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El Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha, Santiago, Chile

Charlotte MATHIVET, Claudio Pulgar


The resurgence of the poblador movement in Santiago, Chile

In Chile, the poblador movements (1) of the beginning of the 21st century are rooted in the long history of these movements’ struggle during the 20th century: there are therefore many similarities in their demands and actions. However there are three important differences from the movements of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (2): the fragmentation of the identity of the poblador; the aspiration to equality; and the fragmented action.

The fragmentation of the identity of the “poblador being” is the result of the political changes which have occurred in Chile since the military dictatorship (1973-1990) with the installation of a neoliberal economic, social and cultural model which has left its mark on the social fabric of the country. During the years of the dictatorship, which brought a lot of violence and poverty to the lives of pobladores, the enemy was visible and the struggle was clear. Now, with the return of democracy, it is not as easy to define what the pobladores are struggling for or against.

The identity of the poblador has become more complex due to the individualism generated by the neoliberal reforms introduced by the dictatorship as well as by the democracy, which have created a población resident who might not recognise themselves as a “poblador,” and who does not identify with their marginalized and poorly perceived local area. Today’s pobladores are “doubly disinherited: of their ancestors’ heritage and of the promises of contemporary modernity.” (3) One of the causes of this loss of identity may be explained by the housing policy which began under the dictatorship and which has been continued under democracy by the various governments of the Concertación (4) which translated, among other things, into the eradication of precarious settlements (slums, land seizures). Indeed, transferring families from slums to poblaciones of social housing which are very small and of poor quality, has in many cases caused the loss of strong social links which had been formed in the struggle to survive in the slum. This loss of strong networks, which were a support in day-to-day living, is felt by families when they first move into the población as a sensation even stronger than their poverty. Although they are pleased with the new comforts which they find in the low-income housing, they experience an atmosphere of “distrust, fear and insecurity.” (5)

It stems from situations of over-crowded households and a lack of decent housing that pobladores begin to organise themselves. This translates into struggles to recover public space through community organising, building a bridge between the old poblador movements and the current situation with the aspiration of recovering and strengthening social links between pobladores.

The History of the Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha: Brotherhood meetings to obtain adequate housing

In the indigenous Mapuche language Mapudungun, Peñilolén means “brotherhood meeting” which gave rise to the current name of Peñalolén, a district within Santiago, Chile. In the nineteenth century, the land in Peñalolén was divided into various estates of powerful landowning families. Since the 1960s, land seizures — illegal land occupations — have taken place in response to the lack of housing in Santiago and have contributed to a large part of the selfconstructed development of Peñalolén.

The last land occupation in Peñalolén occurred in 1999 when 1,700 households seized an area of 26 hectares. This act was notable not only for its scale (in terms of the number of households and the size of the occupied lot), but also because of its historical significance, occurring ten years into what was considered a successful housing policy by the Chilean government during the transition to democracy and during a period of poverty reduction in the country. This seizure is framed within a different political and economic context of the seizures that took place in the 1960s and ’70s when pobladores fought for housing largely to begin building the city.

However, the seizure in 1999 was similar to the original and more emblematic seizures in Santiago, and resulted in the effective organisation of pobladores who demonstrated their will to be integrated into a city that had excluded them. They managed to prove themselves as indispensable actors and protagonists in the construction of the city, in contrast to what the subsidiary housing policy of the last 30 years has demonstrated, recognizing only the state and the market as actors. Pobladores managed to find different solutions to their demands for a life with dignity, freedom and solidarity through their struggles, determination, and work during the land seizure. It should be noted here that the población of Peñalolén still exists in 2010, eleven years after the initial land seizure, encompassing more than 400 households living in very poor conditions and constantly under police surveillance, pressuring them to abandon their homes and vacate the land.

