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


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Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile by Clara Han

Chile is widely known as the first experiment in neoliberalism in Latin America, carried out and made possible through state violence. Since the beginning of the transition in 1990, the state has pursued a national project of reconciliation construed as debts owed to the population. The state owed a "social debt" to the poor accrued through inequalities generated by economic liberalization, while society owed a "moral debt" to the victims of human rights violations. Life in Debt invites us into lives and world of a poor urban neighborhood in Santiago. Tracing relations and lives between 1999 and 2010, Clara Han explores how the moral and political subjects imagined and asserted by poverty and mental health policies and reparations for human rights violations are refracted through relational modes and their boundaries. Attending to intimate scenes and neighborhood life, Han reveals the force of relations in the making of selves in a world in which unstable work patterns, illness, and pervasive economic indebtedness are aspects of everyday life. Lucidly written, Life in Debt provides a unique meditation on both the past inhabiting actual life conditions but also on the difficulties of obligation and achievements of responsiveness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520272095
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/05/2012
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Clara Han is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Read an Excerpt

Life in Debt

Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile

By Clara Han


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95175-4


Symptoms of Another Life


"Pure nerves." Sra. Flora crumbled a soda cracker in her hands. It was the afternoon of Easter 2004 in La Pincoya. She had invited me to help her prepare an elaborate Easter lunch for her extended family. But the festive plans had abruptly dissolved with the news that her partner, Rodrigo, had lost his job in a textile factory where he had worked for the past twenty-five years. Instead, bites of homemade bread and sips of sugared tea mingled with stifled conversation.

Sra. Flora, Rodrigo, tío Ricardo, and Sra. Flora's daughters and grandchildren lived together in a two-story house that was a process of autoconstruction. First-floor brick rooms joined others of corrugated iron insulated with drywall. Above them, wood beams and iron sheets made a second floor. Outside, a gate of blue-painted iron bars and sheeting bounded the front patio. As part of the toma (land seizure) of 1970 that gave rise to La Pincoya, Sra. Flora and her former husband arrived on this plot of land with little more than a tent. They first built their home with materials scavenged from construction sites.

After her separation from her husband in the late 1970s, Sra. Flora and her new partner, Rodrigo, continued to build and furnish the home through bank loans and department store credit. Her daughters Carmen and Sonia, both single and in their midthirties lived on the second floor, each with two children. Separated by a thin wall was tío Ricardo's small room. On the first floor, Sra. Flora's twenty-five-year-old daughter, Valentina, shared a room with twenty-four-year-old Margarita, an adopted niece with cerebral palsy. And in a room abutting that of Sra. Flora and Rodrigo, her thirty-year-old daughter, Florcita, lived with her partner, Kevin, and their two children.

Rodrigo's job loss had rippled through family relations. Carmen and Sonia worked in unstable jobs that often changed month to month: office cleaning, stocking supermarket shelves, selling pirated CDs. They would have to take on extra hours to pay the utility bills and the monthly quotas on debts until Rodrigo could find another job, but they faced the prospect with a mixture of resignation and frustration. The affects of working overtime also intensified anger toward Florcita and Kevin, who had begun to drink hard liquor again, stealing and selling household foodstuffs to purchase pisco (hard liquor). Florcita was in danger of losing her job as a teacher's aide. Kevin, just released from a one-month psychiatric internment for addiction to pasta base (cocaine base paste) and for manic depression, paced the house nervously and angrily all day long. In a confrontation between the three sisters shortly before I arrived, Sra. Flora had stepped in to defend Florcita. "You always paint her as the bad one in the movie," she said. Carmen and Sonia had walked out. Shortly after, Florcita left the house with Kevin and the children.

As Sra. Flora recounted the details of the argument to me that Easter, she crumbled cracker after cracker between her fingers. Rodrigo sighed heavily and went to the door to smoke a cigarette. The tensions, she said, were "eating my nerves." She pointed to a framed black-and-white photo hanging on the wall behind me. The photo was taken before she moved to Santiago in the early 1960s. With long, curly dark hair and a white apron tied around her slim waist, she stood smiling behind a table stacked with homemade bread. Comparing her body then and now, she said, "Todo esto"—the economic precariousness, the debts, the smoldering frustration with Florcita—"it makes me fat. If I eat, it's like I'm eating double." Protecting Florcita wove into the ongoing household economic pressures, and Sra. Flora embodied all this, literally speaking, through her nerves.

Sra. Flora's eaten nerves speak to intersecting dynamics of care, illness, and economic indebtedness within the domestic (see Arriagada 2010; Valdés et al. 2005; X. Valdés 2007). What are temporal and moral textures of this care? Let us move in time with Sra. Flora and her intimate relations. Can this movement in time attune us to care as a kind of "active awaiting" (Cavell 2005, 136)? By this phrase, I mean a patience for the possible, which draws on the hope that relations could change with time. In this chapter, I consider how this "active awaiting" draws on a wider network of dependencies that provide the temporal and material resources for this care. Waiting reveals how domestic relations with neighbors and institutions of credit both mesh with and create cuts in intimate relations. It helps us flesh out the problem of responsibility for and to kin.


