The Port is a Debate

Jorge Budrovich 

Impressions of Valparaíso, Alimapu, El Puerto

In presenting an initial portrait of the port city of Valparaíso, of its contrasts and contradictions, I think it is relevant to recall the life and verses of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who, like many others, inhabited this city with creative passion. A lover of travel, of the sea and of harbours, this is where he brought to life one of his peculiar houses, ‘La Sebastiana’, from which he pondered and wrote about his experience of a city that rebelled against any attempt of urban and infrastructural domestication.

Neruda did not just live and experience the city of Valparaíso from his poetic lookout at ‘La Sebastiana’. Halfway through the century, at the beginning of the Cold War, he also inhabited its intricate neighbourhoods as a fugitive from a government that had determined to ban the communist party. Neruda condemned the government’s excesses and publicly defended the miners’ strike, becoming a fugitive and a symbol of the condemnation of the government’s reactionary policies. As an outlaw and as a poet, he drew his encounters with the port city into exceptionally acute passages, among which we read:

El Puerto (The Port) is a debate between the evasive nature of the Andes and the sea. But mankind has been winning this battle, in a way, because the hills and the fullness of the sea shaped the city and made it uniform; not like a barracks, but with the disparity of Spring, with its contradiction of colours, with its sonorous energy.

As Neruda says, El Puerto – as it is called in other cities of Chile – is a debate, a dispute, a land of agony. Violent storms beat its coastline and challenge the continuity of port operations. Tremors and earthquakes periodically test the sturdiness of houses and buildings. Vicious fires enhance awareness of the risk of settling among hills and gullies – alimapu, as the ancient indigenous people used to call it. And the sum of all these natural phenomena demands that its inhabitants be ready and willing to rebuild, to re-establish, to restart projects in order to continue living.

The most devastating catastrophe that El Puerto has endured, however, was not caused by natural circumstances. That same Cold War backdrop that turned Neruda into a fugitive, was the prelude to a political, economic and social upheaval that required yet more effort from Valparaíso residents to be able to live and dream once again: the military coup of 1973 and the subsequent neoliberalization of Chile. ‘The debate’ was silenced. The city became uniform like a barracks.

Waves of Modernization, Waves of Instability

According to stevedores retired from the port of Valparaíso, the arrival of containers, cranes and automation during the 1980s signalled a restructuring process linked to port modernization and increased competition in the international market. Clearly associated to the neoliberal onslaught which erupted following the military coup, it was also the end of a period of social and economic wellbeing, of important popular movements and empowered unions.

The traumatic uncertainty of the old stevedores is evident. As heirs of a strong union movement of Christian democrat tradition, tainted by the imperialist ideology of the Alliance for Progress and some discrepancies with the working conditions implemented during the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) government, the memory of the immediate impact of the military coup on work at the docks triggers a certain distress. The devaluation of a work identity sustained by powerful unions, economic wellbeing and job security had to be rebuilt initially in the combativeness of resistance to Pinochet’s dictatorship, and then in the revaluation of that work identity in a scenario that was profoundly changed by the expedited implementation of the dictatorship’s neoliberal program.

Thus, the neoliberal reorientation of the Chilean economy dealt a heavy blow to the world of work on the docks in Chile. Almost 25 years later, as Law 19 542 comes into force towards the end of 1997 to ‘modernize’ the public ports sector, the new framework is completed with the creation of ten State-owned port companies (including the Valparaíso Port Company), which provide legal continuity to the Chile Port Company (EMPORCHI). A win for decentralization, for the State’s new powers and for competition among the different Chilean ports and, at the same time, the death blow to the old port-work identity.

It was not the first time that infrastructure modernisation works had shaken the city–port relationship. The construction of the modern port at the beginning of the twentieth century was marked by tragic strikes demanding improvements to working conditions and protests by citizens who were horrified by the threat of destruction of the city–port relationship as they knew it. Discontent was reflected in paradigmatic headlines: ‘The disappearing Valparaíso’ (Sucesos, February 1920). The new port, with its ‘modern and elegant installations’, would eradicate businesses which made up local everyday life at the time, pushing the ‘porteño [port-dweller] identity’ into oblivion. Fifty years later, at the height of the Popular Unity government, geographer Pedro Cunill’s remarks (which, in a way, predicted Valparaíso port’s logistic destiny) seem to insinuate the urgent need for greater efficiency and restructuring of the Chile Port Company (EMPORCHI): ‘the administration of the nation’s ports and maritime transport has been characterised, in general, by a lack of coordination and rationalisation, which has eroded port services and increased their cost’ (1972).

