Chile Shaking

Chile Shaking

The most treacherous aftershock of Chile’s devastating earthquake was the yawning divide between rich and poor.

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The most treacherous aftershock of Chile’s devastating earthquake was the yawning divide between rich and poor–a fissure that has been mostly papered over by several decades of denial and delusion. One needed look no further than the Twitter torrent gushing from the broken country within hours of the temblor. As swarms of desperate Chileans sacked and emptied the shelves of every market and pharmacy in the hardest-hit, isolated southern region, there was a virtual tsunami of tweets, laden with class- and race-charged epithets, demanding that the army shoot to kill all "delinquents," along with a flurry of nostalgic pleas for a return to military dictatorship.

Indeed, with the veneer of social order crumbling almost as fast as the half-million to 1.5 million homes of wood, adobe and other substandard materials, outgoing President Michelle Bachelet ordered tank regiments and thousands of combat troops into the affected areas, producing chilling scenes, reminiscent of the Pinochet era, of nervous conscripts pointing their rifles at the backs of detained "vandals." At one point an eighteen-hour-a-day curfew was clamped down on the battered city of Concepción, as if its population were suspects rather than victims.

Despite the military response, Bachelet’s center-left government and leaders of the conservative opposition all initially underplayed the scope of the disaster. Bachelet wavered thirty-six hours before declaring an official state of catastrophe, and she balked at pleading for significant international aid–a mistake that could cost hundreds of millions. Even the Chilean navy fumbled a tsunami warning for a stretch of the southern coast, possibly costing many lives.

The attitude of exaggerated national pride was perfectly consistent with the barrage of statements from all quarters expressing either feigned or naïve shock that so many Chileans would take advantage of the disaster to loot. After all, Chile has been laboring under a dangerous myth–fostered by the Pinochet dictatorship, then amplified during the ensuing twenty years of democratic government–that the country has somehow left behind the Third World. Having long fancied itself "the Switzerland of South America," in more recent times Chile was dubbed an economic "jaguar," the hemispheric cousin to the Asian "tigers."

Nothing could be further from the truth. At the point of bayonets and backed by tanks and torture chambers, Pinochet imposed a dog-eat-dog "free market" on a country that once boasted one of the most developed social safety nets in the hemisphere. It was a bonanza for the elites, who further prospered during the Christian Democratic/Socialist partnership that has governed since 1990. Booming copper prices and heightened export of nonrenewable resources have helped reduce Chile’s poverty rate from 40 percent to 14 percent and have raised per capita income, but inequality is still high. The wealthiest quintile of Chileans rake in about half of national income while the bottom 20 percent earn only 5 percent. Chile proudly sprouts computers, cellphones and American-style fast-food joints, but walk into any Santiago store and you’ll find basic commodities like shoes, shirts and pants sold on twelve-month installment plans–at
30 percent interest. The country’s university system has been mostly privatized, and its antiquated K-12 system has been compared to an apartheid model that blocks social mobility.

More than a few analysts saw the post-quake looting as driven in part by necessity and in part, perhaps, by revenge. After watching the rich get richer for decades, the bottom half saw that it was finally their time, if only for a moment. If the elites could gorge thanks to a lawless military dictatorship, what was the crime in smashing a window to grab some milk–or for that matter a plasma TV?

Some leveling of the playing field during her four-year presidency–including investment in housing and some pension reform–earned termed-out Socialist Bachelet extremely high popularity ratings. But that wasn’t enough to stop an electoral victory earlier this year by right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera–the first time a conservative had been elected president since 1958. So tired were Chileans of the ineffectiveness of the Concertación in producing social change, they elected the man least likely to give it to them. Desperate people commit desperate acts–at, and away from, the polls.

Piñera and his cabinet come into office with an advantage and a disadvantage. A poll released right before his inauguration by the conservative daily El Mercurio found that 72 percent of Santiagoans believe the Bachelet government responded late and ineffectively to the quake. Those numbers mean Piñera faces heightened expectations. Committed to shrinking the state, he takes office at a moment when escalated government spending and state-backed reconstruction programs will be more necessary than ever to maintain an apparently paper-thin social peace.

As Piñera prepared for his inauguration, the wealthy were seen in Santiago supermarkets hoarding food and other necessities. In the poorer, more racially mixed and quake-devastated south, there were still some towns with no functioning supermarkets. On the one-week anniversary of the quake, the entire nation came together in one more act of self-delusion as they applauded a twenty-five-hour relief telethon hosted by Don Francisco, the Jay Leno of Chilean TV (minus the sense of humor). The enormously wealthy TV personality imported the telethon model into Chile during the Pinochet era when he staged his first marathons to abate childhood disease and poverty–two maladies aggravated by the regime he supported. Don Francisco’s quake telethon brought in some $59 million, double its original goal. But that’s only about one-tenth of a percent of the estimated cost of the quake damage and the tab for reconstructing Chile. Nonetheless, a consensus of national commentary proclaimed the telethon a striking success and proof that Chile could stand firmly on its own.

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