Lucha y Vivienda (Fight for Housing)

Even after the land seizure in 1999, pobladores of Peñalolén continued in their fight for adequate housing in the city. The organisation Lucha y Vivienda (Fight for Housing) was formed in 2003, made up of neighbourhood assemblies and delegate councils to decentralize decision-making power within the organisation. Despite the official discourse of a successful housing policy in the 1990s, groups like Lucha y Vivienda organised themselves to demand their right to adequate housing and to the city, in an area where they feel a sense of belonging and where they have established social ties. In short, these pobladores demand their rights to housing and to the city in Peñalolén, which is significantly the same place where many of them were born.

El Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha: new name, same fight

El Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha, MPL, emerged in Peñalolén in 2006 stemming from Lucha y Vivienda, as a new reference to the fight for the right to adequate housing and to the city. In the past few years, MPL pobladores have made many accomplishments at different levels towards the realization of their rights to adequate housing and their right to the city within their neighbourhood. Their efforts stem from desires to regain an active role in decision-making and participation thereby restoring the social fabric that was lost during the military dictatorship’s neoliberal policies. This idea of active citizenship was also lost even after the return to democracy through the various governments formed by the Concertación (1990-2010) and their subsidiary housing policy which produced effects of individualization and limited participation on behalf of the pobladores.

The ideological basis: from beneficiary to “new poblador

Many public policies and academic investigations are conditioned by the idea that the poblaciones of poor peripheral urban areas are anomalies, problems to be solved by social, urban and housing policies, etc. However, they are seldom considered to be spaces with emancipatory potential, local areas where the pobladores can exercise power “from below.”

One way forward in this respect would be to adopt a rights perspective in public policies, and base their design and implementation on the participation of excluded sectors. It is a question of treating pobladores not as mere objects of public policy but as subjects of rights — actors and protagonists in the social construction processes of local areas and in the creation of habitat. Specifically, the proposal of the right to the city provides us with a framework for the design of urban-housing public policy from a rights perspective.

The result of the subsidized housing policies followed in Chile over the last 30 years has been to convert the poor — considered to be marginalized, vulnerable and excluded — into simple beneficiaries receiving assistance from social programmes and focal objects of public policy.

The idea is to recover the historical role of pobladores as the people who build the city, together with their participation in political processes, specifically public policies. It is to understand them as a political and productive force, as subjects of rights, who are positioned through the conquest of new physical, cultural, social, economic and political territories. This will thus change the logic which brands them as beneficiaries or in need of assistance, to give them a new status in relation to the State, changing its practices, making it their own, redistributing surplus value and exercising citizenship, not with the hope of conquering power in its entirety — which was the paradigm in the 20th century — but of exercising it from their own local area.

The negative view held by the state towards areas of urban poverty has been a fertile ground for fostering the physical and symbolic segregation which hangs over them. We propose a different way of looking at peripheral urban areas, one which also coincides with a rights perspective in public policy which focuses on the resident, as we understand that “the suburbs of third world cities form the decisive geo-political scenario of today.” (6)

Urban alienation from the subsidising state and collective disalienation of local areas

It is in fact perhaps the action of the subsidising state which has been the greatest cause of social problems in cities. One has only to look at the crisis generated by housing policies which have created “ghettos” of urban poverty among pobladores “with a roof” (7) over their heads, who cease to be subjects of rights and are reduced to being the beneficiaries or targets of focused social programmes. “The world of marginalization is in fact constructed by the state, in a process of social integration and political mobilization, in exchange for goods and services which it alone can procure.” (8)

We make reference to the concept of alienation, introduced by subsidized housing policy, from a new perspective of alienation in work, now understood as a type of alienation which results from subsidized housing policy. We understand the concept of alienation as the situation “imposed on all facets of the daily life of an individual by institutions and organisations which do not permit their participation in the provision of services.” (9)

Turner blames this alienation on heteronomous, centrally administered systems which are dependent on great pyramidal structures of continuous growth, based on centralizing technologies (10). He refers to the reduction of day-to-day freedom, derived from a feudal attitude by the state towards the social classes. He states that it is not only politicians or leaders who are responsible for this attitude, but also professionals and employees who implement the policy, who consider citizens to be “ordinary” people, and for pobladores to be dependent on them and their decisions as “extraordinary” citizens, or experts. All of them, politicians and professionals, carry out the “administration of services for dependent beneficiaries, whose ignorance and incapacity are taken for granted,” imposing a dependent, paternal kind of relationship between the state and pobladores (11).

