Analysis – Weavers of Revolution

Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

The grassroots revolution in Chile presents a pivotal moment in the history of Latin America, revealing a clear departure from previous violent movements found in Cuba, Argentina and Mexico. Instead, Chile experiences nonviolent change through the Yarur Mill strike.  The process proves to be a dramatic build up to a short-lived social victory, rapidly extinguished by a violent counterrevolutionary coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973.  Unlike the revolutionary power plays at the top levels of government in Argentina and Mexico, Chile experiences dual top-down and bottom-up social revolutions.  Historian Peter Winn takes a journalistic approach, weaving together first-hand accounts with interviews of those in the center of the worker struggle.  The result is a compelling narrative framed to leave the reader cheering for the underdogs – the Yarur workers.

Winn’s study of Yarur Mill and Ex-Yarur lends a micro-level view of the overall shifts and intrigue of parties, loyalties, traditions, unions and shaky political coalitions happening across Chile as a whole from 1970 to 1973.   These shifts reveal many common themes prevalent throughout developing Latin American countries, including: a) the struggle between old work traditions versus modern methods, b) the borrowing of ideas from other Latin American countries and c) the extensive dependency by Latin American countries on outside influences to define their political and economic identities.

Winn begins inside the mill where old, traditional ways of doing things collide with new, modern ways.  Traditional, older workers at Yarur, nicknamed “Old-Timers”, supported the old, patron style of work and loyalty.  This pitted them initially against the “Youngsters”, proponents of modern change and worker control. (Winn, pg. 140)  Thanks to the abuses of Amador Yarur, many “Old-Timers”, who were once loyal to the patron management of Juan Yarur, found themselves increasingly sympathetic to the notion of a “Youngster”-driven union strike.  A defiant Amador Yarur exemplifies the conflict between tradition and change.  “Nobody tells me how to run my industry.” (Winn, p. 135)

It is clear that Chile, like other Latin American countries, also exhibits a sense of continued dependency on extra-hemispheric nations (e.g. Britain, Spain and the U.S.) that goes back to colonial roots. From the beginning, Winn stresses the Middle East origins and cultural influences of the Yarur family.  Juan Yarur initially builds his fortune and business empire in Bolivia, later expanding into Chile with the acquisition of the Yarur Mill.  He then establishes a paternalistic system of employment, harems and loyalties based on Arab cultural influence.

Don Juan’s children later add their own signature “foreign” management styles. Specifically, Jorge Yarur modernizes operations with the advent of the “Taylor System”, devised by U.S. manufacturers. This represents the wider dependency of Latin America on another, much larger U.S. system, The Alliance for Progress (a massive aid program for developing Latin American countries).  On a much smaller scale, mill workers illustrate dependency.  They depend on the government to back them up for their strikes.  Workers feared making any move to strike or organize without favorable government support. (Winn, p. 123-131)

Winn’s book also demonstrates how Latin American countries borrowed reform ideas from their neighbors.  Amador Yarur subscribes to the “Chicago style” of using worker bosses, brute squads and fear as a coercive control, as did Juan Manuel de Rosas with terror squads in Argentina. (Winn, p. 108, 111) Amador’s bribes are reminiscent of the corruption of government officials during the Mexican Revolution. (Winn, p. 109)  Yarur loyalist and union propaganda campaigns are also comparable to those used by Rosas in Argentina. (Winn, p. 109)  The feudalistic structure of the Yarur Mill, mixed with Juan Yarur’s personal loyalty, sounds identical to Rosas’ early hacienda management.

Despite Winn’s offerings of similar Latin American themes, the Chilean experiment is unique due to the existence of two simultaneous revolutions.  The Allende government insists on leading a methodical revolution from the top.  Leftist organizations and worker leaders radicalize the movement from below. (Winn pg. 149)  For Yarur leaders, reforms were not moving fast enough to improve the lives and promote the best interests of the workers. (Winn, pg. 160)  Winn’s writing certainly dramatizes worker urgency and, conversely, highlights Allende’s hesitation.  A fast track to reform meant possible political backlash.  Ironically, Allende was highly perceptive. The Pinochet coup of 1973 would later justify his cautious pragmatism.

One problem with the book is lack of balanced interview sources.  While worker quotes and information are plentiful, accounts from Allende, the Yarur family, Yarur bosses and union organizers are scarce.  Winn purposefully uses this imbalance to reduce the reader’s objectivity and, instead, sympathize with the workers.  Further, Winn overdramatizes the conflict between Allende and the workers.  Was there really a huge rift between the two socialist movements?  In reality, it was less of an argument about substance and more of an argument about pace and leadership. Allende already planned for the expropriation of industries such as Yarur, but with a much slower and deliberate pace to satisfy the demands of his diverse and shaky political coalition.  Radical, quick shifts from below would portray lack of control, a perception that could undermine his leadership and legitimacy.

Despite these concerns, Winn’s unique journalistic approach illustrates a new, non-violent experiment in social change previously unseen in Latin America.  His writing style creates a sense of dynamism often missing from other purely reflective monographs.  Winn navigates through many themes characteristic in Latin American historical development, successfully illuminating the complexities of self-discovery and styles of governance facing all post-colonial Latin American countries.  The Yarur Mill represents a microscopic view of the messy process of achieving social justice and control within Latin America.