The Ruin, the Jewel and the Chain

Alejandro Donaire Palma

Strangled by Ruins

When I was a boy in early 1990s, Valparaíso was a ruined landscape. The earthquake of 1985 damaged the city’s infrastructure, including a significant part of the port terminals, whose operational rehabilitation took from 1990 to 1999. During those years cargo trucks were forced to cross the main urban routes due to the lack of direct access roads to the terminals, causing congestion and producing delays in freight shipment. It was repeatedly said that the port was ‘strangled by the city’.

The earthquake was just the coup of grace in the decline of the old-good days when the port of Valparaíso was named the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’. The city’s late 19th century ‘humble-Victorian’ commercial splendor left as legacy a ‘steampunk’ socio-technical ecology of firms, knowledges and cracked infrastructures concentrated on a few streets between the hills and coastline. At the end of the 20th century, the territorial diagram of these port infrastructures – marked as topological points through space – was exceeded by cargo movement demand, responding neither to the urban configuration developed in the preceding decades nor the port management model promoted by 1980s neoliberal economic restructuring.

Valparaíso port. 2017. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

Valparaíso port. Photograph by Ned Rossiter, 2017.

In 1981 the Pinochet dictatorship decreed two laws pointed to deregulate port capital-labour relations, giving more participation to private actors at the interior of the port; and putting an end to the system of licenses for stowage, which opened the activities to any worker according to the demand of the shipping companies. Despite this, the 1980s did not provide a context for the great jump of ‘modernization’ until catastrophe was imminent and the reconstruction of infrastructures made it necessary to rethink the port management model in its territorial dimension.

In this sense, two events delineate the early years of post-dictatorial transition in Valparaíso port. On the one hand, in 1990, during the last days of Pinochet’s dictatorship, Law No. 18966 entered into force. This law ordered an operative separation between port infrastructure management – preserved under the control of the State Port Authority (EMPORCHI) – and port services such as stowage, transfer and portage, which passed into private companies’ hands under a multi-operator regime. On the other hand, in 1991, the initiation of the Cabildo Abierto opened a discussion on port modernization and its impact on the urban configuration, introducing a model of urban governance that emerged from trade resolutions and citizen organizations. This followed the logic of the stabilization and democratic legitimacy of the neoliberal governmental apparatus that reigned those years in Chile through the ‘politics of consent’.

Both processes helped to redefine the composition of the port’s socio-technical body, which passed from a hierarchical structure based on one great state-owned discourse of national development – inscribed in every worker’s subjectivity as ‘pride’ – to a decentralized structure of decision based on heterogeneous interactions between agents operating in logistical chains that crossed the territory. A trans-metropolitan network of cities was emerging in last decade of the past century with the new scale of governmental management across the landscape of the global economy, and Valparaíso had the chance to link its port to the diagrammatic space of integrated world capitalism.

The first piece of legislation erected over the stones laid between 1981 and the early nineties was Law No. 19542 on the ‘Modernization of the State Port Sector’. Approved in 1997, this law established the passage from a system based on centralized planning around EMPORCHI to a model based on Local Port Authorities. The following year the Valparaíso Port Authority (EPV) was created, introducing a logistical-port model based on the integration of public-private agents and the redefinition of port-city relations. Its first aim was to understand and manage the ruins.

Clustering the Fragments of the Jewel

EPV had to work across the remnants of the old-port until the early 2000s. In 1999, El Puertazo was probably the last social movement in Valparaíso that revolved around ‘the docker’ as a subject capable of articulating and mobilizing social demands in the city. One of its main triggers was the high rate of unemployment in Valparaíso at the end of the nineties, the antecedents of which date to the transformation of the port labour regime begun in 1981. Moreover, with the completion of the restoration of Terminal One (T1) in 1999, the promise of ‘port privatization’ was accomplished when a concession to run this infrastructure for twenty years was awarded to a consortium formed by Ultramar Group and the German company HHLA – Port of Hamburg, which took over operations under the name of Terminal Pacífico Sur SA (TPS).

Despite the broad number of adherents, these developments weakened the symbolic repertoires linked to port-labour. Many issues related to port development became visible, understanding it as a complex logistical process that makes its way through the city, intervening in it and segmenting it, both materially and symbolically. This includes the changing role of ‘the docker’, who emerged not just as an agent involved in cargo movement but also as a ‘porteño’, a citizen and consumer of the goods that circulate through the city.

Furthermore, 1999 also marked the beginning of the construction of the South Access route to the port, a 22-kilometer road known as the Camino La Pólvora, which encompasses three urban tunnels and three viaducts. This infrastructure was a result of the Cabildo Abierto, and its conception started in 1994–1995 with the purpose of improving cargo truck circuits and expanding the port’s operational space through the construction of an inland terminal. When the South Access route finally opened in 2008, it helped to reorganize port-city borders and order freight flows, moving the port-terminal entrance from the congested Yolanda-Barón urban node to the Artillería Hill area. The road had two immediate impacts on city-planning debates. First, it allowed the planning of a passenger terminal (VTP) and the ‘Puerto Barón’ mall project in the Yolanda-Barón area. Second, the road made it possible to connect the Placilla-Curauma area – in the upper part of Valparaíso – to the coastline, accomplishing a new urban expansion.