It is neither a question of denying the existence of the state, nor of blaming it for being the root of all evil, but of considering that it is necessary for the existence of certain institutions, structures, regulations and types of financing. We insist that the responsibility lies with the paradigm adopted by the “experts,” the professionals who execute policy and who do not allow pobladores room for participation. Therefore, to implement a policy from the rights perspective, a large paradigm shift is required which will embrace politicians, policy makers and policy implementors, as well as pobladores themselves, assuming that these fixed roles begin to “mobilize” themselves. A greater degree of participation and empowerment on the way to the right to the city is the fundamental basis for action of poblador movements.

The territorial practices of social movements, in this case MPL, may finally become emancipatory processes. According to Zibechi’s (2008) idea of “collective disalienation,” which for the present purpose is understood to be the process of empowerment from the rights perspective, this is a starting point from the prisms of the right to housing. Secondly at a more incipient stage, it is the starting point of the right to the city, from the early phase of an urban social movement. As long as pobladores, in other words the working class, “do not learn to deal with this bourgeois ability to dominate and produce space, to shape a new geography of production and social relationships, they will always be playing from a position of weakness and not of strength.” (12)

The actions of MPL towards the right to the city

MPL presents itself as a local organisation, a fact which analyzes the social movement from another perspective: no longer the forms of organisation or the repertories of mobilization, but of the social relationships in local areas. “There is a battle for the decolonization of thought to which the recovery of the concept of territory may be able to contribute.” (13)

MPL does not limit itself to presenting demands in front of the state, through logic of welfarist demands; it also criticises existing policies and proposes alternatives from a specific local area — the población — to the hegemonic model, demanding the territorial conquest of spaces of autonomy and self-management. These demand-actions have required a creative process which is at the same time both “internal and external” with respect to current institutionalization, and operates in the interstices left by that institutionality. (14) MPL uses these spaces as instruments to gain a say in policy and to achieve its more long term objectives, which have to do with exercising rights rather than simply satisfying needs, assuming the rights perspective in public policies. These long-term objectives are also based on the autonomous exercise of power from local areas.

The transfer of state power to local organisations goes hand-in-hand with the strategic foundations of the right to the city — as a framework for designing public policies from the rights perspective — which proposes, among other things, the social function of the city and the prevalence of collective interests over individual interests. Likewise, it proposes the democratic management of the city, for example through spaces for the formulation and participatory implementation of public policies, as well as the democratic production of the city, including the social production of habitat. In the case of the history of MPL, all of these principles coincide and are coherent with its actions within the local area.

The exercise of power from local areas, from below, also implies pointing out the contradictions which occur in the city, especially in a segregated city like Santiago, where inequality is evident in its territorial distribution. The right to the city proposes the fair use of what the city offers, something which in the housing field means — as the leaders of MPL point out — the “conflict in terms of class, like a class struggle; at the root, this struggle for housing is a fight for the control of surplus value, for the control of wealth, and it comes down to which class finally obtains the greatest number of conquests.” (15)

The proposal of MPL with respect to the transfer of power from the state to local areas is based on the housing-production field, with an initiative for the social production of habitat which “adapts” to the existing framework of housing policy in order to subvert it “managing an embryonic popular power which responds to the need for control over a complete branch of production, namely the construction of low-income housing.” (16) In this exercise of rights through the social production of habitat, there is also an obvious pragmatism which has to do with the need to respond urgently to the demands of pobladores for rights, and not simply wait for the subsidising state to turn itself into a welfare state. Likewise, this action is based on the historical fact that the city was constructed by pobladores.

