A small contingent of Patagonians are demanding government subsidies by blocking the only bridge that connects them to the rest of the world.

THERE’S A BRIGHTLY PAINTED BRIDGE at Puerto Aysén that connects central Patagonia to the rest of the world. At 220 metres, it’s the longest suspension bridge in Chile. If ever a region’s logistical lifeline had a single point of failure, it would be the Puente Presidente Ibáñez. Cut that bridge and the area’s towns and businesses would go dark and cold in a matter of weeks. And though it may seem strange, that appears to be the intent of many Ayseños, as the locals of this region are called.

For several days in February, 2012, the townspeople, led by their mayor, have been conducting what they call a “regional paralysis.” Halting traffic over that bridge, be it exports bound for national markets or food and fuel coming in, is the centerpiece of their rebellion.

Puerto Aysén is a small town of about 17,000 at the end of the Simpson River valley, but it can hardly be called a port anymore, except for its sheltering of a small fleet of aging fishing boats. Virtually all the fuel, food, and other imported goods for almost the entire province of Aysén comes through the new port, Puerto Chacabuco, 14km down the road.

Photo: Author

If there were no airline services to this part of Patagonia, it might be considered truly remote. But you could leave Denver International in the morning and be sipping bad coffee in Puerto Aysén within 24 hours. It is, however, a town in decline, now that the regional city of Coyhaique has achieved prominence and become the jumping off point for trips farther south.

To some, Puerto Aysén is not so much remote as self-pitying, and the social leaders behind the unrest want the rest of the nation to pony up heavy subsidies so that Ayseños can indulge in the fruits of progress without, some say, contributing anything to it. The protests from last year over HidroAysén were about a hydroelectric project in the region; this particular social upheaval is not a direct outgrowth that, though the environmental groups in the area are among the several organisations involved on the regionalist side.

Subsidies: Historical perspective

During the past 30 years, Chile’s national government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the development of central Patagonia, including the Carretera Austral, the famous Southern Road. Settlers of yore were known as “colonists” and expected little in the way of support from a central government headquartered more than 1,500 miles away.

But then came the road, and tourists, and eventually the end of the military government in 1989. The expectations of many Chileans shifted from what they could do with their own hands, to what they should expect in support from the government in terms of subsidies.

Like Alaska, Puerto Aysén suffers from high transportation costs. But the consumer price index in Chile (Índice de Costo de Vida de Ciudades) reveals that neighbouring Coyhaique enjoys one of the lowest living costs in the country, and though the report is silent on Puerto Aysén, this town may be even less expensive to live in.

The mayor of Puerto Aysén, Marisol Martínez, has her own numbers. Martínez is a member of the Chilean Socialist Party, which many hold responsible for Chile’s financial ruin in the early ’70s under Marxist president Allende (1970-1973). Martínez has told the press that it costs “two to three times as much to live in Puerto Aysén” [as in the rest of Chile] and that “gasoline here costs 1100 pesos a litre,” though the pump price in Puerto Aysén displays about 880 pesos for regular.

She’s demanding that administration officials immediately halt their summer holidays to fly down to her region to fix all that was not done during the previous administration, while at the same time commanding that barricades be set up so that no one can use the regional airports, including the one at Balmaceda, which serves as one of the main points of access to Patagonia.

The demands

There is a long list of demands from Martínez, based on what her party feels is lacking. They don’t like the way the national government is run. They don’t like their (virtually free) national healthcare. They want higher wages and a regional university. They want fuel subsidies for fishermen. They want all these things and more, and they want them paid for by people in the rest of Chile who do not have any interest in Aysén.

As I write this, the Ayseños are battling with the national police, the Carabineros de Chile, who have fired what appear to be over a thousand tear-gas projectiles in the last two days, and dozens have been injured.

If a town wishes to act in a suicidal manner, it could be argued that the protagonists should be left alone, to be hoisted by their own petards. But instead, they are taking hostages. Tourists. Foreign tourists, trapped on the wrong side of the barricades. Hooded Ayseños brandishing weapons are preventing tourists from leaving. That this happens to be unlawful is evidently of no concern to the mayor.

Similar protests

The Ayseños are likely copying a similar rebellion in the more southerly Magallanes region last year, when those residents prevented foreign tourists from reaching towns and airports — and even food and shelter — as part of their own regional paralysis, to convince the Piñera (national) administration that about 80 percent of their heating gas bills should be subsidized.

Ironically, the cost of living index shows overall utilities expenses to be about 13% less for Punta Arenas than for Santiago. And since the government capitulated in Magallanes, the people in Puerto Aysén seem to be convinced they can demand similar concessions…and take hostages.

Few people in Puerto Aysén have much to gain from tourism and almost nothing to lose from its disappearance. But it remains to be seen whether the national government will forgive the unrest, disruption of transit, and hostages this time. In the closing days of the Magallanes rebellion last year, the government quietly invoked the national internal security law, which set the stage not only for harsh penalties, but the use of martial law to control civil disturbances.

It’s a dangerous game for the Ayseños to play.