SANTIAGO – The surge in unemployment caused by shutdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus has forced many poor Chileans to turn to neighborhood soup kitchens, which were last a feature of daily life in the Andean nation amid another economic crisis during the 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship.
With the majority of businesses closed and most construction halted due to the expansion of quarantine measures, community kitchens have multiplied in working-class municipalities on the outskirts of Santiago, such as Puente Alto.
Though soup kitchens existed in Chile during the Great Depression of the 1930s, for most Chileans, the images conjured up by the phrase are of more recent vintage, sociologist Nicolas Angelcos told EFE.
Neighborhoods came together to organize soup kitchens in 1982, when the Chilean economy nearly collapsed under the weight of the free-market fundamentalism imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet on the advice of his US-educated economic team.
Nearly 40 years later, Susana Castillo, a community leader in the Marta Brunet neighborhood of Puente Alto, works with three other volunteers to prepare 250 rations of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).
“More families are coming all the time, especially now that the quarantine is extended. There are ever more people left without jobs,” she told EFE.
The Marta Brunet kitchen is one of 14 in Puente Alto that – with help from the municipal administration – serve some 5,000 people in all.
Daniel Pezoa, who coordinates community organizations in Puente Alto, said that in providing food, the soup kitchens prioritize the elderly and disabled people, as well as families who have a lot of mouths to feed.
Puente Alto has 1,658 confirmed cases of COVID-19, second only to Central Santiago with 1,873, according to figures released last Sunday by the health ministry.
Chile’s unemployment rate shot up to a highest-in-a-decade rate of 8.2 percent in the first quarter and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean forecasts the country’s economy will shrink 4 percent in 2020, pushing the proportion of Chileans living below the poverty line to nearly 14 percent.
Traditionally, residents gathered at the soup kitchen to dine together. But in a world shaped by coronavirus, the meals are now delivered to households.
Guacolda Bueno, a mother of five, tells EFE from the door of her residence: “We lived off the salary of my husband, who was a vendor. And now we have been left with nothing. He has nowhere to work.”
“The soup kitchen has helped me a lot. At least I know I’ll have lunch,” she said after accepting seven portions for her family.
Residents in other parts of Puente Alto are mounting similar efforts to make sure that none of their neighbors go hungry.
Alina Sandoval is the coordinator of the Assembly of Social and Political Organizations of Cordillera, one of the administrative units of Metropolitan Santiago.
Her group is feeding roughly a thousand people a day.
Sandoval contrasts the present situation with the one facing Chile a decade ago after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake that left more than 500 people dead and cost the economy as much as $30 billion.
“For the 2010 earthquake we did soup kitchens for a week or two, but we need much more organization now. And this will go on longer,” she told EFE. “We have become chains of solidarity.”
“Only the people help the people,” Sandoval said.
The soup kitchens of the 1980s were an expression of a desire to “confront poverty collectively,” in the words of Angelcos, who is on the faculty of the University of Chile and Andres Bello University.
He said that the community kitchens likewise fostered the “active participation” of women outside the home, facilitating the emergence of leaders.
Another side effect, he said, was the politicization of a segment of the population when went on to create “spaces of resistance against the dictatorship.”
“It’s an initiative that is directly related to self-management, solidarity and dignity,” Angelcos said, pointing out that soup kitchens began to appear months ago in the context of the nationwide mobilization against economic inequality that erupted last October.
The return of soup kitchens on a wide scale is more than just a sign of increasing poverty, the sociologist said.
“It is the demonstration of the failure or inefficiency of a model of official protection that still resists larger and more far-reaching welfare policies,” Angelcos said, referring to the government of President Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing billionaire.