Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chile rattled on path to development

Associated Press - Residents of Constitución, a seaside town in Chile that was pounded by a post-earthquake tsunami, wait in line to receive melons Friday.

SANTIAGO, Chile—Chile's earthquake has had an unexpected aftershock—shaking the country's confidence in its march to the ranks of developed nations. For many people here, the massive earthquake exposed deep social and economic fault lines in the country, triggering complaints that poor barrios were hit hardest by the temblor and speculation that rampant looting was partly their revenge on wealthier Chileans.
Sociologist and blogger Lucia Dammert dubbed it "a social earthquake" that revealed "a fractured country, socially divided with a population that feels excluded and as a result acts with a lack of community values."

In Santiago, the capital, wealthy neighborhoods to the northeast suffered little or no damage as a result of sturdy, modern architecture that complies with some of the strictest building codes in the world. Abraham Senerman, architect of a 52-floor building soon to be inaugurated in Las Condes, one of the city's poshest neighborhoods, boasted to local media that the tower survived unscathed. Across town, in the working-class suburb of Pudahuel, Celia Aliaga's three-bedroom home, a former farmhouse made of adobe, crumbled. "This was all I had, and there's nothing for me to rebuild with," said Ms. Aliaga, a 56-year-old housekeeper, who has been sleeping with her family under a tin roof in the backyard since the quake.

The economic divide in Chilean society has been a festering problem even though free-market policies have helped propel the country to an extended period of growth and stability. The richest fifth of Chilean households earn around half of national income, compared to the poorest fifth's 5%. Chile recently became the first South American nation invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but a report by the exclusive group of advanced economies noted Chilean inequality remained "very high," by the group's standards. Chile's government acknowledges that inequality remains a problem, and that people in poorer, rural areas did have to wait longer for relief to arrive because of the logistical challenge of reaching them.

Watching televised reporting from Chile, I was struck by the poverty in some quarters. Naively I had assumed that such poverty would not exist there, and I have to wonder why I thought so.

But citing the magnitude of the quake, felt by over 80% of Chile's population, Pilar Armanet, spokeswoman for president Michelle Bachelet, said, "the earthquake was very democratic." She noted that the tsunami that hit people living in poor settlements along the coast after the quake also affected many middle and upper-class vacationers.

This really speaks directly to the lack of understanding and sensitivity in some: what comparison can be made between having one's living quarters and one's vacation? A ruined vacation? Well, go home, and wait for the next vacation.

Still, differences in economic status appeared to go a long way toward determining how well people came out of the earthquake. Santiago officials have denounced some builders for cutting corners in less affluent barrios. In Maipú, a middle-class suburb in southwest Santiago, Mayor Alberto Undurraga spent the past week meeting with residents of two apartment complexes that buckled in the quake and are now condemned to be razed. Apartments constructed by the same builder in more affluent neighborhoods, angry residents point out, didn't collapse. The residents, with the city's help, are now suing the builder and pursuing other legal action via a consumer protection agency. Attempts to reach the builder were unsuccessful.

Further south, near the epicenter, Chileans' economic status also influenced their view of the post-quake looting. Gustavo Rivera, founder of the MultiCentro department store chain, said the looting was fundamentally a problem of public order and the government's delay in sending troops onto the streets. "This is a country that respects authority," he said, as workers swept up glass from the broken windows of a MultiCentro outlet looted in the city of Constitución. "Without authority, it's chaos." He said it was clear that not all the looters were poor people, and some stole non-essential items like TVs and stereos and not just food.

Televised reports did show people hauling boxed goods in shopping carts. So not all looters were desperately seeking food and sustenance. Yet of those that were looting wantonly, what can be said? Simply that they are thieves, degenerates that took advantage of socal chaos to rob and steal? Were that it were that simple.

But other people suggested deeper social inequities lay behind the looting. José Rafael Alegría, a quake victim holding up a sign asking for food on a roadside near Constitución, said profiteering by some merchants after the quake helped explain why poorer Chileans might resent them. He said some merchants had doubled the price of a sack of flour in the disaster's aftermath.

That is not shown, nor discussed.

President elect Sebastian Piñera, who has pledged to turn Chile into a developed nation by 2018, will now have to spend his first two years in office occupied with rebuilding damaged areas, said Otto Granados, a Mexican academic who served in that country's government during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and was later ambassador to Chile.

Mr. Granados said he thinks Chile managed the quake pretty well and that some of the disruption and looting had to do with human nature rather than defects in Chilean society. He cited a Mexican saying: "when the arca [vault] comes open, even the most honest will sin."


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