Friday, March 5, 2010

Chile's Earthquakes, Political and Seismic

The earthquake in Chile has proven to be far more extensive than had previously been thought. Still, the death toll remains a tiny fraction of that in Haiti. Although there has been looting, the post quake chaos seems to be far less extensive than that in Haiti. Despite this, the extensive damage is likely to cost billions of dollars to repair.

One irony of the earthquake is the presence of the Chilean military as a force for order and stability. Reports came from Chile of weary refugees from ravaged towns happily welcoming troops who were passing out emergency food and water, as well as enforcing curfews to prevent looting. This stands in stark contrast to the role of the Chilean military in 1973 and after. When Salvador Allende and his Marxist coalition took a wrecking ball to the Chilean economy in the name of economic justice, the Chilean military stepped in and restored capitalism at the cost of thousands of lives and with chilling brutality. In many ways, the 1973 left fault lines in Chilean society that could be compared to those left by the Spanish Civil War in Spain.

Chile's President, Michelle Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured along with her parents by the military junta under Agosto Pinochet. It is a measure of Chile's healing as a society that in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake it is being led by a woman who was once a political prisoner, and that this former detainee now controls troops who are wearing the uniforms of her former captors. The New York Times reports as follows on the memories evoked by Chile's military and its healing role in the aftermath of the earthquake.

"In Chile, the military clearly evokes mixed emotions because of the role it played in the torture and disappearance of some 3,000 Chileans during this country’s bloody 19-year dictatorship.

But in the five days since Chile was shaken by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in its history, the military’s relationship with the country’s people was turning a new page.

Tanks were stationed outside supermarkets that had been looted and vandalized for two days before the troops arrived. Soldiers organized lines for residents to enter banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations. And for the most part, emotional and exhausted residents like Mr. Ramírez embraced them.

On Monday night, as a mob made its way through downtown Concepción, setting fire to supermarkets and robbing homes, Mr. Ramírez was at home with his two sons when the mob passed through their neighborhood.

“People had to start to protect themselves and to guard their streets,” he said. “My youngest son suffered a psychological blow.”

“If I would have had to kill somebody, I would have,” he added."

Residents of quake torn areas have reacted with gratitude to the stabilising presence of Chilean troops. Young and old, the population is grateful that order and basic services have been restored.

Chile will take a long time to restore normalcy to the regions most strongly hit by the quake. But beneath its battered landscape is a success story. Two years of disastrous misgovernment from 1971-1973 were followed by a brutal military coup in 1973 in which thousands were murdered. Chile managed to come back from sixteen years of dictatorship from 1973 to 1989. They have had twenty years of democratic rule since Agosto Pinochet stepped down from power. The Chilean people were strong enough to rebuild their ravaged democracy. With G-d's help they will heal their land as well.

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