The Social Earthquake in Chile



Chile is experiencing a social earthquake in the aftermath of the 8.8 magnitude quake that struck the country on February 27. "The fault lines of the Chilean economic miracle have been exposed," said Elias Padilla, an anthropology professor at the Academic University of Christian Humanism in Santiago. "The free market, neo-liberal economic model that Chile has followed since the Pinochet dictatorship has feet of mud."

Chile is one of the most inequitable societies in the world. Today, 14 percent of the population lives in abject poverty. The top 20 percent captures 50 percent of the national income, while the bottom 20 percent earns only 5 percent. In a 2005 World Bank survey of 124 countries, Chile ranked 12th in the list of countries with the worst income distribution.

The rampant ideology of the free market has produced a deep sense of alienation among much of the population. Although a coalition of center-left parties replaced the Pinochet regime 20 years ago, it opted to depoliticize the country, to rule from the top down, and to only allow controlled elections every few years, shunting aside the popular organizations and social movements that had brought down the dictatorship.

This explains the scenes of looting and social chaos in the southern part of the country that were transmitted around the world on the third day after the earthquake. In Concepcion, Chile’s second largest city, which was virtually leveled by the earthquake, the population had received absolutely no assistance from the central government for two days. The chain supermarkets and malls that had replaced local stores and shops over the years remained firmly shuttered.

Settling Accounts

Popular frustration exploded as people descended on the commercial center, carting off everything, not just food from the supermarkets, but also shoes, clothing, plasma TVs, and cell phones. This wasn’t simple looting, but the settling of accounts with an economic system that dictates that only possessions and commodities matter. The "gente decente" (the decent people) and the media began referring to them as lumpens, vandals, and delinquents. "The greater the social inequities, the greater the delinquency," explained Hugo Fruhling of the Center for the Study of Citizen Security at the University of Chile.




In the two days leading up to the riots, the government of Michele Bachelet revealed its incapacity to understand and deal with the human tragedy wrecked on the country. Many of the ministers were on summer vacations or licking their wounds as they prepared to turn over their offices to the incoming right-wing government of billionaire Sebastian Piñera, who was sworn in on Thursday, March 11. Bachelet declared that the country’s needs had to be studied and surveyed before any assistance could be sent. On the day of the quake, she ordered the military to place a helicopter at her disposal to fly over Concepcion to assess the damage, but no helicopter appeared and the trip was abandoned. As an anonymous Carlos L. wrote in an email widely circulated in Chile: "It would be very difficult in the history of the country to find a government with so many powerful resources—technological, economic, political, organizational—that has been unable to provide any response to the urgent social demands of entire regions gripped by fear, need of shelter, water, food, and hope."

What arrived in Concepcion on March 1 was not relief or assistance, but several thousand soldiers and police transported in trucks and planes, as people were ordered to stay in their homes. Pitched battles were fought in the streets of Concepcion as buildings were set on fire. Other citizens took up arms to protect their homes and barrios as the city appeared to be on the brink of an urban war. On Tuesday, March 2, relief assistance finally began to arrive, along with more troops, turning the southern region into a militarized zone.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as part of a Latin American tour scheduled before the quake, flew to Santiago on Tuesday to meet with Bachelet and Piñera. She brought 20 satellite phones and a technician, saying one of the "biggest problems has been communications as we found in Haiti in those days after the quake." It went unsaid that, just as in Chile, the U.S. sent the military to take control of Port-au-Prince before any significant relief assistance was distributed.

Milton Friedman’s Legacy

The Wall Street Journal joined in the fray, running an article by Bret Stephens, "How Milton Friedman Saved Chile." He asserted that Friedman’s "spirit was surely hovering protectively over Chile in the early morning hours of Saturday. Thanks largely to him, the country has endured a tragedy that elsewhere would have been an apocalypse." Stephens went on to declare, "It’s not by chance that Chilean’s were living in houses of brick—and Haitians in houses of straw—when the wolf arrived to try to blow them down." Chile had adopted "some of the world’s strictest building codes," as the economy boomed due to Pinochet’s appointment of Friedman-trained economists to cabinet ministries and the subsequent civilian government’s commitment to neoliberalism.

There are two problems with this view. First, as Naomi Klein points out in "Chile’s Socialist Rebar" on the Huffington Post, it was the socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1972 that established the first earthquake building codes. They were later strengthened, not by Pinochet, but by the restored civilian government in the 1990s. Second, as CIPER, the Center of Journalistic Investigation and Information, reported on March 6, greater Santiago has 23 residential complexes and high rises built over the last 15 years that suffered severe quake damage. Building codes had been skirted and "…responsibility for the construction and real estate enterprises is now the subject of public debate." In the country at large, 2 million people out of a population of 17 million are homeless. Most of the houses destroyed by the earthquake were built of adobe or other improvised materials, many in the shantytowns that have sprung up to provide a cheap, informal workforce for the country’s big businesses and industries.

There is little hope that the incoming government of Sebastian Piñera will rectify the social inequities that the quake exposed. The richest person in Chile, he and several of his advisers and ministers are implicated as major shareholders in construction projects that were severely damaged by the quake because building codes were ignored. Having campaigned on a platform of bringing security to the cities and moving against vandalism and crime, he criticized Bachelet for not deploying the military sooner in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Signs of Resistance

Student protest in Santiago; over 700,00 students struck in 2006 over increased fees

There are signs that the historic Chile of popular organizations and grassroots mobilizing may be reawakening. A coalition of over 60 social and non-governmental organizations released a declaration (on March 10) stating: "In these dramatic circumstances, organized citizens have proven capable of providing urgent, rapid, and creative responses to the social crisis that millions of families are experiencing.

The most diverse organizations—trade unions, neighborhood associations, housing and homeless committees, university federations and student centers, cultural organizations, environmental groups—are mobilizing, demonstrating the imaginative potential and solidarity of communities." The declaration concludes by demanding of the Piñera government the right to "monitor the plans and models of reconstruction so that they include the full participation of the communities."


Roger Burbach lived in Chile during the Allende years. He is author of The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice (Zed Books) and director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California.