MPL action towards a rights perspective

While it is true that this movement recognizes itself as continuing the long tradition of Chilean poblador movements, using tools such as seizing land and confrontation with the authorities, MPL has from the outset affirmed its originality within the scenario of poblador movements, starting with its slogan “Our dream is bigger than the house.” This slogan adopted by the organisation clearly articulates MPL’s project. Pobladores demand not only a house, as a private good which can be achieved with the help of the state. Their struggle is more broad and global, declaring a will to be part of the city, to remain in the neighbourhood or district of their choice, the will to be part of the decision-making process, and to have a say in the decisions which will affect their lives.

MPL’s actions are thus founded in “the territorial conquest of spaces of autonomy and popular self-management.” (17) The aim of this is to reconquer a district which has been constructed by the pobladores themselves, but in which they find themselves dispossessed from the possibility of deciding their own destiny. The will to remain in a place where a person has their history, where they have constructed their own identity, the desire to be able to participate in the decisions which affect that place and thus the life of each inhabitant and their community, are central elements of the right to the city, the proposal which is being appropriated by social movements.

Strategies to achieve their objectives

From the demands of MPL’s pobladores, it is helpful to outline their strategies to obtain their demands and drive the generation of an urban housing policy from a rights perspective. We can discern five major objectives that MPL has built over the years (18):

  • 1. To obtain the right to remain in the district.

  • 2. To become an autonomous productive force.

  • 3. To build self-managed strategies for popular action.

  • 4. To gain spaces for representation within political institutions.

  • 5. To have a say in the urban planning of the district.

In the case of housing policy, the innovative creation of the first EGIS (Entidad de Gestión Inmobiliaria Social — Social Property Management Body) and the first poblador construction company will allow MPL to gain access to current policy, within its framework and regulations. This will include the co-ordinating and integrating of pobladores into the process of housing management and production. The inclusion of pobladores had not been contemplated in the design of public policy but through the action of the social movement, they will be brought into contact — almost by force — with public policy from a rights perspective and with the social production of habitat, thus coming closer to the principles of the right to the city.

As a result of their struggles, MPL celebrates the adoption and advancement of their self-managed urban housing projects with the inauguration of EGIS and the poblador construction company. Its aim is to move towards the self-management of the production apparatus, thereby moving away from the housing and construction solutions put forward by the state and the market.

This movement is known for the dynamism and vitality of its members. One of them is Lautaro Guanca, a poblador of Lo Hermida, a historical población in Peñalolén. On December 6, 2008 Guanca ran as a councillor candidate for the municipal election in Peñalolén, as a representative of MPL. As such, the movement positioned itself on the political stage to deliver the demands of pobladores to the local municipal administration. In addition, Guanca together with other poblador leaders like Ivan Carrasco have recently formed a new party: Equality Party- Tool for the People.

In the case of urban planning, MPL along with other organisations from the district of Peñalolén, have co-ordinated their actions in the design of a new district master plan (19), in order to construct an alternative proposal. This new proposal intends to satisfy the aspirations and demands of the pobladores and inhabitants of the district and not merely to accept the proposals of the technocrats who, through the original design of the plan, alienate the inhabitants from participation with their cryptic and technical language, and leave room only for pseudoparticipation which in fact are merely spaces to divulge informative.

Action for adequate housing in Peñalolén: From housing subsidies to the social production of habitat

It is true that MPL’s demands are not, for now, based on a desire to abolish the housing subsidy. Pobladores are aware that in the current economic and political panorama, they need state subsidies. However MPL has generated a critique of Chilean housing policy, declaring in particular that providing subsidies is not sufficient to respect the right to housing.

This helps us to understand that the demands of MPL are constructed within the institutional framework determined by the subsidising state, in a neoliberal economic context using traditional political strategies (such as the election of an MPL leader as councillor in the municipal council), strategies of self-managed production or housing co-operatives (such as the construction company EMEPEELE Ltda), and the management of the housing process (EGIS).

