Chile, the nation underground

The triumphant rescue of Chile's entombed miners is also, for the country's political elite, a turning-point in its history. But the narrative of instant renewal evades some of Chile's darker and more complex realities, says Malcolm Coad in Santiago.
Malcolm Coad
22 October 2010

There's no doubt of the strength of feeling that swept Chile with the rescue of the thirty-three trapped workers from the San José mine after sixty-nine days. The catharsis - or something like it - was palpable in the country as a whole, and personally I saw it in the reaction of my wife, who was held as a political prisoner after the coup of 11 September 1973.

Coca knows something about confinement after spending more than a month of her fourteen months in jail in a solitary cell little larger than a broom-cupboard. She wept as the rescue began, convinced it would never work, and throughout was unable to watch the TV except for short spells. The last time she had reacted like that was during Sebastián Piñera's presidential-election campaign in 2009, when it became clear that the same right-wing political forces that had backed her jailers were about to regain power after twenty years in opposition.

But as the miners were brought out one by one in an operation that lasted a full day, the fears gave way. At the end, there was an upswelling of joy and relief - and, yes, pride: national pride of a kind that it is hard for some outside the country to understand or relate to (perhaps especially, for good historical reasons, many progressive-minded British people).

To Chileans, the constant patriotic outbursts that accompanied the rescue - the national anthem, the soccer-stadium-derived Chi-Chi-Chi-Le-Le-Le, los mineros de Chile!", the Viva Chile, mierda! shouted by President Piñera at the climax of the operation (literally "Long live Chile, shit!", but how do you translate the sense of that?) - are as natural as breathing, though they must have had most of the British television audience as bemused as the BBC reporters relaying them.

These responses were spontaneous, not stage-managed - as other aspects of the rescue undoubtedly were. They were felt by all involved: the miners themselves, the rescue-workers underground displaying at the end their scrawled Misión Cumplida Chile ("Mission Accomplished Chile"), the highest echelons of the governing elite, and Chileans in every part of the country who spilled out into town-squares and paraded the national flag in hooting motorcades. This event might have become an acclaimed global-media spectacle, but at its heart was a deeply shared Chilean national experience.

The right’s burden

It's worth reflecting a little more on this “national” aspect of the rescue, in part because a fair amount of rhetoric has been expended on it both in Chile itself and in international media. Chile’s president, backed by many commentators, instantly latched onto the theme and gave it a regenerative twist: that the drama had erased the legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-2000) and created a new national unity, thus ensuring that Chile would never be the same. "I hope that from now on people around the world hearing the name ‘Chile’ will recall [the miners’ rescue] and not the dictatorship," said Piñera:

But this, seductive as it might be, is nonsense. A passing drama, however great, cannot erase a seismic era in a nation's experience. The desaparecidos are still disappeared, even if their memory has been retrieved from the oblivion to which Pinochet’s goons sought to consign them; and the scars felt by two generations of damaged, persecuted and exiled people will not heal for several more, despite the impossible desire felt by some to turn the page (see Mary Helen Spooner, Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile [University Of California Press, 1999]).

Moreover, the near-tragedy at San José was itself in one sense a product of the era of dictatorship. For it was the famed (or notorious) “Chilean model” of laissez-faire capitalism established after the 1973 coup deepened the abyss between two mining sectors: an expanded, world-class, highly capitalised industry whose safety record is second to none, and a universe of several thousand medium-sized and tiny mines of varying degrees of danger where no owner was ever held to account (see Carlos Huneeus, "Chile: after the rescue, the test", 20 October 2010).

In another sense, the miners’ trauma was a product of the new phase of globalisation: for it was the boom in copper sales to China that stimulated the reopening of the deadly San José mine, even though its owners and the authorities had full knowledge of its dangers. More than 740 workers died in Chile's mines in the 1990-2005 period, the great majority of them in these hellholes.

This context helps explain why the rhetoric of national renewal is important to Sebastián Piñera. The president represents Chile's small liberal right and was an opponent of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, even though it was the dictatorship’s economic model that allowed him to accumulate his fortune; but the bulk of his coalition are hardline conservatives - many from the Opus Dei/Legionaries of Christ ethos, whose influence in the country can't be understated. Their economic doctrine derives from the intransigent ultra-neo-liberalism of the influential “Chicago boys” whose ideas inspired Chile’s state policy in the 1970s and 1980s ~ and many of the militants of that era are still active (see Juan Gabriel Valdes, Pinochet's Economists: The Chicago School of Economics in Chile [Cambridge University Press, 1995]).

