century ago. The task was made even more difficult by the fact that many of them hold my uncle Jacques Chonchol directly responsible for the socialist experiment that ripped apart friends, families and an entire country. On a few occasions, I was given marching orders and accused of being a communist sympathiser after disclosing Jacques and I were related. One source even reported me to the police.
The other thing that made this story difficult to write is that Jacques will probably consider it a betrayal of his kindness towards me. I only met the man twice in my life and both times he rolled out the red carpet for me. The first was time was in the early 1990s, when I was a near-penniless backpacker hitchhiking around Europe. When I called Jacques out of the blue and after explaining who I was, he invited me into his home and let me crash on his couch for a week.
The second time I saw him was last summer in Chile when I travelled there with my parents to celebrate my grandmother’s hundredth birthday. Jacques invited me into his home and spent an entire afternoon answering my questions. He didn’t flinch when I explained I planned to travel to the countryside and cross-check everything he’d told me, or when I asked him emotionally charged questions such as “How would you like it if someone took your home?” No matter how challenging the question, he had an answer, and an intelligent one, every time.
Nevertheless, most of what he told me, such as his claim that agricultural production in Chile increased while he was minister, proved utterly false. And, on a brighter note, there is a chance, however small, that this story will make my uncle re-evaluate his recollections and see things differently than he saw them before. That is, after all, what journalism is all about.
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