The explosive influx of Haitians into Chile – more than forty thousand in just seven months – dominates the conversations in a country which despite its overwhelming miscegenation was never home to immigration
Text and photos by Pablo Sapag M.
For three decades Super 8 has been Chile’s most popular snack. The chocolate covered wafer goes hand in hand with school breaks, waiting times or any occasion you care to mention.
The snack is touted in the streets, the subway and micros or urban buses – by thousands of unregulated street vendors shouting “Super 8 two hundred pesos, three for five hundred!” though the truth is the product is so well established multi-offers are not necessary.
Perhaps that is why many of the thousands of Haitians who in only two years have made their presence visible on the streets of the main Chilean cities and especially its capital Santiago are already competing with the Chilean vendors who have been at it their whole lives.
At the traffic lights in this city of more than seven million inhabitants where 40% of the country’s population is concentrated, the Haitians are making a living by simply displaying the product. The difficulty hence of moving from the Haitian creole to the convoluted Chilean vernacular, so distant in terms of its vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation from the Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic – which together with the United States and France is a preferred place for Haitian emigration – is avoided.
The explosive influx of Haitians into Chile – more than forty thousand in just seven months – dominates the conversations in a country which despite its overwhelming miscegenation was never home to immigration.
An initial mix of Mapuche Indians with the few essentially military colonial Spaniards was added to in the 19th century by small contingents of Europeans and Arabs, though never in the proportion they did in Argentina, Brazil, or Uruguay.
Neither were there, in Chile, hardly any blacks, since an abundance of Indians was sufficient for the agricultural and mining encomiendas (repressive colonial tax regimes) of the Spaniards. That is why the presence of the Haitians stands out so much.
Despite this however to date there have been no major outbreaks of xenophobia or racism in this country where, on the other hand, there has always been a clear relationship between race and economic, political and social status.
Experts believe that the unexpected speed of this development explains why so far anti-Haitian demonstrations are only visible, although increasingly frequent and hostile, on social networks and in private conversation, where they are blamed for the virulent increase in AIDS cases – Chile is where there has been the greatest increase of this in Latin America over the last six years – or for the reappearance of tuberculosis and leprosy.
Business interests which seek to lower the cost of labour in one of the most unequal countries in Latin America are another reason. The neoliberal model imposed on the country makes economic consideration a priority in any analysis, in this case, to the benefit of Haitians.
They have also found obsolete Chilean immigration law to their advantage. Despite the fact that over the last fifteen years some tens of thousands of Peruvians, Colombians and Venezuelans arrived in the country, the staggered nature of their arrival and their ability to racially, linguistically and culturally emulate the majority of Chilean mestizos did not demand legal changes.
Now, with the arrival of Haitians, this is indeed being considered. Most enter as tourists with the clear intention of working.
To date moving from one job to another within the country has been easy, so many Haitians have already become legally registered. A legal loophole and a lack of immigration strategy that led the National Head of Foreign Nationals Rodrigo Sandoval to tender his resignation to President Bachelet.
That crisis showed that the arrival of Haitians was starting to make it onto the agenda, with the danger that this represents in a year in which Chileans must elect a new president and parliament in December.
Politicians may be tempted to use the Haitian issue in one way or another, thus breaking with a consensus to welcome them: which is in the interests of business – the real powerbase in Chile – and has been based on elements very peculiar to this bilateral relationship.
In 2004, Chile was the first Latin American country to send troops to Haiti when chaos – which Chilean troops helped contain – followed the overthrow of President Aristide.
With former Chilean dictator Pinochet still alive, the humanitarian and peacekeeping mission served to reconcile the Armed Forces with their compatriots. The mission’s importance was doubled in the wake of the earthquake of 12 January 2010 that killed tens of thousands of Haitians.
Only a month and a half later another earthquake shook Chile and despite the distance and the disparity in consequences the earthborn catastrophes cemented a sympathetic relationship between the countries which was also facilitated by the popularity of Jean Beausejour, a football player for the Chilean national team and twice American champion whose father is Haitian and mother is Mapuche.
This is the situation thus far at least until the Haitian issue goes beyond a mere Super 8.
(Translated by Nigel Conibear – DipTrans IoLET MCIL – firstname.lastname@example.org)