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Chileans boycott supermarkets to fight corruption

A photo of an empty Lider, one of the supermarkets that was boycotted, on January 10. (Twitter/Lucas Palape)

A photo of an empty Lider, one of the supermarkets that was boycotted, on January 10. (Twitter/Lucas Palape)

Chile is commonly rated as a country with low levels of corruption for the region. However, a series of cases of corruption that began to come to light in 2008 have shaken the public’s perception of corruption in Chile.

As a response to the latest scandal, on January 10 a boycott against three supermarket companies accused of collusion was called for on social media in Chile. A hashtag on Twitter that mobilized supporters became a national trending topic. Thousands of people joined the campaign and opted instead to shop at their local grocery store.

The first case of collusion dates back to 2008, when three major pharmacies were accused of secretly collaborating to raise the prices of their products. Later in 2011, three of the largest chicken distributors were also accused of collusion. In 2014, a third case, known popularly as “Colusion del Confort,” came to light. In this case, two of the biggest corporations in Chile were accused of raising the prices of products, such as toilet paper and napkins.

In addition to these cases, three more shocking corruption cases are currently under investigation. In the first, one of the largest financial groups in Chile, Grupo Penta, has been accused of bribery, fraud and money laundering to finance the political campaigns of right-wing politicians in the 2013 elections. In the second, the son of Chile’s president, Sebastian Davalos, is accused of influence peddling to obtain a multimillion-dollar loan from a bank and real state that was set to be rezoned as urban. Finally, one of the largest mining companies, SQM, was accused of subsidizing the election campaigns of specific politicians at the expense of the public treasury.

It is no surprise, then, that Chileans responded with calls for a nationwide boycott when early this year another network of collusion was revealed. Three of the largest supermarket chains — Cencosud, SMU and Walmart — were accused by Chile’s Tribunal for the Defense of Free Competition of colluding for over three years to raise the price of chicken and coercing smaller supermarkets to abide by the secret agreement.

There was an immediate response by the public on social media. A campaign emerged that called for a boycott on January 10 against each of the six supermarkets run by the companies involved in the collusion network. Thousands of people shared the call for a boycott with the hashtags #ColusionCiudadana, or #ThePeoplesCollusion, and #SupermercadosVacios, or #EmptySupermarkets, with the latter becoming a national trending topic on Twitter.

Using the hasghtag #SupermercadosVacios to report on the impact of the boycott, hundreds of photographs of empty supermarkets and parking lots were posted on social media. All of the biggest national media covered the campaign, shedding light like never before not only on the ongoing litigations against the companies involved in collusion, but most importantly, on the power of a grassroots campaign to express nationwide indignation and demands for justice.

The boycott has also facilitated a wider regional conversation. The hashtag #SupermercadosVacios began being used by Chileans on January 7, but it was already being used in Venezuela since early 2014. While Chileans were using it to ask people to not go to the large supermarkets, Venezuelans used it to denounce their internal food shortage crisis. Argentines, on the other hand, joined in the conversation on January 10 to support the Chilean campaign as they have gone through years of internal political, financial and social crisis. For an entire weekend, people from three different countries joined in a common conversation. It is through this type of solidarity that a movement can gain strength and affect change.

On Sunday, when I spoke to my family about this campaign many of them expressed frustration. “People still went to the supermarket, I saw them!” my father complained. In fact, many people did shop at supermarkets on Sunday, as reports on Twitter show. However, the success of this movement goes beyond whether people did or did not go to the supermarket, or whether or not the profit margin of the targeted corporations was affected. This campaign’s successes should also be gauged by the extent to which it sparked a national and international conversation about corruption, the strategies of nonviolent action, and the power that individuals have as agents of change.

Definite and effective legal action has already been taken against the companies involved in all corruption and collusion cases. Every company that have been found in recent years to have colluded in raising the prices of their products has either been found guilty — and will each have to pay sums ranging from three to $22.5 million — or is currently under investigation. Sebastian Davalos and his wife — as well as more than a dozen Grupo Penta and SQM executives — are also facing criminal charges.

However, the problem of collusion in Chile will undoubtedly continue. Already the president of the National Corporation of Consumers and Users, Hernan Calderon, has said that there is ample evidence pointing toward further networks of collusion. A report issued by the FNE, the national economic prosecutor, on this last case of collusion already suggests as much, as it outlines that “data shows a degree of [collusion] on other products.”

These cases of corruption have revealed serious gaps in Chile’s mechanisms for the prevention of these types of crimes. So far, the demand for justice and reforms by the public with the #SupermercadosVacios campaign has been mostly organic and organized by individual users, but the movement faces strong opposition by these same networks of corruption. Recently in 2013 the same pharmacies accused of collusion lobbied in Congress to obtain votes against a law that sought to regulate the prices and access to medication, threatening to withdraw their support from politicians or offering others financial support in future political campaigns. Confronted with this, it may take a stronger and more organized movement to achieve the changes necessary within Chile’s legal structures for accountability and transparency.

For now, there are already calls on social media in Chile for a second boycott on January 17. Given the media coverage of the action on January 10, the solidarity of people in other South American countries and the effort of thousands of people through Twitter and Facebook, #SupermercadosVacios has the potential to become an even stronger, more organized national movement.