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Chile: tremors of the past

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The earthquake in Chile and the declaration of martial law reveal the failure of the state. But they also recall the horror of the last time the military ruled, writes Mike Gonzalez
Issue 2192
Socialists and trade unionists were held in a sports stadium by the army after Pinochet
Socialists and trade unionists were held in a sports stadium by the army after Pinochet’s coup

Earthquakes are events that expose what is hidden in a society. They are crises that reveal the best and the worst of people.

This was certainly the case after the recent earthquake in Chile – the fifth largest in history at 8.8 on the Richter scale. It was followed by a massive tsunami that engulfed fishing villages along the coast.

The Chilean earthquake was much more powerful than the one that destroyed Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince two months ago, and it affected a much wider area.

It isn’t yet clear what the long-term effect of the devastating tremor will be. The number of dead is much lower than in Haiti, at around 1,000.

But some one and a half million homes were damaged, 500,000 of them severely.

In the town of Lampa, the earthquake caused a fire in three plastics factories that released a chemical cloud.

These are the facts, or at least some of them. Earthquakes are assaults of nature – and Chile is particularly vulnerable to them. But the horror of the aftermath is human-made.

There is a familiar ring to many of the things that have happened since the earthquake happened at 3.30am on Saturday 27 February.

The initial response of Michelle Bachelet’s government was slow and hesitant. It took days for food and water to reach those affected.

Yet the government also rejected offers of immediate help from Mexico, Taiwan and others.

People’s immediate needs after a disaster are for the basics to sustain life – food, water and shelter. When they are not forthcoming, people will act for themselves.

Several international news organisations had reporters in the devastated areas in less than 24 hours. Official communications, however, appeared to be less efficient.

The Chilean navy, for example, failed to put out an alert even though a tsunami had been predicted. After the event, the navy claimed to have sent a fax!


When help did not materialise, people took matters into their own hands. They will have noticed that the wealthy areas of the capital of Santiago had electricity and telephone services restored almost immediately.

Meanwhile, the working class areas had to wait a week.

The supermarkets that survived in places like the city of Concepción, close to the epicentre of the quake, immediately raised their prices.

People reacted with anger, as you would expect, and took what they needed – or wanted – from supermarkets like Líder.

Wal-Mart, the multinational with the second highest turnover in the world (after Exxon Mobil), owns Líder.

Collecting food became “looting” in the intense atmosphere of the disaster. And that justified the declaration of martial law – just as it did in Haiti. The military moved in not to bring aid but to protect threatened shops and properties.

It has been reported that troops ambushed people who were “looting”, firing tear gas and water cannon in Concepción.

Troops attacked people attempting to open a shipping container that they believed held bananas, sugar and oil in the city of Talcahuano.

There also seems to have been much less social solidarity displayed in Chile than in Haiti.

It could be argued that that was because there was nothing to fight over in Haiti.

But there are deeper reasons for this, which are to do with Chile’s recent history. This is not the first time that the military have taken control of the country.

It happened in 1973, when Augusto Pincohet’s military coup overthrew the elected left wing government of Salvador Allende.

Martial law had already been declared in some areas before the coup took place.

Now a state was established that terrorised its population.

Chile’s active and combative trade union movement was crushed. The left was destroyed through murder, torture and exile. The social reforms that Allende had brought in were reversed.

These were perfect conditions for the first experiment in neoliberal economics.

The economy was thrown open to foreign investment.

Multinational companies moved their production to Chile, where trade unions were banned and labour was cheap.

Margaret Thatcher’s fondness for the Pinochet regime had much to do with the fact that it had privatised the economy. Pensions, for example, were taken out of state hands and produced massive – and, as it turned out, fraudulent – profits for investors.

Health and education were privatised. Chile’s water industry was sold to companies who used it for mining and then returned contaminated water to the public supply.

There has been a boom in construction over the last 20 years or so.

But this has taken place under neoliberal conditions with few building controls, and a lucrative trade in building certificates.

The new housing was not for the poor or workers, but for the middle and upper classes enjoying the fruits of Pinochet’s market system.

Chile’s tragedy is that the governments that came in after Pinochet left office in 1990 did not bring him to justice. Nor did they claw back the economic power he and his family had gathered.

One Christian Democrat (Eduardo Frei, who had supported the overthrow of Allende) and two subsequent Socialist presidents (including Bachelet herself) did not challenge the neoliberal model. They retained it.

Bachelet’s swift imposition of martial law and her reluctance to let the world in may have something to do with what the earthquake exposed.


It showed that the great Chilean economic experiment, trumpeted by the free marketeers, has been a success for the very few. The majority of Chileans continue to struggle to survive.

They have to pay for their health and education services. They survive on an average wage worth just over one-third of the cost of a basic basket of goods necessary to sustain a family.

Bachelet claimed to be one of the new left presidents that have come to power across Latin America in the last decade.

There was some activity around human rights and some of Pinochet’s torturers were belatedly brought to justice. But she has distanced herself from the more radical challenges to the global market voiced by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

This is the background to the Chilean earthquake. Is it any wonder that the workers of Chile have reacted with rage at the state’s failures?

The declaration of martial law and the imposition of a curfew from six in the evening to midday will only serve to remind them of the era of Pinochet.

This “new” Chile was built on the graves of those who fought for a more just society during the short years of Allende’s Popular Unity government.

And now, incredibly, the government has proposed to collect money for the victims through a private media telethon.

It is not taking the money from the rich who have profited from Chile’s long bonanza.

There are those on the left who say that the solidarity that Chileans have shown in their political struggles has been less visible in moments of disaster.

But disillusionment is the consequence of 30 years of betrayal by those claiming to speak for them.

The final blow is that Sebastian Piñera will become president this week. He is Chile’s wealthiest man, and he, like his neoliberal friends internationally, will no doubt be celebrating the huge profits to be made from reconstruction.

For the majority of Chileans, the times to come will be harsh. But reflection on their own history of brave and consistent struggle may offer some examples of organisation and solidarity, and hope for the future.

Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop for £8.

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