Chile: neoliberal and vulnerable cities. Post-disaster reconstruction and resistance

Claudio PULGAR PINAUD, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

Chile is stricken by natural disasters over and over again - earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, etc. This particularity makes the most excluded social groups even more vulnerable. It is also a major challenge for urban and housing public policies, given the inevitable reconstruction processes which ensue from disasters, as well as the necessary policy efforts to prevent and mitigate their outcome.

The earthquake which took place on February 27th 2010 struck the whole centre-south area of the country, from Santiago to Concepción, which is the most populated and the most densely populated area in the country. In addition to the significant number of casualties and damages1, the earthquake provoked a series of social conflicts concerning the reconstruction process in the affected areas. These conflicts can be analysed as an opportunity crisis as well as a driver for social organisation and for capital.

The reconstruction process can be viewed as an opportunity for development. This leads to the following question: an opportunity for what and for whom? To answer this question, the conditions of neoliberal Chile in the face of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami must be analysed, by adopting a “vulnerability approach, given the central role it plays and especially its economic and political aspects in the process of a disaster” (Oliver-Smith, 2002). In Chile, neoliberalism has been implemented and taken root; its social and economic outcome further amplified the disaster’s impact.

The 2010 earthquake thus operated as an indicator of Chilean society. It highlighted the spatial inequalities and injustices which have unfolded over the last forty years. It also revealed the crucial role of social players, especially the pobladores’2 movement, as they organise and resist to achieve better living conditions. The earthquake sped up social processes in a country which seemed to have been numbed by a seventeen-year dictatorship3 followed by twenty years of never-ending transition to democracy4. Since 2010 citizens have awoken to action. This telluric and social process, set off on February 27th 2010, has consistently gained speed since: first thanks to the solidarity5 and mutual assistance provoked by the disaster, then because the earthquake and tsunami both revealed the inequalities of Chilean society and provided an opportunity for people to get together and organise. We have chosen to call this process the double telluric and social movement6.

Urban and Housing Policy in Neoliberal Chile: Spatial Inequalities and Injustices

The liberalization of urban land appears clearly in official documents of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning (MINVU) dating from between 1978 and 1981: in 1979, “urban limits” were eliminated in order to - officially - allow the market to bring down land and real estate prices by increasing the available supply. But the outcome was the opposite of the intended effect, as prices rose. Speculation on land, which had suddenly become part of urban limits thanks to an administrative decision, played a key role in price trends. Gradually, social housing was no longer provided in peri-central locations but rather on the city outskirts, because of speculation; this shift continues today.

The system of subsidised housing, still in force, constituted a watershed since it directed the demand of those in need of assistance towards the market. In addition to requiring the beneficiaries to run up debts, this mechanism introduced the idea of targeting benefits, as “housing is a commodity which can only be obtained thanks to individual effort; state subsidies will be set aside for the neediest, as a reward for their efforts » (Chilean construction association, 1991: 90-91). Rodríguez and Sugranyes (2005) claim that in Chile subsidised housing is less a genuine housing policy than “above all a financial mechanism to support private real estate and construction”. In the heat of the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s, the Chilean state’s priority was first and foremost to provide stability to the private construction industry.

The massive building of housing for the poor - though be it of poor quality and located on the outskirts - successfully quelled social claims for many years, allowing most of the poorest applicants to be housed by means of access to private ownership schemes”. Nonetheless, this housing policy ultimately led to a crisis because it created “ghettos” of urban poverty, areas inhabited by pobladores “with homes” (Rodríguez, 2005).

The Post 2010 Reconstruction Policy: the Same Formula?

Different reports (MNRJ, 2011a ; Rolnik, 2011 ; INDH, 2012 ; UN- HABITAT Mission, 2010) published by human rights organisations after the earthquake bore witness to the “ideology of reconstruction”. It has also been addressed in some articles and even a few press investigations. In “The Ideological Failure of Reconstruction”, Peréz (2011) suggests that this (reconstruction) model has proven to be a vehicle for dismantling the state by transferring competences to private players, who are viewed as “brilliant, powerful and prominent”. The reconstruction process has emphasized the granting of subsidies, simplifying bureaucracy and facilitating the private sector’s participation, whereas the victims have been assigned to emergency housing solutions of mediocre quality, segregated and far removed from the centres of their daily and social life.

