The Earthquake in the Mirror

Almost two weeks after the earthquake that devastated Chile, the country is still reeling from aftershocks. I speak to my sister-in-law in Santiago and she suddenly interrupts our conversation, telling me she has to hang up, está temblando, está temblando, it's trembling, again and again.

And yet, the greatest aftershock of all, what we call réplicas, may be political.

After all, less than sixty days ago there was another earthquake in Chile, of a different kind, when a majority of my country's citizens elected right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piňera as our President, rejecting the Concertación, the center-left coalition that had defeated the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and had registered significant social and economic gains during its twenty year tenure.

Piňera's victory inevitably opened up a series of doubts about the future. Was this a permanent realignment or would the Concertación, whose outgoing President, Michelle Bachelet, was leaving office with an unprecedented 80 % approval rate, be back in four years? Would Piňera, who had opposed Pinochet, continue the human rights work of the post-Pinochet governments or would he bow to conservative elements among his allies who are severely tainted by their association with torture and disappearances? Could Piňera keep his promise to continue the expansive social policies of the Concertación and simultaneously accentuate the neo-liberal economic model, even if it has been unable to solve the shameful differences between the rich and poor that make Chile one of the least equitable countries in the world?

All of these questions have now been complicated by the seismic cataclysm that struck Chile and caused damages approaching thirty billion dollars. The new President inherits a country with many dead and many more traumatized and homeless, and will be judged according to how he carries out the urgent task of national reconstruction.

Despite the support of all Chileans (including myself), in this hour of need, a number of pitfalls await him.

The earthquake did not only split Chile's ground, crack open craters in its roads and swamp entire towns with a deadly tsunami. It also revealed fractures in Chile's social and moral fabric, the slow tsunami of a persistent poverty, the cosmetic quality of the vaunted modernization that the country has undergone over the last decades. When the Bachelet government declared after the cataclysm that it did not require foreign assistance, one could read behind the reasonable need to first assess the disaster's magnitude, a more subtle message: Don't confuse us with Haiti. We can stand on our own. The earthquake's nightmare alerted us to a different face in the mirror, may have forced us to recognize that we live in a "país de mentira", a country forged out of illusions. We thought we were so developed! To the point that, over twenty years ago, Joaquín Lavín, now Piňera's Secretary of Education, proclaimed in a famous essay entitled "Adiós, América Latina" that we were on the verge of joining Australia and the First World and leaving behind miserable Latin America.

In this context, this disaster can be seen as a wake up call to Chile: Hello, Latin America! Or perhaps a test being staged by our mother earth, a challenge to rediscover the deepest sources of our misplaced identity. If so, the new President might well look to Chile's history for models to imitate or avoid. President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, for instance, responded to the 1939 catastrophe that left thirty thousand dead by enacting groundbreaking laws that brought social security, a public health system and important expenditures in education to an exploited populace, establishing the welfare state that has been so instrumental in Chile's development. Or there is the sobering case of President Pedro Montt, who, just inaugurated, had to deal with the ruinous Valparaíso earthquake of 1906. The youth of the country rushed to the rescue of the victims and got a lesson about the real Chile, the festering Chile that had been hidden under the mirage of gentility, the Chile that Montt and so many others of the privileged elite preferred to repress. Upon their return to Santiago months later, the students interrupted the homage organized for them by the government, jeering the oligarchs in attendance and then, walked out, according to the historian Gabriel Salazar. They went on to form a student federation that has been, ever since, a symbol of rebellion against injustice.

I believe that those youngsters of 1906 are calling out from beyond death to their faraway descendants, the students of 2010, who have, over a century later, once again poured into the streets to gather clothes and food, and are heading by the thousands for the distressed areas of the country's south. I believe that the young then and now are demanding and anticipating a different Chile, a Chile of equality and fairness for all, a Chile that is measured, not by the profits the richest make, but by the way it treats its most neglected and suffering citizens.

I can only hope it is a message that our new President will heed as he opens his heart and his mind to the true story of our ravaged land.

This was first published, in a slightly different form, in the LATImes on March 11, 2010, entitled Shaken to the Core.