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Chile's Huge Open-pit Copper Mine Goes Underground

The future for Chuquicamata, and Codelco, is likely to determine the prosperity of Chile, which has been growing fast and attracting foreign investment thanks largely to the stability that copper royalties provide.

"This (project) is not only seeking to guarantee the production of Chuquicamata but ensure the competitive position of Codelco," Aliaga said.

Everything about Chuquicamata, affectionately known as "Chuqui" by Chileans, is epic in scale, and its history is in many ways the history of Chile.

The area has been mined since before Spanish colonial times, but the current operation began in 1915 under foreign and local interests. When it was owned by Anaconda, the U.S. company built a whole town in the desert to support it, equipped with a railroad, schools, soccer fields and social clubs. Although many benefited, working conditions were risky, many miners died and a wave of strikes and crackdowns roiled the project, making it a symbol of the struggle for workers' rights.

"Che" Guevara visited the mine in March 1952 and deplored the treatment of the miners in his "Motorcycle Diaries."

Pablo Neruda, Chile's best-known poet and a life-long communist, also criticized Anaconda's grip on the Chilean miners.

"It was a grimy multitude, hunger and shreds, solitude, that excavated the gallery. That night I didn't see the countless wounds file by along the mine's cruel rim. But I was part of those torments," Neruda wrote in "Night in Chuquicamata."

The mine became Chilean state property when Allende nationalized copper in 1971 â¿¿ one of the acts that infuriated U.S. President Richard Nixon. Washington backed Allende's opponents, encouraged his overthrow and knew the coup that toppled him was in the works, though there is no evidence it directly participated.

But when Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973, he declined to return copper to private hands. Ever since, Codelco has kept Chile's economy strong.

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