The Earth Shook as Right Wing Took Power

On February 27, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, 8.8 magnitude, was followed by a 7-meter tsunami in Chile. For a while, the natural disaster united the nation. On March 11, during one of many aftershocks, billionaire Sebastian Piñera took over the presidency of Chile, which for the first time in 50 years had voted for a right-wing president. As the coastal city of Valparaiso trembled and swayed in the 6.9 magnitude earthquake, many visiting heads of state looked scared and confused, particularly Evo Morales, the Bolivian president. He used to harbor hopes that Chile, an increasingly progressive and compassionate neighbor, could return his landlocked country’s lost access to the sea.

Recently, it had seemed that Chile had managed to leave its sinister past behind, but two close rounds at the ballot box brought back a right-wing government. There was almost no logic to what occurred. The popularity of outgoing socialist President Michelle Bachelet was well over 80 percent, the economy of Chile was enjoying the greatest stability in all Latin America, and, according to many analysts, its infrastructure was the best in the Western Hemisphere.

Until the second round of elections on January 17, there seemed to be no urgent need for dramatic change. Chile had managed to develop what some called an indigenous model of "capitalism with a human face" or "concealed socialism." It wasn’t radical enough for many and definitely no match for the brand of revolutionary socialism adopted by Venezuela and Bolivia. But it was offering stability and a consistent improvement of life for all sectors of Chilean society.

Poverty rates are now close to a single digit and fewer than 2 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, compared to the 40 percent poverty at the fall of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1988. Almost all indicators show that in the social sphere Chile is the best performer in the Western hemisphere—having reduced poverty, increased life expectancy rates, raised education levels, and dramatically reduced infant mortality rates. Though still a very unequal society, Chile also promotes social programs to help the poor, including wide-reaching subsidized housing. The universal medical insurance that covers an increasing number of so-called "catastrophic illnesses" is not perfect, but is doubtlessly more advanced and compassionate than the one which President Obama has fought for in the United States.

The outgoing president, a victim of torture at the hands of Pinochet’s dictatorship, had lived in exile in East Germany where she studied medicine. Bachelet managed to thoroughly change the nature of Chilean armed forces and police. During her governance, several military figures responsible for gross human rights violations in the 1970s and 80s were put on trial and sent to prison. Clichés about "military dictatorships violating human rights, but improving the economy" were smashed as the dictatorship was accused not only of killing, torturing, and raping, but also of corruption and of creating enormous inequities in the society.

Cristian Soto from the community radio station Nuevo Mundo in Rancagua attempted to put the elections in perspective: "You shouldn’t forget that Sebastian Piñera is not only an airline industry billionaire, he is also a media magnate…. The two largest national newspapers—El Mercurio and La Tercera—would not publish any negative pieces that could harm Piñera’s candidacy. The propaganda was so intense that many people here in the countryside thought that if they voted for him, they would get jobs and extra bonuses. They saw him as some sort of socialist with a big airline and billions in the bank. People here didn’t vote for the right wing; they voted for Piñera, for his youthful image, for his attractive wife, for his energy. Only now are they waking up from their hangover, but it is obviously too late to change things."

The outgoing Concertación, the coalition of center-left Socialist and Christian Democratic parties that had ruled since the collapse of the dictatorship, couldn’t have picked a worse candidate to counter the energetic Piñera. Former President Eduardo Frei, while solid and incorruptible, was widely regarded as an uninspiring technocrat and a very bad speaker. Several people interviewed for this article reluctantly admitted to not voting for Frei simply because he bored them to death. Internal divisions in Concertación didn’t help either. The popular Bachelet had to face attacks from members of her own coalition. Ana María López, director of the legendary theater company Teatro Riel, remarked, "I don’t think that Concertación was a real left-wing political bloc. In a way it was a guardian of neo-liberal policies, but with populist rhetoric and the accent on social programs."

After a few days in office, President Piñera was already facing harsh criticism. A growing nostalgia for the left could be felt in all corners of the country and society and there were predictions that the airline and media magnate would not make it through his four-year term. Victor, a civil servant, was one of the few citizens living in the capital who was forced to abandon his damaged house and temporarily move to the huge tent erected by the municipal government in the main square. He said, "Michelle was with us, she was with the poor. She had a big heart and that’s why she left with popular support of well over 80 percent. If she were still in charge, we would all be much better off. Nobody expected such a dramatic change in just a few days."

Destuction after the quake and tsunami in Constitucion

There is no doubt that in the face of the devastating tragedy, rescue operations were speedily launched. Helicopters brought food supplies, water, gas, medicine, and tents to affected areas. Just a few days after the tsunami flattened the resort town of Iloca and the important port of Constitucion, the state electric company was restoring power and heavy equipment was being used to remove debris and demolish those houses that were beyond repair. In the historic city of Curico, where most of the old adobe houses were flattened, the municipal government moved into an enormous tent, working around the clock.

