Rising Mega Mall In Quaint Fishing Town Exposes Chile's Deep Divides

Essay: A coming monstrosity or an engine for new jobs? The chattering class in Chile's capital of Santiago are appalled at photos of a huge new mall being built in the southern island town of Castro. Locals, it seems, see a very different picture.

The mall has arrived (Facebook)
The mall has arrived (Facebook)
Lino Solas de Ovando G.

SANTIAGO -- A national debate has broken out in Chile over a rather large mall currently under construction in a relatively small southern city called Castro. Located on the island of Chiloé, Castro is an isolated but popular tourist destination, best known for its seafood, local folklore and colorful wooden houses, some of which are built on wooden stilts.

Starting a few weeks ago, social media sites began buzzing with an image that for many seemed at first too strange to be true. In the foreground is a collection of typical seaside homes, fishing boats and a bit of the harbor itself: a scene captured countless times in postcards and tourist brochures. But this is not a picture postcard image. Looming above the homes is a huge, half-built rectangular shopping center covered in metal staging and tattered plastic wrap.

The image is shocking. In the interest of making a proper analysis, one tries to be neutral about all of this. But there are clearly some objective details regarding this half-built mall that jump out, even for someone like me, a complete neophyte when it comes to all things concerning architecture and urbanism. The size of the mall is considerably out of proportion with the surrounding area. The materials they've chosen to build it with (glass and metal) clash with the rest of the city's homes and buildings. And it now dominates a city skyline that until now had been the sole domain of the 27-meter San Francisco church, which was declared a national monument in 1979 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000.

There are some other interesting aspects to this story as well. Not only does the structure exceed the city's existing building norms, it also exceeds, in terms of both levels and square meters, what Castro municipal authorities originally approved. The builders had permission for a 24,000-square-meter shopping center. The half-built mall is instead about 34,000 square meters. And yet the business venture is defended tooth and nail by Castro's mayor, Nelson Aguila, who happens to be up for reelection later this year.

Competing visions

Based on all of the above, one can imagine that the project might wind up being frozen, that the investors will get slapped with hefty fines, and that the structure may eventually be demolished. But all of that remains to be seen, especially since the majority of residents in Castro, a city of 40,000, actually support the mall.

Why, given everything we know about the project and the apparent transgressions of the investors behind it, would people in Castro still want the mall? And why is it that a majority of people in Santiago, Chile's bustling capital, 650 miles away, seem to feel the opposite way? Based on the last couple of weeks worth of tweeting and facebooking, social media-savvy Santiaguinos appear determined to keep Castro just the way it appears in all those nostalgic picturesque postcards.

This is hardly the first time that people from Santiago and people from the rest of the country have failed to see eye-to-eye. This divide between the populous capital and the outlying provinces is an old and unresolved issue in Chile. The ongoing political crisis in the far southern region of Aysen is a case in point.

President Sebastian Pinera has his hands full trying to control the unrest, which erupted in mid-February. Residents have erected roadblocks, occupied bridges and engaged in violent clashes with police. People in Aysen say their isolation takes an economic toll. They feel literally abandoned by the central government. Like the people of Castro, they complain, for example, that in order to receive specialized medical attention they must travel long distances to another city. The same goes for those seeking quality work and education opportunities.

Is it that the provinces have so little that the possibility of a single shopping mall is seen as a kind of substitute panacea? Or at least a cold compress to alleviate all of those complicated fevers they suffer from? Could it be that the people of Castro see those seven stories of concrete as an opportunity, finally, to look out at the rest of the country with their pride restored? A way to stop being treated just as the quaint characters in a picture postcard?

In the end, Castro will surely get its mall. We'll soon see some kind of measures taken to resolve the various legal glitches so that the massive structure will eventually open its doors, and offer its wares, to the public. We can only imagine where things will go from there: high-rise apartment blocks rising from the lots currently occupied by multicolored wooden houses on stilts. If this vision seems a bit apocalyptic, take solace in the fact that at least the memory of old Castro will be honored. They'll probably save two or three of those old stilt houses, and hold on to the San Francisco church.

Read the original story in Spanish

Photo: Facebook

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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