Chile: politics of an earthquake

The epic wave of destruction on 27 February 2010 has tested the character of the Chilean nation and the reputation of two of its presidents. A month on, Justin Vogler recalls the moment and assesses the tragedy's political fallout.
Justin Vogler
26 March 2010

I woke at 03.35 on Saturday 27 February 2010 to feel my parents-in-law’s timber-frame house shaking violently. Grabbing my daughter, Laura, and holding her under the doorway, I shouted at Pay to do the same with little Julian. In the next room my mother-in-law recited a rosary feverishly as the shaking gave way to long, strangely rhythmic, pendulums that sent the house skating from side to side. Then stillness. Laura agreed that it had been “really exciting”. “Like being in a boat”, she said as we drifted back to sleep.     

The next day I left wife and kids in Algarrobo and drove gingerly  the fifty kilometres north along the coast to our house in Valparaíso. The front-door was jammed, and climbing through a window I met chaos. Walls crisscrossed by gaping cracks, upturned furniture strewn amid piles of books, chairs, clothes, and adobe bricks all blanketed in thick dust. There was no electricity, water, telephone or internet. I watched the sunset, longed for a cup of tea, and thanked god that the kids had not been there during the two-minutes-forty-five-seconds of fury that tore their home apart.

That Friday night, hours before the tragedy, I had been preparing food for my sister-in-law’s wedding the next day. In the end they did get married on the Saturday, though hardly any of the guests could come as the Santiago-Valparaíso road was cut. My mother-in-law was left with a huge amount of food and champagne - and no working fridge. The best that can be said about the wedding is that it will not be forgotten.

The Pacific fury

It is an irony of the globalised world that the nearer you are to a crisis the less informed you are about it. For four days my only news came from the car radio. I gradually learnt that the epicentre had been under the Pacific Ocean, 150 kilometres to the northeast of Chile’s second biggest city, Concepción, and about 500 kms south of Valparaiso. The quake had been huge, 8.8-magnitude: the fifth largest on record, thirty-one times more powerful than the one that devastated Haiti a month previously. It had released energy equivalent to 100,000 Hiroshima bombs and the tremor was felt as far away as São Paulo.  

The  first reports that there had been no tsunami proved tragically wrong. A confused communiqué from the navy led the government to lift the tsunami warning in the early hours of the very morning the tsunami hit. Many in the southern coastal region returned to their houses only to be engulfed by the three giant waves that subsequently pounded the ports of Talcahuano and Constitución. When a scientist from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii issued a tsunami alert and phoned the Chilean navy’s oceanographic service (SHOA), the phone was answered by a sailor who couldn’t speak English. Even hours after whole villages had been dragged into the sea, the Santiago authorities - who had no satellite-phones - were insistent that no tsunami had occurred.   

And the sea claimed more victims than the quake. By mid-March there were 500 confirmed dead and 200 still missing. Around 500,000 homes were destroyed. Chile’s decrepit public-health and education infrastructure was decimated with fourteen hospitals and as many as 4,000 schools destroyed or seriously damaged. Many “earthquake-resistant” high-rise blocks, bridges and flyovers collapsed or suffered structural damage. The official guess of the reconstruction cost is $30 billion, 18% of Chile’s GDP.  

Then came the looting. Before the water receded, houses and supermarkets were being ransacked. Everything - food, water, televisions and furniture - was carried off by plunderers, many of them evidently well-to-do car-owners. Supermarkets and department stores were set ablaze. By 1 March, troops were ordered onto the streets of southern towns and a curfew imposed.  Soldiers and journalists who weeks earlier had been in post-earthquake Haiti observed disgustedly that poverty-stricken Port-au-Prince had witnessed no such lawlessness.  

The mother of the nation 

Mass hysteria was fuelled both by recurrent aftershocks and by fear of looters. But as Chile teetered on the verge of social breakdown, the departing president Michelle Bachelet came into her own. Much comment in the international press has suggested that the state’s bungled response to the quake will corrode Bachelet’s popularity and jeopardise her chances of a political comeback (and perhaps a return to the presidency in 2014). The evidence includes the fact that Bachelet herself went on air to say that there was no risk of a tsunami, and that five days after the tragedy many flattened villages had yet to receive emergency aid. 