Land Tenure Insecurity and Displacements after the 2010 Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile

The territories that were most harmed by the 2010 earthquake/tsunami were above all the historic centres of the main cities inland and the coastlines of littoral areas. Different authors (Davis, 2005; Klein 2007; Harvey 2007) have argued that post-disaster processes can prove to be fruitful opportunities to expropriate well located lands. In these situations, « disaster capitalism » is ruthless: its’ speculative agents start operating during the emergency phase, almost at the same time as the first relief reaches the territories.

Accounts gathered in the field just a few days after the earthquake and confirmed by other authors7 report that « real estate agents » arrived and offered to purchase plots of land quickly, at prices well below their value prior to the earthquake. This happened above all in historic city centres, where many homes had been destroyed. Some families sold their land, because they lacked information and were in shock, thinking it was better to secure some money quickly. However, they did not assess the full value of their property, especially in a medium to long term perspective. This process has continued, so much that it is now considered normal, a continuity of the free market of land, but in a new context provided by the earthquake’s bulldozer action8: it has provided a “tabula rasa” and cleaned out city centres of “old” housing and their “old” inhabitants. Five major types of displacement of victims can be identified in this process:

In some territories, several of these five types of displacements overlap. These processes of displacement and dispossession can be identified as cases of “accumulation by dispossession”, following Harvey’s concept. They should also be discussed in the perspective of security of tenure, since it is a crucial component of the right to adequate housing. In her 2011 Report, the UN Special Rapporteur developed this point and mentioned the Chilean case as an example of the violation of this right.

Social Movements’ Resistance and the Social Function of Land and Property

“This model of subsidised housing policy is repeated, evicting the poor to the outskirts and creating segregated cities, uprooting pobladores from their neighbourhoods where they have social networks and belong to a social fabric, in addition to depriving them of access to public utilities and infrastructure that do not exist on the outskirts. Apparently, “social-natural disasters” such as tsunamis, earthquakes or fires are levered as opportunities to “rid” land of its original inhabitants and provide the real estate market with more profit-making opportunities. This was made clear in statements by the Minister of Housing himself, as he emphasized the “vitality of the private sector” as an achievement of reconstruction - but at the expense of the usual victims, the urban poor11.

Faced with this landscape of displacements and neoliberal reconstruction, processes of organisation and resistance have been surfacing throughout the territory. The major claims are for the right to housing and the right to land, the right to the city and the right to remain in one’s own neighbourhood. This process, made up of both resistance and resilience, is what we have chosen to call “the double telluric and social movement”12. Two national movements (MNRJ and FENAPO) as well as other local movements are making a claim to the social function of land and property in addition to the (re)construction of their homes and their cities, as they demand the right to remain on their territories. In Dichato the social movement has achieved a major triumph: significant mobilisation by the pobladores led to most housing being rebuilt on the shore and with better quality materials. The difference between the solutions provided in Dichato and other cities highlight the crucial role of radical mobilizing in obtaining better conditions for pobladores. Demands are now flourishing in other areas, with claims such as the creation of a land bank for social housing, for instance. The claims which are being voiced are linked to the right to the city. They stress the social function of land and property opposing the current market hegemony.

1 The earthquake caused 521 casualties and 56 missing people. According to the figures published on March 29th 2010 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning (MINVU), 370,051 homes were damaged by the earthquake, of which 81,440 were destroyed and 108,914 severely damaged. Numerous equipments were damaged as well. An uncommon tsunami occurred after the earthquake, reaching the shore at different times with varying levels of intensity, thus worsening the damage caused by the earthquake.

2 Poblador(es): Inhabitants of a población. In Latin America and especially in Chile, this term has a social and often political connotation which sets it apart from the term « inhabitant ». Pobladores refers to groups of people living in working class popular neighbourhoods and struggling for their environment, their neighbourhood, their streets and their right to the city.

3 Pinochet ruled Chile for 17 years, from the coup of September 11th 1973 until March 11th 1990.

4 Between 1990 and 2010 four democractically elected governments ruled as an alliance of centre-left parties called the Concertation of Democratic Parties.

5 According to our observations, there were many more expressions of direct solidarity and mutual assistance than looting or other anti-social and marginal behaviors, which the media nonetheless shed the spotlight on.

