Book Review: Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile

Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile.
By Clara Han.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. 298. US$28.95 paper.
Reviewed by JADWIGA E. PIEPER MOONEY University of Arizona

Clara Han’s ethnographic study is remarkable both for the author’s methodology and for her research results.  Life in Debt is the extraordinary product of thirty-six months of fieldwork conducted between 1999 and 2010 in the poor neighborhood of La Pincoya in the northern outskirts in Santiago. For several months at a time, Han lived among the residents, taking part in their daily lives and building lasting relationships that continued even when her other academic obligations took her  back to the United States.  In the process of her research, she explores the complex relationships of La Pincoya residents and examines how the people she meets make sense of their own lives.  She focuses on multiple debts as useful and convincing categories of analysis that offer unexpected insights into the economic and political negotiations that characterized  Chile’s transformation from the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-89) to the beginning of re-democratization in the 1990s.  Through the discussion of debts – economic, social, moral, as well as personal and political – Han offers a vivid contextual account of people’s domestic struggles, their efforts to mitigate emotional and economic problems, and their changing personal and political commitments to a nation in flux. Indeed, in many ways the lives of La Pincoya residents have not changed in the course of re-democratization.

Debt and how people care for one another are closely related. The obligation of debt, in the form of financial credit or the lending of favors, helps explain how the people in La Pincoya negotiate their belonging and their survival not just in the wider community but in their households as well. Multiple systems of debt create a complex web of dependencies and often require intricate plans for payback that drive short-term and, occasionally, long-term negotiations.  Individuals invent strategies to meet payments on credit cards and apply different forms of creative diplomacy to return favors.  Residents who are physically or mentally ill (Han provides substantial evidence of high depression rates), addicted to drugs,
or temporarily unemployed often survive through material or moral support provided by family members of an extended family unit that is itself defined by the support network that links individuals to the family or community.

Debt as a category of analysis also informs the relationship between the state and the poor – and adds a little-known chapter to the long story of the legacies of military dictatorship.  The military not only replaced the welfare state with a new subsidiary state, but also used debt systems to re-structure the nature of poverty itself.  A new credit system for the poor was  set up to allegedly  expand their opportunities, but did nothing more than  create new and more debilitating dependencies through debt.  Han speaks of a “loaned life” tethered to an expanded credit system that offered the poor unprecedented access to material goods and comforts of a “dignified life” (39).  In reality, not only did it provide the means to attain possessions that trapped people in debt, but it also added a mechanism of control and surveillance through an extensive credit-reporting system.  In the mid-1970s, the poor could use credit to make purchases in department stores and were able to receive bank loans as well as institutional credit.  Debtors were added to a new and elaborate database of a credit reporting system, the Center for Information of Commercial Documentation (DICOM), and those who had trouble with payments faced multiple consequences.  To be “in DICOM” signified that one was stigmatized for life: credit reports were unofficially used as a character assessment that deemed debtors unworthy, irresponsible, and less attractive to employers. This “public” reporting remained legal until the Senate passed the  “DICOM Law” in 1999,  thereby placing restrictions on the use of personal data that had left debtors paralyzed, branded “in DICOM” even after their debts had been paid off  (41).

Han analyzes debts of yet another kind that also informed the transition from dictatorship to re-democratization. In the 1990s, the newly elected coalition government under President Patricio Aylwin referred to the social and moral debts of the military and emphasized its ethical commitment to all Chileans.  References to the dictatorship’s debts of the past helped justify new anti-poverty programs in the present, and eased the process of reconciliation and the payment of reparations for the military’s human rights abuses.  Yet, Han shows that the state’s payback efforts were incomplete at best.  Aylwin’s anti-poverty programs were mostly a continuation of the dictatorship’s misguided short-term approaches to the problems of the poor, and few people benefitted from potential long-term solutions, such as work opportunities, under democracy.  La Pincoya residents, for example, continued to struggle with unemployment and economic deprivations as well as with emotional tensions ranging from fear to depression.

Han’s thorough ethnographic study shows that the histories of debt and of people’s concern for one another remain closely linked; her deeply troubling and profoundly moving research results should be part of any assessment of the realities of life in a country where the democracy that ended military rule failed to address the problems of the poor. La Pincoya residents survive by caring for one another, engage in great acts of kindness, and are willing to make sacrifices for family and extended kin, while they confront the cruel tragedies of everyday life. Han’s accounts of rape, domestic abuse, or revenge killings related to gangs and drugs are powerful and upsetting also because they appear almost casual, as an ever-present part of life in La Pincoya where young men and women fight drug addiction, where they raise families with children whose parents have died or disappeared, and where their willingness to care for one another can often bear an enormous price.  The debt from the credit system manipulated by the dictatorship and the personal debts people owe to one another reveal both the problems and the fleeting resolve that ultimately prolong people’s “life in debt.” This is a must-read for students of contemporary Latin America who seek to understand human agency, individual reasoning, and communal survival strategies in political systems and economic structures whose leaders promise change but fail to deliver.

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