In Focus

Annus horribilis chilensis

The year marking the Bicentenary of Independence has ended badly for a Chile that has lived through it in a dramatic fashion from start to finish. Whether in February the cause of so much death and destruction was due to an earthquake followed by a tsunami, or in the last month of the year which has been witness to a terrifying blaze in a Santiago prison which has cost the lives of 81 inmates causing pain and indignation.

Pablo Sapag M.

Between those two tragedies, the dramatic story of 33 workers buried alive in the depths of a mine. Embarrassing negligence skilfully turned into a State propaganda stunt by the Government’s right-wing leader Sebastián Piñera, thanks to the televised rescue of these miners who had previously been denied a secure job. Shortly after the rescue, in November, the worst traffic accident in rec ent decades occurred.

So, one tragedy after another with one common denominator: the brutal social-economic system that has governed the outcomes of the country since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Because whether or not there have been natural causes involved in some of these catastrophes, the details and the management of these have exposed the profound inequality of a country in which the racial and cultural differences mark one of the worst distributions of wealth in the whole world.

The earthquake and the tidal wave exposed the of a minimal state which barely demonstrated the managerial capacity to get help to the suffering, the majority of whom were poor. It was like that because the Chilean State has reduced itself to this level in such a way, in order to obey the orders of the neo-liberals of the Chicago School, that it has become an absent State for the greater glory of the monopolistic private companies that truly rule in Chile and that only satisfy the needs of those who can pay for their services.

For that very reason the earthquake and tidal wave were followed by the worst wave of looting in decades.  Only the declaration of a state of emergency, the imposition of a curfew and the taking of control by the Army-the cornerstone that upholds the system – restored calm to the affected areas.

In the case of the mine : the terrible consequences were revealed of a consistent pattern in the racial and cultural differentiation that governs Chilean society; but which is never acknowledged. The miners were all of mixed origin, like the vast majority of Chileans. Those that, after turning a blind eye to the precarious working conditions, tried to rescue the miners were all white and with European surnames. Those who, the same as the owners of the exploitative companies which generate huge profits.

The rescue allowed the crux of the issue to be hidden, the contradictions of the Chilean model. From necessity came virtue and the rescue operation turned into a demonstration of how “developed” Chile is, the great obsession of the elite government officials, even more so in the Bicentenary year, the same year in which the country has been admitted together with Israel into the OECD, that club of countries that are supposedly developed. And all that with the approval of the international press, the same press that looks for at least one success story in each continent. If in Africa then it is South Africa, in Latin America it is Chile which, when all is said and done, is very similar to the former, not of these times, but to those of apartheid: racial segregation.

Exercises in Communication Management, however always last a short time if they have not portrayed reality. The one concerning the rescue of the miners can take some credit but it cannot hide for much more than a few weeks the true identity of the country which has so many differences. Weeks later the terrible road accident between San Antonio and Santiago occurred. Twenty people died, all of them coming from the city port of San Antonio.

109km from the capital, it is the poorest city of Chile, the one with the most unemployment, in which there is widespread child prostitution and other social blots that do not sit easily with Chile’s brand-new membership of the OECD. Consequences of unbalanced development that, on a daily basis, force thousands of Sanantonians to take buses headed for Santiago driven by people like the rest of the Chilean workers who are subjected to the longest working week in the world: 45 hours since 2005. Before, it was 48 hours. It has improved slightly, but it is still a long way from compared to the 35 hours that Europeans work weekly, for example.

The fire in the San Miguel prison revealed the same contradictions, six blocks away from “La Moneda” Palace, in the very centre of Santiago. With a capacity for 700 inmates, 2.000 were being kept there. A result of policies which have turned Chile into the country with the most densely incarcerated population in Latin America: 305 per 100 thousand inhabitants.

It ranks number 33 in the world. A result of the political inability of the country to find solutions for delinquency and social problems-in reality they are racial and social problems-that only offers prison as a remedy. Due to this, among the dead and together with the dangerous criminals there were people jailed for selling DVDs and CDs in the street.

In some of the prisons there was overcrowding and a lack of prison staff because Chile wants to carry on giving the impression that it has control over the public deficit in order to maintain its position according to the “economic model” of the IMF, the World Bank and all others that stand for neo-liberalism and no social rights. At the moment that the terrifying blaze was triggered in a prison where many inmates slept on the floor, there were only six guards inside the building and according to their own colleagues some of them were drunk.

As in the previous events, the victims and their families were largely of mixed origin. The politicians of each and every sector who shed their crocodile tears-with very few exceptions-, were all white and with aristocratic or central European surnames. The same people are responsible for unleashing cheap populist policies with which delinquency and other issues are projected to the public eye by alarmist media, good for the neo-liberal system and in which people of mixed origin only appear in the crime pages and unimportant events.

The television presenters, the protagonists of the advertising campaigns, are all whites. The case arises where the scarceness of presenters in Chile itself (those that are have more interesting and productive activities than the ones of the model) are imported at a cost of three thousand Euros a day from Holland and other countries in order to be able toserve the old neo-liberal boss (See the book Siútico by Óscar Contardo).

So, the Bicentenary year has turned into an authentic annus horribilis (horrible year). For the majority of Chileans because it has come accompanied with death and destruction. And for a few important people, because the admission into OECD has remained questionable due to a stubborn reality for which nature is only partly responsible.

(Translated by Piers Jarvis –

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