The construction of the inland terminal or Logistical Support Extension Zone (ZEAL) began in October 2006. One purpose of this infrastructure was to relocate the cargo inspection processes conducted by government agencies. This extra-port site, situated eleven kilometres from the maritime terminals, defines a point of communicational integration between the actors in logistics chain. If during the first decades of past century – when the port grew under the watchful eye of engineer Eduardo Budge – the aim was ‘to take metres from the sea to expand the port’, now the principal goal became ‘to extend the port through – and beyond – the city’.

The necessity to compose a common ground to integrate these different operative fragments (T1, the South Access route, ZEAL) opened public discussion about how to administer a port-logistical community in Valparaíso. ‘Cluster’ was the keyword promoted by the announcers of the coming new-good-days to the city. Michael Porter’s ideas permeated the strategic vision of these actors, both in the port sector and the emerging tourism industry, related to the ‘patrimonialization’ of cultural heritage carried out in parallel with port modernization. This point of view focused on ‘comparative advantages’ that define the position and relevance of Valparaíso’s port system in the global supply chain. The integration of the city as a node in the territorial planning established by IIRSA-COSIPLAN (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America – The South American Infrastructure and Planning Council) set the horizon for the urban management tasks to come.

In Valparaíso, clusterization made possible a modular conception of territory as a diagrammatical ground of operation that emerged through interactions between agents that extract value from productive synergies and frictions. The social debate that followed the award of the Terminal 2 (T2) concession to the OHL group is an example of this, showing how a clash of positions around an infrastructure development can be managed as a positive input in socio-technical planning. When a group of artists, architects and tourist-real estate investors mobilized around the slogan ‘Mar para Valparaíso’ to highlight the social, cultural and economic impact of the terminal enlargement, they helped delimit a common framework for understanding port-city development. Their criticisms pointed neither to capital-labour relations nor – on a larger scale – to processes of ecological devastation. Rather, the emphasis was on the necessity to find a sustainable way to extract and manage complementary ‘comparative advantages’ between port-logistical and cultural-touristic clusters. Socio-territorial struggles were reduced to technical problems.

Semiotic Chains

The entity responsible for promoting the common framework of evaluation and decision is the Port Logistics Forum (FOLOVAP). Since its creation in 2004, FOLOVAP has been structured as three committees: 1) Strategic, focused on defining the guidelines of the management model identifying trends and opportunities at a local and global scale, establishing priorities and objectives; 2) Tactical, as a collaborative work platform for the discussion, decision and diffusion of new initiatives for the optimization of the management model, solving the necessary technical and political processes to put them into practice in the territory; and 3) Operational, to coordinate the realization of tactical decisions.

These three committees act at different scales of socio-technical integration – from work niches to relations between public and private institutions – identifying the social codes involved in territorial representations and the communicational dynamics of agents in the chain. This makes FOLOVAP an institution that redistributes frictions by setting a common framework from which to face the different perspectives regarding the process, and by explaining how each agent positions itself and the others in the logistical flow. The objective is to generate discursive linkages that consolidate the idea of ​​a Port Logistics Community, materializing the idea of a socio-technical system capable of modulating the territorial contexts in which it is deployed.

This platform operates complementarily to the Port Logistics System (SILOGPORT). This software has its background in the development of SI-ZEAL, created by the Spanish information technology company Indra for the control of operations within the port extension area. The success of this earlier application meant that Indra was tasked in 2013 with the creation of a Port Community System (PCS), a larger scale tool for the management of the socio-technical system based in a customized model to meet the specific needs of Valparaíso. With the birth of SILOGPORT, it became possible to calculate and plan possible scenarios regarding the movement of transnational goods that cross through the city.

SILOGPORT is based on the systematization, exchange and dissemination of information along the logistics chain, positioning and mapping the physical and documentary flow of freight as well as identifying points of friction. The software integrates different operators in interdependent processes and pushes them to comply with standards of action and best practice in order to respond to the critical objective of the logistics industries: to put the right products and services in the right place at the right times in the process of circulation of goods. This operation of machinic servitude (Guattari) establishes a cooperative framework for the dynamic distribution of each agent in the territory based on a mutual control logic that seeks to ensure the continuity of flow. More than an imposition of action criteria, the software exposes the need for certain operations in order to optimize the movement over territory.

FOLOVAP and SILOGPORT are two integrated semiotic chains that maintain circulation and communicational flow in port-logistic socio-technical ecology. The political and discursive registers of FOLOVAP makes meaningful to different agents the terms of optimization and ‘development of comparative advantages’ established by the technical-operational coding carried out in SILOGPORT. This helps to consolidate the logistical model as part of a collective identity based on the growth of those who become part of the chain. SILOGPORT, by contrast, acts as a machinic register organized by a-signifying semiotic that allows identification of the optimal configuration of the logistics circuit from the actors involved, providing information to evaluate and define their position and participation within the system. The result is a common territorial diagram inscribed in the practices carried out by each actor in the chain to achieve more efficient performance, and in order to guide the common effort to improve the flow.

This double-semiotic inscribes the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’ in global supply chains. No longer as a bastard and poor fragment of a British colony lost in the 33rd parallel south, but as a convergence platform between the economies of Mercosur and Asia. The Jewel has been polished and linked following the impersonal path of Le Tao du Prince.