In June 2005, the Chilean Central Bank published its Report on Financial Stability for the Second Semester of 2005. Charting the expansive progression of the Chilean economy, the report states in its principal summary: "This positive economic situation has ushered in a greater dynamic of consumption and investment during the present year. The interest rates continue stimulating the expansion of credit. The debt of households continues increasing at elevated rates, rates that are greater than the growth of their incomes" (Banco Central de Chile 2005, 7). Between September 2004 and September 2005, the level of household indebtedness from mortgages increased 17 percent and the level of indebtedness tied to department stores and bank loans increased by 21 percent. Meanwhile, disposable household incomes increased by only 9 percent (p. 38).

Chile's leading conservative newspaper, El Mercurio, publicized the figures, citing the combined generation of credit sources and increasing indebtedness as both "good and bad news" for the consumer. Attempting to dispel anxiety over these figures, Raimundo Monge, the chief of strategic planning at the Spanish-owned Santander Bank and the president of the Banking Committee for the Association of Banks in Chile, placed them within a narrative of national development based on the expansion of the market: "Indebtedness is natural in an economy that is growing and that has better prospects and more trust.... The greater the development of the country, the greater will be persons' debts. In fact, the report of the Central Bank notes that the indebtedness [in Chile] is less than in developed countries" (quoted in Rivas 2006).

The circulation of such numbers in the media—and the discourses in which they are rendered socially and politically intelligible—points to public anxieties and ambivalences over indebtedness, which has become a narrative linchpin in both left- and right-wing politics. Spurred by increasing income inequality, job insecurity, and state regulation favorable toward lending institutions, the consumer credit industry in Chile is one of the most powerful in Latin America. It has grown significantly since the democratic transition in 1990. In 1993, there were approximately 1.3 million department store credit cards in circulation. By 1997, this number had escalated to 5.2 million, and by 1999, when I began my fieldwork in La Pincoya, there were 7 million (PNUD 2002). As of 2008, there were approximately 29 million nonbank credit cards in circulation, averaging 3.5 cards per person (Varas C. 2008).

Department stores such as Almacenes París and Falabella not only offer credit cards but also have opened their own banks. Supermarkets, such as Supermercados Líder, as well as pharmacies, now offer their own credit and cash advances. Credit cards, according to Superintendent of Banks Enrique Marshall, make up more than half of the financial utility of department stores: "The cards of department stores have registered an unusual development, something that you do not see in other parts of the world where this business is purely in banking" (quoted in Fazio 2005, 180). By 2006, the national census showed that low-income populations earning between USD 110 and USD 300 per month were spending 36 percent of their monthly income on consumer debts (MIDEPLAN 2006).

Accompanying this credit expansion, however, are accounts portraying the dangers of indebtedness, the psychosocial causes of debt, and debt's psychological sequelae. For example, in June 2000, El Mercurio de Valparaíso ran an article, "The Risk of Living in Quotas," describing how a small-business owner had committed suicide because of his "overindebtedness": "Although suicide is not a generalized phenomenon, experts point out that this overindebtedness is inciting an increasing number of sick leave days because of depression" (El Mercurio de Valparaíso 2000). Responding to such dangers and risks, the National Corporation of Consumers and Users (Corporación Nacional de Consumidores y Usuarios), a nonprofit organization established in 2000, produced a two-part web-based video report titled Indebtedness: Indebted or Overindebted Chileans? A female reporter opens the report, remarking, "I have the impression that Chile, we Chileans, have changed. Today, all of us are subjects of credit. It doesn't matter how much we earn, where we live, they bombard us with offers to change the car, the television, the house, without caring about what income we have" (CONADECUS 2007).

While the mainstream media have tended to focus on the new consumer desires generated by the credit economy, among low-income populations credit has become a resource within the context of eroding and unstable wages, as well as of the privatization of public services. For example, political scientist Verónica Schild points out, "covering basic necessities such as health insurance, education fees and basic services through credit has become ubiquitous" (Schild 2007, 192). Yet accounts of economic indebtedness in Chile have hinged on the consumer subject and the control exerted through the credit system on workers, positing this neoliberal economic subject as either the starting point or the endpoint of analysis (Cruz Feliciano and Véliz Montero 2007; Moulian 1997). Attending to the difficulties in caring for kin, however, brings into focus how credit and experiences of economic indebtedness are mediated by "house relations" set within a wider field of domestic relations.

As I discussed in the introduction, the house is spoken of in terms of intimate kin relatedness—one's "house of blood"—and the obligations that come with kinship, "commitment to the house." The constant construction of the house, through renovation or mortgage payments, can be understood as a constant achieving of relatedness. These house relations are interconnected with intimate kin outside the house—through sisters, mothers, and daughters, as well as friends. This wider field of intimate kin and friends can be understood as domestic relations.

