The new Undersecretary of National Assets says the ministry is more than just a portfolio in charge of administering state land. She assures that there are many issues that are invisible and that one of the priorities will be to look for spaces to build social housing in different departments, including the Armed Forces. Here, he also goes into more detail on the sites of memory after the social outbreak, the paths that connect with the Convention and the first weeks of Gabriel Boric’s government. “Nobody says that changing Chile is going to be easy,” he reflects.

By Claudio Pizarro

The exercise is rather simple. If you ask people what are the functions of the Ministry of National Assets, asks the new undersecretary of the portfolio, Marilen Cabrera, they are likely to answer that its scope of action has to do with state property and land. “But there is a lot going on in this ministry,” she says at the outset.

The reason for this perception, adds this professor of State in Mathematics and Computer Science (Usach), would have to do with the fact that the issues developed by the portfolio have not been properly disseminated. “They have been distanced from the people, and that is the tone we want to change,” she says.

-Perhaps a more technocratic look has been favoured?

More economistic, I would say. If you listen to the previous authority, economic indicators predominated, how much money the ministry collected or how much money came in from concessions or leases.

-Recently, minister Javiera Toro spoke of a portfolio with an active role and not at the service of private requests. This is an important difference with respect to the previous government.

It means not focusing exclusively on financial issues. There are many other issues that have been left behind because the emphasis has been placed on other things. In the previous period, for example, concessions to renewable energy companies were favoured, with a look at profitability. This is where we want to change course.

-Will some concessions be reviewed?

It is likely that rather than reviewing concessions, the procedures will be reviewed. And also, with regard to the contracts, so that we can give them that twist of the screw, so that they don’t just focus on the economic indicator but on their real social profitability. This look must be permanently present in all our projects. Everything we do, as this government has instructed us to do, should be directed towards the community, the people, the inhabitants of Chile. We want to install a more social look.

-And how would you implement this from the ministry?

We have a deficit of more than 600,000 homes that has been dragging on for many governments. The president signed an agreement with social organisations to reduce it and has asked us to register and identify those lands that belong to the state, transferring them to the Ministry of Housing to build housing projects that are accessible to ordinary people, through subsidies. And that is what we are doing. Without going any further, in the next 90 days, we are going to hand over land to Serviu for more than three thousand houses in Arica, Tarapacá and Antofagasta.

-The government’s housing agenda aims to reduce the deficit by redistributing land for housing. When we talk about redistribution, what are we really talking about?

We are talking about recovering vacant land, which is not being used for anything, except for rubbish dumps, and which is listed as forgotten land that has been allocated to other departments. Ferrocarriles del Estado, for example, has some land that was transferred to them and today is not being occupied. Our idea is to use them for future housing projects. For that we have to make a land registry of all the land, because speculation in Chile is tremendous. Housing prices are unaffordable and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the state to buy land from private owners. So how can we not try to recover, register and prepare this land so that it is available to be converted into housing projects. That is our challenge.

-Are there other state bodies where you can turn to for these purposes?

There is a law that was generated many years ago by President Allende, when the military were not privileged beings, but rather had a low salary. So, a special law was created and limited for a number of years, where land could be transferred to the army’s welfare departments so that they could build houses for the people of the armed forces.

-But some of it was not necessarily used for that purpose.

It wasn’t initially, but afterwards the coup d’état came and it was used for other purposes. That’s why we are now seeing that we have a housing shortage, that all state bodies, including the Armed Forces, can take a look at this need, talk about it and that they can also collaborate in the eventual restitution of land. Contribute to reducing the tremendous deficit we have in housing construction. To ask all the organisations to do their best to help those who are most deprived and, above all, for a human right such as decent housing for all.

-Apart from housing, what other projects do you envisage?

We are also looking for land for those micro and small entrepreneurs who want to start up a business and who do not have the possibility of leasing industrial plots. The idea is that they can count on adequate, non-speculative leases, and that business centres for entrepreneurs can be created. And so on and so forth. We are working with the Sub-secretariat of Telecommunications, Subtel, to be able to provide connectivity to the most remote places in Chile. Small towns on the border that have practically no connection with the rest of the country.

-What about a solution for the middle class?

Probably there will also be, because there are always housing plans of different amounts and sections, but it is the Ministry of Housing that manages and sees to that. On the other hand, we have also thought that sometimes there are small plots of land that are not suitable for a villa, but for a small condominium. You see how real estate companies build a series of houses on small plots of land and sell them at a very high price. Well, why don’t we use the same criteria to build small condominiums, where there is integration and not where social housing remains on the fringes of the city.