The concept of “conquest” demonstrates that lower-middle class pobladores feel that they have been robbed of their local areas and of the place where they were born and raised, many of them over several generations. Indeed, the southeast sector of the district is where most of the expensive homes have been built, inhabited by wealthy families with large houses and big plots of land, especially in gated neighbourhoods. The result of this has been an increase in the value of urban land in the district of Peñalolén, that is to say that the price of land has risen significantly, especially due to gentrification processes20 with the appearance of these gated neighbourhoods. The district master plan for 2010-2020 validates these urban inequalities, acting as an indicator of the municipality’s desire to orient the district towards a certain social type of inhabitant.

Protagonists of the current housing model in Chile

It is important to note that MPL, even before it created EGIS and its own construction company, was already working together with existing private organisations and operated like committees of households living in situations of over-crowding or inadequate housing conditions. In other words, MPL was only one of the five principal actors in the current housing process, namely:

  • Families organised into committees of households living in situations of over-crowding or inadequate housing conditions;

  • The EGIS, private organisations responsible for managing the demands of the committees, designing projects, applying for subsidies jointly with the committees, monitoring the progress of work and taking care of all the legal and social habilitation processes involved. The state pays for the technical assistance provided by the EGIS, from a fund different than that of the subsidies;

  • The state, through SERVIU (Servicio de Vivienda y Urbanismo - Service of Housing and Urbanism), supervises the projects and finally provides the financing;

  • The construction companies, who use the subsidy money for the construction and of course to make a profit;

  • The municipalities, which play a double role: on the one hand, they support and direct the activities of the pobladores through their housing departments (indeed some municipalities have their own EGIS); on the other hand, they issue the building permits and the final reception of the constructions through their Direcciones de Obras Municipales (DOM) (Municipal Directories of Works).

Based on the need to overcome the barriers raised by private companies against pobladores, the proposal of MPL is therefore not merely to assume the role of a committee but to embrace, using its own pobladores, apart from the work done by professionals, two more of these five roles — precisely those financed by the state, those of the construction company and the EGIS.

In MPL’s first housing projects, the actors — in the case of the EGIS and the construction companies — were from the private sector, with whom the working relations and the management process were not easy.

The solution to the barriers involved in neoliberal housing policies is for pobladores to take their destiny into their own hands, to manage and construct their houses, because if “the state is not able and the private sector is not willing, then it is [the pobladores] who will construct the new población.” (21) The EGIS and the construction company are mechanisms to capture the power exercised traditionally by the state, and today in large part by the market.

With the participation of pobladores themselves in the management and construction of their own local areas, MPL wishes to stress the fact that historically Chile has always been a country of builders and that “today it is [the pobladores] turn to gradually take over the management of production and the product.” (22) The project is slow and must overcome a number of barriers, which explains why to date the construction company EMEPEELE Ltda. has not yet constructed any low-income housing from the plans for the houses and apartments which it has among its projects. Currently, in 2010, a housing project managed by MPL is being constructed, but the execution is in the hands of a private construction company.

In addition to the struggle for adequate housing, MPL aims to restore and promote a sense of identity and belonging within the district and to the población, and to feel part of the city which is a fundamental element of the right to the city. Many of MPL’s actions work along these lines, through the creation of urban gardens, neighbourhood headquarters, where the community can congregate to share their problems and solutions, community cultural centres, and local community media. In this sense, MPL represents an example of the process of achieving the right to the city through various acts to defend and promote this right. Stemming from an instinctual reaction of resistance to the welfarist and subsidiary state, pobladores stood up to organise themselves and move beyond simply demanding their rights, by creating their own solutions and actions based on their unique situations.

The important aspects of these experiences of participation and selfmanagement is that they give a new angle to the panorama of the city inhabitant, who can move from being an assisted individual, waiting for a subsidy to buy a house, to a protagonist actor, involved in the decisions affecting their lives and that of their neighbours.

This is what is meant by the social production of habitat, on the path to achieving the right to the city.