6 For a more in-depth approach : Pulgar, Claudio. “Quand la justice spatiale fait trembler la ville néolibérale. Le double mouvement tellurique et social dans le Chili d’après le tremblement de terre du 27 février 2010”. In“Justice spatiale | spatial justice” No 5. 2014. Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre.

7 Real estate companies were also said to pressure families to sell land and housing at very low prices in a moment where they were very vulnerable, in order to make way for private redevelopment”. In ROLNIK, Raquel. 2011.

8 Bulldozers quickly arrived in historical centres to demolish houses which could have been rebuilt. In the heat of emergency relief efforts, we observed city officials and volunteer firemen with no technical knowledge whatsoever assessing the homes which could remain standing and those which had to be demolished. Just a week after the earthquake, thousands of homes that could have been rebuilt were torn down. We will never know if this happened out of sheer negligence or if real estate interests were involved in these express demolitions officially justified by the concern of mitigating risks in the event of recurrences.

9 MNRJ “Informe para la Relatora Especial de Naciones Unidas para el Derecho a la Vivienda Adecuada. El terremoto-tsunami del 27 de febrero 2010 y los procesos de reconstrucción en Chile”. September 2011.

10 For more information on Talca, cf. : LETELIER, Francisco and Boyco, Patricia. Talca pos-terremoto: una ciudad en disputa. Modelo de reconstrucción, mercado inmobiliario y ciudadanía. [Online]. Santiago, Chile, Ediciones SUR. 2011.

11 Pulgar, Claudio. “27F ¿La reconstrucción como ejercicio de derechos u oportunidad para el lucro?”. Online journal “El Mostrador”. 2013a. Online:

12 Pulgar, Claudio. “Quand la justice spatiale fait trembler la ville néolibérale. Le double mouvement tellurique et social dans le Chili d’après le tremblement de terre du 27 février 2010”. In“Justice spatiale | spatial justice” No 5. 2014. Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre.


  • Chambre chilienne du bâtiment, 1991: 90-91. Cités par Rodríguez, Alfredo y Ana Sugranyes. 2004. “El problema de vivienda de los con techo”. EURE 30, n.° 91: 53–65.

  • Davis, Mike, Gentrifying Disaster. In Mother Jones Magazine. 2005. Disponible en :

  • Davis, Mike, Disaster As A Tool For Gentrification. In Planetizen. 2005. Disponible en :

  • Harvey, David, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction”. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science; 610; 21.2007

  • INDH, “27 F: Estudio sobre la reconstrucción post terremoto desde una perspectiva de derechos humanos” Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos. Estado de Chile. Janvier 2012.

  • Klein, Naomi, La doctrina del shock. El auge del capitalismo del desastre. Paidos. Barcelona. 2007

  • Ministère du logement et de l’urbanisme (MINVU), “Conceptos básicos para la formulación de la Política Nacional de Desarrollo Urbano”. EURE Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios Urbano Regionales, 8, 22. 1981.

  • Ministère du logement et de l’urbanisme (MINVU), “Presentación ante la reunión Regional sobre Financiamiento y administración de los Asentamiento Humanos, México, D.F”. Santiago: Minvu. 1978.

  • ONU- HABITAT, Mission, Elaboration d’un profil de projet post tremblement de terre au Chili. Septembre 2010.

  • Oliver-Smith, 2002 cité par García Acosta, Virginia. El riesgo como construcción social y la construcción social de riesgos. 2005.

  • Peréz, Marcelo, “El fracaso ideológico de la reconstrucción”. Blog de la Republica. 2011.

  • Pulgar, Claudio, “Quand la justice spatiale fait trembler la ville néolibérale. Le double mouvement tellurique et social dans le Chili d’après le tremblement de terre du 27 février 2010”. In“Justice spatiale | spatial justice” No 5. 2014. Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre :

  • Rolnik, Raquel, Informe de la Relatora Especial sobre una vivienda adecuada como elemento integrante del derecho a un nivel de vida adecuado y sobre el derecho de no discriminación a este respecto. En particular el derecho a una vivienda adecuada en los procesos de reconstrucción posteriores a desastres y conflictos. Consejo de Derechos Humanos de Naciones Unidas. 16º período de sesiones. Tema 3 de la agenda. 20 diciembre 2010.

  • Tema 69 b) del programa provisional. 5 de agosto 2011.

  • Rodríguez, Alfredo et Ana Sugranyes. “El problema de vivienda de los con techo”. EURE 30, n.° 91: 53–65. 2005.