While domestic relations are not unique to Chile, the primacy of house relations and the extensive availability of credit to the poor give such relations a unique shape. For example, although Carol Stack's seminal work on domestic networks in poor African American communities resonates in part with these domestic relations, in Stack's account the spread of domestic activities shared across households and the constant movement of individuals among rented residences render "which household a given individual belongs to a meaningless question" (Stack 1974, 90). Such a tenuous relation to the house contrasts sharply with relatedness in La Pincoya, where domestic relations beyond the house can be thought of in terms of their pull toward house relations, in which women may be engaged in helping one another across houses, but with the hope of affirming a relation within the house itself.

It is in the positioning between these house relations and the wider field of domestic relations that care for the mentally ill and addicted within the home takes shape. I want to return to Sra. Flora and her family to trace out how struggles over this care pull women between kinship relations within the house, and how women draw on domestic relations and institutional credit to affirm a child's place in the house.


I met Sra. Flora in June 2000 on my second three-month stay in La Pincoya. Over eight years, I saw how constant economic precariousness often cast her affective stakes as mother and pareja (partner) against each other. The loss of Rodrigo's job in March 2004, however, sent the family into economic difficulties they had not experienced since the Pinochet era. Now, only one adult, Rodrigo's cousin, tío Ricardo, who continued to work in the same textile factory, had stable employment. With his lost wages and his difficulty finding temporary work, Rodrigo pressured Sra. Flora to address Florcita and Kevin's drug and alcohol use. Daughters Sonia and Carmen had also heard rumors about them: Florcita was going door to door asking for money from neighbors. Kevin had been seen in a drug dealer's car. In this context, Sra. Flora invited me to meet with her, Florcita, and Kevin together.

With her blue-gray eyes and long, curly brown hair, Florcita inherited the youthful Sra. Flora's looks. Indeed, Sra. Flora invoked this likeness, especially when reflecting on Florcita's drug use. "She looks like me when I was young. But I say now that she was really beautiful. Now, she is getting destroyed by drinking and drugs." Florcita sat in the corner, hand on her chin, sullenly looking at the floor. Sra. Flora pressed them to speak. "Go ahead, tell her about your illness, about the drugs," she said, pointing to Kevin and then to both of them. Neither immediately spoke. But just as Florcita raised her head, Kevin cut her gesture off abruptly, pulling his chair toward me.

Since suffering a stroke in 2001, Kevin had experienced multiple panic attacks, fear, and waves of anger. He hurriedly spoke of his first "attack":

I had a stroke on the 22nd of December 2001. I was working late, going to bed late, getting up early. I was working as a bus driver [a city bus driver], arriving [home] at 2 a.m. and leaving at 4 or 5 in the morning. I was at the bus stop [in La Pincoya on the main street, Recoleta], and I felt a thing like brrrrbrrrrbrrrbrrr, brrrbrrrbrrr [he makes a twisting movement around his ear]. I was stuck there, and: "Ay, my God, what is happening to me?" I was taken to the emergency room [in the local primary care clinic] by my compañeros. They gave me an injection to calm me, and they said that I had depression, anxiety, and all of that stuff. Then from there they took me to the Psychiatric Hospital. They asked me lots of questions, and then they took me to a cardiologist. And then told me, Ya, you have a problem with your heart. This same cardiologist sent me to a neurologist, and they did a scanner on me, an electroencephalogram, a really complicated thing. And they found that my heart was bad.

After the stroke, Kevin acceded to a state pension for disability, which he called "retirement." The slowness of life at home, however, made him nervous and agitated.

I would like to return to working, but I have a bad [unfunctional] hand, a neurological damage that stays forever. They give me pills, but I walked around high, yellow [skin]—pure pills. You know, I will take pills for my nerves and nothing more. I am nervous. I feel like, how to put it, with what name ... It's like when a ball is bouncing like this, like papapapapapapa! all this year. My aggression, my violence, augmented. More than anything it's made me more aggressive. As a human being, I don't accept it. Until today, I do not accept that this happens. I don't accept it because I am thirty-two years old. I have half of my life in front of me, so ...

He paused. Bouncing his knee up and down, Kevin changed course. He recounted the circumstances that led up to his current state of illness.

All of a sudden, I had many goals. When I was mixed up in drugs, I said to myself, "I will jump out of this [doing pasta base]. I will buy all this stuff for myself [comprarme de todo], I will buy myself [things] from here and there." And I had the desire [tenía ganas de comparme un auto] to buy myself a car also. Yes, I would buy a car. [He said this with a sense of wonder.] I would work for a car. So, I put myself to work, working, working, and working, and working, and working, and working, and working. I drove myself crazy working, but until even today I still have the desire to get up and go to work. But now, the rhythm that I have is very slow. Because I don't work, I can get up from bed at the hour that I want, and I don't have anything to do. Last night, I felt so alone, but I have the fear of being alone. And then, all of a sudden I got an attack [a panic attack] ... But, I opted to retire.


Excerpted from Life in Debt by Clara Han. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Symptoms of Another Life
2. Social Debt, Silent Gift
3. Torture, Love, and the Everyday
4. Neoliberal Depression
5. Community Experiments
6. Life and Death, Care and Neglect
Conclusion: Relations and Time



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