-And in administrative terms, is it viable, easy or very complex?

The bureaucracy of the state has its time, but clearly this goes hand in hand with the availability and political decision to want to do things.

-Aren’t you afraid of confronting the big construction companies and real estate speculation?

We were recently with the mayoress of Quilicura and she was saying that the real estate companies were in an uproar because they were drawing up the regulatory plan. Surely, we are also going to encounter this, but these are the risks that one has to take. Nobody said that changing the world was easy and nobody says that changing Chile is going to be easy. But we are here and we are going to put all our efforts into changing it.

-When a new government is installed, there are always new things, have you had any surprises?

We are searching, we have found some things, but we can’t comment on them yet because it would be irresponsible without concrete evidence. We are investigating.

-Memory has been a very popular topic after the social upheaval. Are you going to set up memory sites for some events related to the uprising?

Yes, we are thinking about that. Clearly there was a violation of human rights and it was all that expression of the people that finally ended up in the Convention and a new Constitution. We could not make that human rights situation invisible. So, we are also thinking of a milestone where we can leave evidence of that fact.

-Do you have a place in mind?

I can’t give you any information yet, but clearly there are places that we can all recognise.

-Plaza Italia, for example?

I couldn’t give you any information, but clearly there are places that everyone can recognise. I can tell you that human rights organisations have come to visit us, because in the last 4 years they were never received and the issue was absolutely abandoned. There was no development or progress of any kind. But afterwards the change of government, clearly the organisations have appeared and we have had meetings with many of them. We are looking at the issue of emblematic sites, such as 3 and 4 poplars. We were with the Chilean Human Rights Commission and we are moving in that direction.

-Are there any challenges of the Convention that are linked to an important line of work in the ministry?

I think there are several, but until the draft comes out, we prefer not to interfere or give our opinion on this. We believe that the Convention is doing a very good job, a job that sometimes the traditional press or some sectors of Chilean politics have wanted to sully or discredit. The work they are doing is very serious and contains the diversity of the people of Chile. Perhaps some of them will be ordinary people who have not had any previous relevance, but they were elected for something and that is popular sovereignty. We have to respect the work they are doing, which is clearly going to have a much better result than the one we have.

-But there are some initiatives on land restitution and autonomy for indigenous peoples that are very much related to the work you are doing.

On restitution we are working, mainly in the north, but also in the south, with Conadi, looking at how to support the work they are doing. We have more experience in appraisal, land measurement, the legal part of land transfer. We are at Conadi’s service in everything they require from this ministry. In the north, we are also making progress in land restitution, in historical commitments that were made to the Andean peoples and that had not been fulfilled. We are also exploring the possibility of having the indigenous communities themselves administer some parks, on the understanding that they are the ones who take care of nature and have an issue of religiosity, like what was done in the north with El Tatio, where a community is the one who administers it.

-How have you seen the role of your collective, Acción Humanista, in Apruebo Dignidad?

We are a humanist-oriented movement, we are in the process of legalising ourselves and we are an actor that has long-standing experience in terms of functioning. However, we believe that from our ideology and doctrine we can make profound transformations. And right now, the new generations, the government of President Boric, is about to make these transformations and, therefore, as Acción Humanista we are strongly supporting them, putting all our experience at their disposal.

-What has this generational encounter been like?

We also have new generations within the party and each of us has different roles to play, but we are all equal. We relate on an equal footing with young people, not as if we were a council of elders telling us what to do. This diversity of look is what allows progress to be made and the wheel to turn.

-But in the installation of the government, in this first implementation, it seemed that there was a lack of experience.

These are dance errors, not the dance itself, as a friend would say. What I have always said is that when companies ask young people for experience, they don’t give them the opportunity to have it. Nobody is born with experience. The oldest politicians in Chile have had experience because they have been in power several times. But nobody arrived experienced.

-Yes, that’s true, but there were also unforced errors, own goals.

It is likely that things could have been done in a better way, but none of that has been detrimental to the policies they want to implement, nor have they harmed others. Not really. But please, all these politicians, with experience, have made such a mess of things. They don’t remember Piñera’s census, where experienced politicians participated. In Transantiago there was an expert commission. Mañalich’s health waiting lists. Those were old politicians, not young ones. And nobody talks about that. We are going to say that the fishing law was a mistake. It is still not possible to change that law. So, I feel that there has been a lot of disproportion.