The new lithium policy of the Chilean president gabriel boric threatens the monopoly of the main mineral exploiter in Chile, the controversial Chemical and Mining Society (Soquimich or SQM), one of the most lucrative companies in the country, best known for its corruption and links with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) than for its millionaire businesses and operations.
Soquimich, controlled for 40 years by Julio Ponce Lerou -who was the dictator’s son-in-law- and today also by the Chinese Tianqi, is one of the world’s leading producers of iodine, potassium and fertilizers, but in recent years its main business has been concentrated in the lithium it extracts from the Salar de Atacama, the largest in Chile and the third largest in the world.
Some generous contracts Signed between 1993 and 1995 with the Production Development Corporation (Corfo), state administrator of the deposit, they handed over to the mining company strategic domain of the salt flat in a concession until 2030 (and renewable) with privileged conditions.
“SQM was and continues to be the spoiled (spoiled) queen of the Santiago Stock Exchange, the one that reports the great benefits and profits,” journalist Carlos Tromben, an expert on Chile’s economic powers, told EFE.
The Soquimich privatization process began in the midst of the dictatorship, in the early 1980s. Ponce, who at that time chaired the SQM board of directors as well as the general manager of Corfo, incorporated up to 30% of private cital into the company, indebted and turned into a burden for the State.
The issue becomes relevant now, when President Boric announced the creation of a public-private association for the exploitation of lithium, since Chile is the second international producer.
A complex pyramid structure
“The workers themselves became, in part, owners of the company through the policy of the so-called ‘popular citalism’, promoted by the regime under the slogan ‘stop being a proletarian and become an owner'”, explained to EFE the journalist Sergio Jara, investigator of the great Chilean corruption plots.
In a disputed operation, Julio Ponce -together with other executives- bought some time later and at a low price the shares acquired by the workers and grouped in the Pampa Calichera company, from which the businessman created a complex structure of cascading societies to control SQM with little cital.
“The waterfalls are per companies, with a pyramidal structure that have their chain of control in the Cayman Islands,” Jara explained.
According to him, they allowed Ponce to go into debt to buy more shares, improve his position in the company and “place” his friends and associates on the board, such as former Pinochet minister Hernan Buchi, now in office.
The journalist Victor Cofre, author of an exhaustive profile on Ponce, describes him as “a controversial and enigmatic character who held public office for almost a decade; it took over the power of a company, Soquimich, which belonged to the State; He publicly confronted businessmen and major authorities and financed, through the company that he has governed since 1987, politicians of all colors ”.
He also talks about a corporate president out of the ordinary, with almost exclusive dedication and permanent presence in his office and obsessed with lithium.
For some, he was a talented visionary, who lifted Soquimich off the ground and detected a unique opportunity by opening SQM’s doors to lithium. For others, a simple extractivist.
These big businessmen who present themselves as if they were the only ones cable of exploiting a task with that level of natural resources must be demystified a bit. You don’t have to be a genius to do it, Jara said.
With a personal fortune that Forbes magazine estimates today at 3,500 million dollarsPonce even maintains power within Soquimich even though he is no longer part of the board, journalists and former workers assured EFE.
According to a former high-ranking official of the company consulted by the Spanish agency, “it indirectly controls some companies and can designate three of the eight directors of the company.”
In 2015, after almost three uninterrupted decades as Chairman of the Board, Julio Ponce was forced to resign due to one of the biggest political corruption scandals in Chilewhich discovered that the mining company had irregularly distributed money to political sectors of all stripes between 2009 and 2014.
The case coincided with the disclosure of other precedents about bad stock market and financial practices of the cascading companies against the interests of minority shareholders, including the then president Sebastian Pinera (2010-2014).
SQM’s prestige ended up sinking after several court sentences for anti-union practices against its workers: “The company bought the leaders with perks” and “divided them,” Tranquilino Alucena, a union leader at the time, told EFE.
In the midst of negotiations to extend its lithium concession, Soquimich recently launched a media campaign to renew its image, modernize it and, above all, definitively bury its two great ballasts: links with the dictatorship and corruption.