History from the Middle: A Mine Manager in Allende’s Chile

One main purpose of oral history research is to give voice to the voiceless, to those who have left no written record for historians to use in the future. Oral history has been part of the broader effort in social history to write “from below” to balance the voices of the powerful in history, which are heard through their official documents, ledgers, edicts, and so on.

In ROHO’s Western Mining in the Twentieth Century oral history project, there are over one hundred interviews with people who are, for the most part, neither the rich and powerful nor the excluded and forgotten. The project consists of interviews with mine foremen, managers, technicians, metallurgists, professors, and engineers. What is clear from reading these histories is the degree to which neither the official, dominant narratives nor the traditional marginal voices of oral history can give us the whole picture. The middle level of managers, engineers and scientists still have much left to say.

Lee Swent’s interview with Braden Mining Co. executive Bob Haldeman is a dramatic story of a powerful man buffeted by still-more-powerful historical forces. A 29-year company man with the Braden Copper Company (Kennecott Copper Co.) in Chile, Haldeman thought he had dodged a bullet in 1967. For the previous ten years, he and his colleagues watched as the Chilean government took greater control of the mining industry. Haldeman brokered a deal for a massive expansion of the mine in exchange for a guarantee of no increases in taxes for 12 years. Three years later, the new mine opened. Three months after that, socialist candidate Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile. Haldeman describes the direct political supervision of him and the mine’s managers, along with some of the sabotage and work slowdowns that took place after the election. Compared to the strife on the streets and the tragedy of the subsequent years in Chile during the 1970s, Haldeman’s concerns may seem trifling. But his oral history gives us some of the texture of the moment, including the panic among the well-to-do in Chile and the exultation of the young Allende supporters:

Chaos happened. People started to scramble. The Chileans who had money figured that it was the end of their life here. You could go out and buy a brand-new car — they would give you the keys for a thousand dollar bill.

In February or March [1970] they dug up out of the files an ancient law; I think it was enacted in 1887. For some reason, at that time it said that in vital or basic industries in the country, if for any reason the government feels they are being mismanaged and go against the interest of the country, they can appoint interventores, or watchdogs, overseers, for those key positions to make sure that the people in those positions aren’t destroying the operation of the country, the economy, et cetera. They dug that law up.

We had to report to them, and they were privy to all information and had to sit in at all meetings. They could sit in my office and watch what I did all the time; I had to make office space for them. I got an interventor by the name of Mr. Arancibia, an economist, twenty-eight, and a socialist. Mr. Grant got an engineering student from the university, a communist. Thelawyer got another student, who brought his girlfriend as secretary. They locked up at three o’clock in the afternoon and made love on the sofa. [laughs] It was just chaos. You can’t imagine. (70-71)

Haldeman began to make arrangements to get his family and belongings out as the political atmosphere deteriorated. As a painter, he had accumulated thirty years of his own work. When he tried to export them, they were declared “national treasures” and denied permits. When he did finally get permits, the paintings were tossed away at customs.

Although this personal adversity must be taken in context, circumstances rapidly grew more sinister for Haldeman in his encounter with the new National Copper Corporation (CODELCO), which was positioning itself to take over the mining industry on behalf of Allende’s Chilean government:

Now it was June, and I was called to the Copper Corporation by the minister of mines and the head of the Copper Corporation. I was to be over at the Copper Corporation office at 10 o’clock in the morning. I met them, and they took me into the board room. In the board room there are eight or ten young guys with boinas [berets] on — Che Guevara style — all sitting around. I didn’t know who they were; they were political hacks. They were all smiling and talking among themselves.

We sat down, and the minister said, “Mr. Haldeman, I’m sorry I had to call you in, and I’m also sorry that I have to tell you that there have been these acts of sabotage, Chileans have been leaving the company and you have been paying them severance pay in dollars,” which legally I was entitled to.

They had a whole list of things. He said, “Those are very serious matters.” He looked at me, and I said, “Yes, they are, sir.” [He then said,] “Well, I have to tell you that we are going to file suit against you for infraction of the civil and penal codes for all of these violations.”

They were all smiling. My lawyer started to speak, and I kicked him in the shins. I told him quietly, “Shut up. Don’t say anything.” I looked at the minister, and he was smiling. I said, “Yes, Mr. Minister, that’s very serious. I just don’t know what to say.” He didn’t say anything. Nothing happened. It was a showdown, and I didn’t defend myself. The head of the Copper Corporation repeated some of the charges, and I said, “Yes, I understand that they are very serious.” He said, “Yes, it’s very serious.”

You’ve heard of Pavlov’s dog and conditioned reflex” In any meeting where you are the one invited, if you stand up to leave, everyone stands up. I said, “Is that all, Mr. Minister”” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Mr. Vice President, is that all”” “Yes,” [he said]. I stood up, and everybody stood up. I said, “With your permission, I’ll be leaving.” They all collapsed.

I walked by the minister, and he said, “Bob, just a minute,” and grabbed my hand. “I’d like to talk to you.” I said, “Wait a minute [for my lawyer],” and he said, “No, just you alone.” Two of them took me in and sat down. “Do you want coffee”” I said, “No, thanks.” “These are very serious charges,” [they said]. I said, “Yes, very serious.” I agreed with everything, and he was becoming more frustrated. I said, “I’ll just have to go back and see what I can do about this. Can I ask you a favor”” “Anything you want,” [they said]. “This is so serious that I would like it if you would give me forty-eight hours to leave the country,” [I asked]. He said, “No, that’s not the idea. That’s not the purpose of all this.” [laughs] They wanted to put me on a kangaroo court!

I had a group of Chileans who still stuck with me. They were loyal, and they wouldn’t take any orders from these overseers, managed the company the way we wanted to and it was frustrating them. The Anaconda [Copper Co.] people just melted away and practically turned it over to the overseers before the legislation came through. (74-76)

Haldeman knew he had to leave the country immediately. What follows is straight out of a political thriller, what Haldeman called “James Bond stuff,” involving telephone scramblers, counter-surveillance, and clandestine meetings. He and his spouse were out of the country the next day.

As one can see, the mining interviews in ROHO’s collection do not just consist of technical descriptions of mining processes and labor negotiations. In this small sample from one of the oral histories in Western Mining in the Twentieth Century, there is this rich narrative of a direct human experience of the geopolitics, clashing ideologies, and politics of corporate hierarchies of the time. More of Bob Haldeman’s life history can be found here.

Paul Burnett, ROHO Historian