This may turn out to be the case. At the same time, Bachelet’s popularity rests on empathy, not on any promise of efficiency. She reflects the gregarious and gritty national identity celebrated in Chilean folklore, and her presence reconfirmed that identity in Chile’s crucial hour. More than that, like a caring mother she took Chile’s psychological burden upon her plump shoulders. During the dark days of early March - with  tears, and sincerity, and mindless nationalistic war-cries - she told her countrymen what they needed to hear: that they were strong, that things were bad, but that together they could make it better. 

Chile responded. An aura of perseverance, patriotism and orderliness came to replace the anarchy, desperation and panic. From the rubble of Concepción, the foundational myths - of the plucky Chilean who thrives in the face of adversity, of Chilean camaraderie, and of a nation destined to prosper - were gradually reconstructed. Overnight, “solidarity” became a catchword. Thousands volunteered to distribute food-parcels. Don Francisco flew in from Miami to stage a forty-eight-hour telethon and the initial goal of raising $30 was surpassed threefold.  

Chile’s chief executive 

Chile was still in suspended animation on 11 March 2010 when Sebastian Piñera - who had won the second-round run-off vote against Eduardo Frei on 17 January - was inaugurated president, and thus became Chile’s first elected rightwing president since 1952. The parliament was rocked by two huge aftershocks during his inauguration and the photo that went round the world was not of him but of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo and Bolivia’s Evo Morales nervously eyeing the great chandeliers that trembled above them.  

Piñera has heralded the post-quake reconstruction as an “opportunity to rebuild better” and his presidency will be defined by the nature of the reconstruction effort. Troublesome electoral issues have been swept aside. No one is talking of gay marriage, abortion or electoral reform anymore.  Piñera’s pledge to give Chile’s poorest families a “March bonus” of $95 - previously denounced by his opponents as populist vote-buying - was passed unanimously by parliament. The scenes of widespread looting have given even greater salience to Piñera’s “firm hand on crime” mantra. And his fanciful campaign promise to create a million new jobs when there were not a million Chileans unemployed is now achievable thanks to the economic devastation and the demands of reconstruction.  

But Piñera’s legacy depends largely on what “opportunities” he grasps from the wreckage and how he finances rebuilding. The last big quake to hit Chile in 1985 provided Augusto Pinochet’s finance minister, Hernán Büchi, with the opportunity to implement massive privatisation and the slashing of corporate taxes, above all in the construction industry.   

Today, by contrast, many are calling for rebuilding to be financed by increased royalty-taxes on Chile’s hugely lucrative mining sector. The disaster could be used massively to improve the quality of schools, hospitals, houses and infrastructure and to endow the Chilean state with a “first-world” education and health service. As ex-president Ricardo Lagos has observed, the building of hundreds of thousands of new houses, along with the reconstruction of a large part of the national grid, is a unique opportunity to invest in sustainable energy.  

Such ideas have not been discarded, but they are not the natural policies of Piñera or the private-sector entrepreneurs and liberal technocrats that pack his government. Since the quake, Piñera has twice met with Büchi who has told him not to raise taxes but to finance rebuilding by selling off state assets and cutting public expenditure. The government has said it will rent private hospital beds and even classrooms to make up for the shortfall (see Raul Sohr, “Chile Earthquake Prompts Ideological Struggle”, Santiago Times, 26 March 2010).

Piñera has the instincts of a skilled businessman not a statesman. He made a killing by breaking his electoral promise to sell his stake in LAN Chile before becoming president so as to avoid any conflict of interest (see “Chile’s political turn”, 20 January 2010). When he won the January 2010 election, shares in LAN soared - so when he did eventually sell on 24 March he pocketed $1,492 million ($500 million more than the amount collected for earthquake relief). Moreover, a clever network of trusts ensured that he paid only $103 million dollars of tax on the deal. When opposition MPs accused him of “eluding” tax the controversy was handed to the chief of the inland revenue, who had been appointed by Piñera himself just days previously.  

This may be clever financial speculation. But at a time when millions of Chileans are living in tents, it is appalling politics. If Piñera is to be the president who successfully rebuilds Chile, he needs to firmly resist future opportunities to make himself, and his private sector cronies, a fast buck. If he does not, history, and the Chilean public, will not be kind to him.  


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