However, even in Curico one could feel uncertainty. Maria Rodriguez, a resident of the central part of the city, watched as a bulldozer brought down the remains of her house. Surrounded and supported by her neighbors, at first she offered an optimistic assessment of the situation, emphasizing the need to rebuild the country before beginning to count losses. Later, she suggested that there was no certainty with the new government. "The government is promising compensation, but we are not sure of what it will be. The companies that flatten our damaged houses are charging by the hour. The government is paying for it now, but is that going to be considered as part of the compensation? We don’t know.

"Right after the earthquake, everybody got into the streets and began helping each other. There was great solidarity in this town. As you can see, the whole old city was destroyed. Some streets don’t even have one house standing. However, all services are now restored. Everybody is working and nobody sleeps in the streets. But for how long is this spirit going to last? We are concerned about the mortgages. Most of us had to borrow money to pay for our houses or for their improvements. Now it seems that the banks will be charging us equally, no matter whether we lost our houses or not. They are offering a three month moratorium on payments, but if we accept, they will certainly charge us interest."


Cuban doctor in Rancagua

Closer to Santiago, in the city of Rancagua, a big banner proudly introduced "Brigada Medica Cubana Henry Reeve, Hospital 16." A Cuban emergency medical team had erected a field hospital equipped with a high-tech operation theater and diagnostics equipment in air-conditioned and spotless tents. The Henry Reeve Brigade was first formed to help the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but was not allowed to enter the United States. Since then it has responded to emergencies all over the world, including those in Indonesia, Pakistan, Haiti, and several African countries.

Carlos Perez Dias, director of the hospital, explained: "Up to March 15, we performed 59 surgeries and we had a total of 1,530 patients. We have a great relationship with Chilean medical teams and we are very impressed by the way the country mobilized to help their earthquake victims. For decades Chileans have shown their support and solidarity with our nation. We are now here in solidarity with Chilean people. We feel at home here."

But the solidarity-based approach to running the state may soon be over. Councilperson Danilo Jorquera Vidal of Rancagua worries about the future: "Here, in the 7th Region, we have the largest copper mines in the world, including the well known one at Sewell. Around 27 percent of copper production is still in state hands, but it is not certain for how long this is going to last. There is real fear here. It’s not that the new government will privatize the rest overnight, but they are already talking about bringing new technology and the fear is that they will privatize step by step, slowly."

Diego López, one of the lawyers of the outgoing government, is also worried: "Chile is at a very dangerous crossroads right now. It has the lowest foreign debt of any Latin American country—almost none. Due to its robust economy and the tremendous wealth of raw materials, it has almost unlimited international credit. Instead of raising taxes for the rich and for private companies, the new government will try to put to work the neo-liberal approach and begin huge borrowing from abroad. Money from such borrowing will enrich the business elite, who are now in the government. Such an approach will place an enormous and unnecessary debt burden on the Chilean people and on future administrations.

"Piñera is already talking about the cost of reconstruction being around $30 billion. That’s 17 percent of the GDP or 75 percent of the national budget, which comes to $40 billion a year. Notice that his victory was greatly welcomed by international markets."

The question now is not whether, but to what extent, Piñera will dare to reverse the social contract reached (but never signed) between the Chilean people and Chilean capitalism. He has already placed several of his business allies in key ministries and regional governments. Some of these people own construction and other companies, which are expected to be involved in the reconstruction of the country. Some of them also belong to ultra-conservative groups, including religious ones. The new Minister of Education is Joaquín Lavín, a University of Chicago graduate, a member of Opus Dei, and a supporter of Pinochet.

Iloca after the tsunami

"Things will change on the international front as well," continued Diego López. "It will not be visible right away, but the new government will become hostile towards the Latin American left, particularly towards Cuba and Venezuela. It will be the end of regionalism. Piñera will move closer and closer to the right-wing leaders of Colombia and Mexico."

It is said that in Iloca, right before the tsunami, a local fisherman and a young police officer were watching the sea when one of them suddenly exclaimed, "The sea sounds strange." Without hesitation, the cop began evacuating all the inhabitants. When everyone was safe on higher ground, the tsunami hit the shore, flattening the town. As with nature, Chilean people and their leaders should now listen to the signals coming from the capital. If what they hear sounds strange to them, they should stand up and resist the ultimate devastation of their nation.


Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, and filmmaker. The photos in this article are by him. An Asia-Pacific Journal associate, he is presently living and working in Asia and Africa. He is co-editor with Tony Christini of Liberation Lit and co-author with Indira Rossie of Exile: Conversations with Pramoedya Ananta Toer.