1 Movement of Pobladores in struggle: Poblador (pl. pobladores) is a term that transcends the meaning of ‘inhabitant’ and is also attributed with a social and political connotation meaning those who fight for the rights of the poor majority living in large cities.
2 Márquez, Francisca, Resistencia y sumisión en sociedades urbanas y desiguales: poblaciones, villas y barrios populares en Chile, (Resistance and submission in unequal urban societies: poblaciones, villas and popular class neighbourhoods and housing estates in Chile), Santiago, 2008.
3 Márquez, op. Cit, p 349.
4 The Concertación is an alliance of centre and centre-left parties which formed after the dictatorship and which governed Chile since the return to democracy in 1989 up until 2010.
5 Márquez, op. Cit, p 351.
6 Davis, 2007 in Zibechi: 175 “Los suburbios de las ciudades del tercer mundo son el nuevo escenario geopolítico” (“The suburbs of third world cities form the geo-political scenario of today”) Zibechi, Raúl. Autonomías y emancipaciones. América Latina en movimiento. (Autonomy and emancipation. Latin America in movement.) Editorial Quimantú. Santiago, Chile. 2008.
7 Rodríguez, A. y Sugranyes, A. Los con techo: Un desafío para la política de vivienda social. Ediciones SUR. Santiago, 2005.
8 Castells, 1986: 266 in Zibechi: 181 Castells, Manuel. La ciudad y las masas (The city and the masses), Alianza, Madrid. 1986 / Zibechi, Raúl.Op.Cit.
9 (Ruiperez, 29). Ruiperez, Rafael. ¿quién teme a los pobladores? Vigencia y actualización del Housing by People de John Turner frente a la problemática actual de hábitat popular en América Latina. (Who’s afraid of the Pobladores? Validating and updating of John Turner’s ‘Housing by People’ facing the current problem of low income housing in Latin America). National University of Colombia. Faculty of Arts, Bogotá. 2006.
10 (Turner: 31). Turner, John. Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, Marion Boyars publishers, London, 1976.
11 (Ruiperez: 30). Ruiperez, Rafael. ¿Quién teme a los pobladores? Vigencia y actualización del Housing by People de John Turner frente a la problemática actual de hábitat popular en América Latina. (Who’s afraid of the Pobladores? Validity and updating of John Turner’s ‘Housing by People’ in the face of the current problem in low income housing in Latin America). National University of Colombia. Faculty of Arts, Bogotá. 2006.
12 (Harvey, 2003, Zibechi: 178). Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope, California Studies in Critical Human Geography, 2000.
13 (Porto, 2006: 161 – Zibechi: 186). Porto, Carlos. “A reinvencao dos territorios: a experiencia latino-americana e caribenha”, en Ana Esther Ceceña, Los desafíos de las emancipaciones en un contexto militarizado, Clacso, Buenos Aires, 2006.
14 Guzmán, Romina, Renna, Henry, Sandoval, Alejandra, Silva, Camila Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha, A tomarse Peñalolén para conquistar la ciudad, Cuadernos SUR, Ediciones SUR, Santiago de Chile, 2009.
15 Guanca, Lautaro, in Aravena, Susana, Sandoval, Alejandra, edit. Política habitacional y actores urbanos, Seminario del Observatorio de Vivienda y Ciudad, (Housing Policy and Urban Actors, Seminar of the Observatory of Housing and the City), Ediciones SUR, Santiago, Chile, 2008, p100.
16 Guanca, Lautaro, Op. Cit. P 103.
17 Op. Cit.
18 Guzman, Renna, et. al., op.cit.
19 Plan Regulador Comunal (PRC) (District Regulatory Plan).
20 Definition of gentrification: a term derived from the English: “gentry” who are the untitled British aristocracy. By extension, gentrification means becoming bourgeois, Ruffin, François, Pensar la ciudad para que los ricos vivan felices en ella, in Urbanismo, Arquitectura y Globalización, Le Monde Diplomatique, Ed. Aún Creemos en los sueños, Santiago, Chile, 2008, p15.
21 Guanca, Lautaro, in varios autores. “El derecho a la vivienda en Chile, aportes de la Primera Escuela Nacional para Dirigentes Sociales”, Observatorio de Vivienda y ciudad (Observatory of Housing and the City), Santiago, Chile, 2009, p34.
22 Guanca, Lautaro, op cit, p35.

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