The performance of Chile's economy after the 1973 coup received many accolades from outside the country - often excessive, selective or misinformed. But among Chile’s own right wing, this past has long become a burden; and every sector of it wishes - either from sheer embarrassment or self-interest - to move beyond it.

After all, it was the violence and shame of this past that kept the right from power from 1990-2010, until the golden opportunity presented by the fall of the centre-left Concertación coalition into a miasma of mediocrity, petty corruption and internal disintegration comparable to New Labour’s in Britain. Even then, the Chilean right’s return to power owed much to the fact that Piñera, rather than someone more typical of it, was the candidate. 

The two rivals

Since winning the second round of the presidential election on 17 January 2010, Piñera's greatest personal and political frustration has been the huge popularity of his socialist predecessor, Michelle Bachelet. The genuine respect and affection Bachelet inspires is a product both of her warm personality and her personal history as a political prisoner and daughter of a constitutionalist general murdered under Pinochet. Her "mother of the nation" status seems to put Piñera almost visibly on edge.

Now, the drama of los treinta y tres (the thirty-three) has given him the opportunity to attempt to acquire something of a Bachelet-style aura - hence the element of stage-management. He can hardly be blamed for the effort to create a positive image of his reaction to the disaster (especially following the earthquake of 27 February 2010, which took place days before Piñera’s inauguration on 11 March, thus allowing the popular criticism of the slow and inefficient government response to be shared by both presidents) (see Justin Vogler, "Chile: politics of an earthquake", 26 March 2010).

Piñera, for all the clichés and often cloying rhetoric, emerged from his own long stint at the mine’s borehead decently and well. It is less certain that he will achieve his broader aim of becoming a beloved “father of the nation”. The latest polls show that his approval-rating has increased in percentage terms from the higher 40s to, at a maximum, the lower 60s. However, to compound his frustration, the rescue drama has produced a new rival in popularity: the mining minister, Laurence Golborne, whose popularity ratings, for the moment at least, approach those of Bachelet (in the upper 80s).

Golborne, also a constant presence at the San José site, appears to have created genuine bonds with the miners and their families. One of the strangest moments of all was the sight of this conservative engineer of English ancestry, best known beforehand as chief ally of the country's leading supermarket magnate, strumming the guitar and leading the families round the fire in songs by the balladeer and novelist, Patricio Manns - a revolutionary leftist and once spokesperson for the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, the armed group that almost assassinated Pinochet in 1986.

The two Chiles

In its way the unexpectedness of that encounter also highlights the problem in Sebastián Piñera’s attempt to make the rescue a foundation-stone of a new era of Chilean national unity. For there is a great difference between sharing in a moment of real and well-justified patriotic pride (that of small, remote Chile achieving something truly great in the eyes of the world) and the fantasy of some deep national unity possessed of mystical power to erase the past.

After all, “patriotism” means one thing to Chile's European-derived elite, caught constantly (and semi-pathologically) between complexes of inferiority regarding the developed world and superiority regarding the rest of Latin America; to miners in the Atacama desert (and most other Chileans), who have an utterly different experience of the world and of their own country, it means quite another.

What chance of renewal and reform when this gap is so wide, and the elite’s economic power so entrenched? Since the disaster at San José, Piñera has been saying - and doing - some of the right things. He has closed thirty small mines, set up a government Labour Security Commission, declared that the San José mineowners will be subject to the full rigour of the law, and declared that Chile will ratify the International Labour Organisation's Convention on Mine Safety.

This is a start - though it is also true that the new commission contains not a single labour representative. Perhaps it is not over-sentimental to hope that Piñera and his colleagues have taken some genuinely human lessons away from the San José experience. But it must be said that expectations are not high that the euphoria of the moment can overcome political and economic calculations. Interests remain interests.

The gulf between the two concepts of patriotism was visible in a fleeting comment at the end of the rescue, when the last man out - the foreman Luis Urzúa - emerged from the capsule, embraced Piñera, then looked him in the eye and said: "This must never happen again." The words were soon submerged amid the media meleé, but arguably they were the most significant of all those uttered in these sixty-nine days. Later, Piñera said of them: “He touched my soul.” We shall see.

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