Between jingles, the radio announces: “The best the world has to offer, all under one roof…. Nine million customers and over $300 million in sales this year. Come and see us.” The ads are for the Zona Franca free-trade zone (FTZ), a huge expanse of warehouses and malls in Punta Arenas, on the shores of the narrow Strait of Magellan in southernmost Chilean Patagonia. It’s built right on the sand spit that gave the city its name, swept by winds so strong it’s said they can drive you mad.
Punta Arenas had its glory days before the construction of the Panama Canal, when it was a crucial port for ships using the Magellan strait to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific, avoiding the storms off Cape Horn. Today, cruise ships the size of apartment blocks call on their way to Ushuaia, disgorging thousands of tourists.
In Punta Arenas, “the world’s end” (el fin del mundo) is a brand used to evoke fantasies. It’s applied to beer, cafés, restaurants, tour routes, and major highways: A section of Route 9 has been renamed World’s End Road. Visitors are told they are leaving everyday life behind and entering an “untouched” land on the margins of the civilized world, where everything is still possible. Those who believe it will be disappointed. The tour guides keep them on track: “You can’t leave Punta Arenas without visiting its Zona Franca, the biggest shopping mall in Patagonia.” There they discover that the modern world has invaded the world’s end, with warehouses, car dealerships, and a mall crammed with flat-screen televisions, duty-free alcohol, and camping gadgets that allow you to go back to nature in comfort. Welcome to modern Patagonia.
The FTZ was established in 1977, under the Pinochet dictatorship, by the intendant of the Magallanes region, General Nilo Floody, known to human-rights organizations for his part in what was in 1973 called the “cleanup of armed extremist groups.” Under Pinochet’s labor and social-security minister José Piñera, and his team of Chicago Boys, the region became a laboratory for globalization. State-owned enterprises—oil, water, telecoms, air transport—were privatized at knockdown prices. Though Punta Arenas has no road links to the capital, Santiago, 3,000 kilometers to the north, the FTZ made it possible to buy anything you could want. The government spared no effort to attract new residents, at a time when Argentina was claiming the islands of the nearby Beagle Channel. The FTZ spearheaded regional development, a direct extension of the colonization policy that had, a century earlier, led to the extermination of the indigenous Alacaluf, Ona, and Yaghan peoples.
Forty years on, the original sheds, corroded by sea spray, are still there, facing the strait. They are regularly repainted in bright colors, like dreams that need maintaining. The FTZ advertises its rising annual turnover, barely affected by the arrival of a competing shopping mall in the city, Walmart’s Espacio Urbano Pionero.