From Port–City to Terminal–City / Logistics–City

No management model can fulfil the infinite possibilities of articulation between ports and cities. This is something that experts in the world of ports know only too well. The very idea of port city is open to interpretation, entangled with territorial and historical variables, with social and economic forces, with political and technological decisions. Nevertheless, we can see a certain evolution between cities and ports, going from the old days of the pre-industrial world, when they were narrowly articulated, to the times of industrial and post-industrial capitalist expansion. In just two centuries, the world-wide expansion of the market has changed the relationship between cities and ports almost to the point of absolute dissociation.

Since the 1980s, port cities ceased being the stage where trade between empires and nations are confused with cultural exchanges and political adventures. Ports must take on the new role of key agents of the global goods supply chain, turning into logistics centres or ‘third generation ports’. The port-city becomes the terminal-city / logistics-city. The territorial dimension of port activities is physically and conceptually reconfigured, and the very concept of port work and employment is separated from the old imaginaries of traffic and trade. The port spaces linked to the industrial economy must be abandoned to make room for logistics support areas and the waterfront of the post-industrial city.  

The ‘Valparaíso Port Development Plan’ is the ‘navigation chart’ that the Valparaíso Port Company (EPV) has set out to advance towards the realm of logistical efficiency. The plan considers a range of projects which significantly transform the coastal edge of the city. New terminals and underground road access is designed to allow the uninterrupted circulation of trucks, the installation of huge gantry cranes and the building of tall walls of containers, all profile a future that to some is a dream of employment opportunities, while for others it is the nightmare of the end of tourism and heritage landscapes. The golden future of economic growth that these projects will bring to Valparaíso is advertised by simulations uploaded to YouTube, electronic signs on the main roads, articles in local papers and a television program called Tu Puerto (Your Port). However, if a passer-by with no links to port activities is asked what he or she knows about these projects and their impact, they would probably have only vague ideas.

Debate and Re-establishment

The Chilean Transport and Telecommunications Ministry is still suffering the consequences of pushing logistics to the background, a situation which was only reverted in 2010 with the creation of the Logistic Development Program. This contrasts with the interpretation of the ‘EMPORCHI period’, which has been described as a period during which ‘port activity was a world of its own, with significant influence on the everyday life of port cities, not only with regard to the local economy, but also to customs and to their day-to-day evolution’. The repercussions of these projects escape the parameters of the imaginary of native port dwellers who are firmly rooted in their parents’ and grandparents’ routines and customs.

But modernization of the port of Valparaíso is not only of interest to the Chilean State. The South American Council of Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN) of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has described it as a key project under the Initiative for the Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure (IIRSA). In this respect, the task to be performed by the Chilean State-owned port company, EPV, shines a light on the new dynamics that States must adopt in the neoliberal articulation of the global market. EPV and the powerful terminal operators (TPS and TCVAL) have carried out their expert work behind the backs of workers and citizens, leaving to the ‘community’ or ‘population’ a few social, cultural and sporting activities that appear to address the ‘city-port tension’ variable under the banner of ‘sustainability’.

As stated previously, such terminal-city / logistics-city projects inspire both dreams and nightmares. And both possibilities have led to resentment and resistance from the new generations of citizens and workers, although with significantly different compositions. On the one hand, citizen organizations inspired by a renewed left-wing project seeking alternatives to the centre-left and centre-right coalitions which administer, without great differentiations, the implementation of the neoliberal and extractivist development program. On the other, port worker unions within which coexist a Christian democrat past with memories of resistance to the dictatorship and the thriving existence of initiatives with tendencies to re-establish an autonomous, popular and revolutionary leadership.

Contrary to all predictions based on the usual distribution of government between the two centrist coalitions, at the last municipal elections, it was the candidate for the citizen organizations that became mayor of Valparaíso. Tourism operators, architects, artists, university students and left-wing militants formed a citizens’ pact which arose from the urgent need to organize in order to fight for a city that was languishing in unemployment, ruin and neglect. Convinced of the important heritage value of this old port city, they have mobilized for a strong rejection of EPV’s projects, delayed time and again by court actions on grounds of technical unviability and the environmental and heritage damage of these projects.

Valparaíso’s port workers have learnt to manage the flexible working conditions imposed by Law 19 542 to their advantage. When they are not assigned a shift, some of them drive share taxis or work as brick layers. However, in spite of this flexibilization, which seems to undermine the strong working-class identity of previous struggles, the union still plays an active role with regard to relations between workers and the companies that operate the terminals. This is basically where the workers come in, appealing to the working benefits involved in the construction of the terminals. Such demands clash with the protests of the citizen groups, bringing to light another situation from which to approach the port modernization process which, as mentioned previously, already has cells that promote revolutionary tendencies.

Citizens and workers live and protest in a city where contradictions are unavoidable. As Neruda used to say, the Port is a debate where it is to be expected that, once again, mankind will win the fight.


Valparaíso port. 2017. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

Valparaíso port, Chile. Photograph by Ned Rossiter, 2017.