Saturday, March 6, 2010

¡Fuerza Chile! One Week After the Quake

Well it´s now been officially more than one week after one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded shook Chile, and things are starting to settle back into place, more or less. Here in Valpo, a rather uneasy normalcy has started to return, as most businesses, public transportation, and utilities are back up and running. Walking around the city, it´s really difficult to believe that only a few days ago we felt the same magnitude on the richter scale as what devastated Haiti- aside from a few broken windows, some cracked siding, and the like, there really isn't much to suggest that this city suffered much physical damage at all. And certainly, by my understanding, it is the case that we here in Valparaíso were extremely fortunate not to suffer more than we did.

One sees here in Valpo a large outpouring of support for our less fortunate neighbors. Chilean flags and messages of support can be seen everywhere. The past few days I also took part in some of the relief effort being organized by the Pontífica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, gathering and sorting clothing and food and other supplies to send to the south. My personal experience in these circumstances is rather limited, so I have little to base my analysis directly off of, but nevertheless I think it is remarkable both how quickly things here are going back to "normal," as well as the amount of support being provided by the people themselves. I was completely overwhelmed by not only the amount of provisions that the student organizers at PUCV were able to gather, but also how many hundreds of students were dedicating their time and energy to the thankless task of sorting and packaging these myriad supplies, two weeks before their classes start back up.

But of course, I am only going off of what I know based on what I've personally seen. Beyond that, I like most everyone else has to rely on what I'm being told. The problem is that under such circumstances there's really no way of knowing what's really going on, nor how "bad" it really is- and we won't really have any way of knowing what the effects of this quake will for some time to come. Signs are emerging however, as the tourism industry is starting to suffer and certainly the devastation that this quake has had on Chile's infrastructure, especially the highways, railways, and bridges, will have a crippling effect on the economy for a long time to come.

In the meantime, there is much going on and many storylines emerging, but personally I am most interested in the issue of the looting and violence going on in Concepción and other hard-hit cities in the south-central regions, and what the implications of this and the government´s response will be. For several days one couldn´t turn on the television here without being bombarded with the images of people breaking into stores and businesses, to which the government responded with a strong hand by mobilizing thousands of soldiers, tanks, and issuing a toque de queda ("curfew"), which is the first time such action has been taken in the country since the restoration of democracy. I have little doubt about the seriousness of this matter and the need to restore order amidst this chaos and violence, and The BBC has a thoughtful article on the complex issues involved in deploying the Chilean military for this relief effort with the memories of the military government still fresh.

Nevertheless, I think we should also always remain cautiously skeptical about state efforts to use force to "increase security," especially when military units are deployed for policing efforts. Situations such as these often serve as convenient opportunities for state authorities to overextend their reach, which almost always ends up doing more harm than good, especially over the long term. Perhaps my background in the post-9/11 United States leaves me to draw unfair comparisons between the Chilean government's response and how my country typically operates under these circumstances, but tanks are surely an extreme measure to deal with bands of looters. And certainly questions of the long-term "security presence" need to be asked considering reports indicate that any decision regarding lifting the toque de queda down there will be postponed until March 11, when new president Sebastián Piñera assumes office.

Accordingly, what will be most interesting to watch (IMHO) throughout the duration of the Piñera administration will be how he uses this event to shape his agenda and ultimately his legacy, and how in turn the Chilean people will respond. With his right-wing background and his calls to "reestablish public order", I can't help but consider that this may be early indicators that Piñera may use this opportunity to take a more heavy-handed "law and order" approach than what Chileans have experienced in 20 years. Furthermore, this crisis and the much-critized response of the Bachelet government, especially regarding the failures of the tsunami alert system that may have led to more casualties than the quake itself, will leave a deep stain on her and the Concertación´s legacy and give Piñera further incentive to separate himself politically and ideologically. And this in turn will certainly impact Piñera's economic policies, perhaps leading to an onslaught of neoliberal reforms and privatization schemes in the reconstruction effort, as well as a convenient excuse to back away from his campaign promises on Chile's projected economic growth.

How will the rest of Chile respond? I see here in Chile and throughout much of Latin America a great deal of skepticism towards state authority and institutions, which has only been amplified by the government's response to this event. Furthermore, I think one can be assured that Piñera's efforts at neoliberalization or "securitization," if they come to fruition, will be met with a great deal of resistance. Ultimately, it's still too early to tell, but despite the devastation, chaos, and violence in some parts of the country, the compassion and support seen in the rest does give hope for what is yet to come.
(Both pictures taken in Valpo, March 2010. First is a micro, second is a scene from the PCUV relief effort.)

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