Just a few hours after the 14 October rescue of the Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose mine, President Sebastián Piñera kicked off his European tour.
His presidential luggage was perhaps heavier than usual on this trip.
He was carrying carefully framed pieces of rock from 700 metres underground where the miners were trapped as presents for European leaders — and even one for Manchester United’s coach Sir Alex Ferguson.
The metaphor was self-explanatory. Piñera was trying to show the Europeans that Chile is a rock-solid country. In contrast to other Latin American countries, he is selling the image of Chile where — as his mantra goes — las cosas se hacen bien (things are done well).
Piñera is a billionaire financial speculator who managed to amass extraordinary wealth during the Pinochet military dictatorship. Since he came to power eight months ago, he has tried to project his own image as a winning businessman; as one to which Chileans should aspire.
When it comes to enhancing his winning image, Piñera doesn’t hesitate to manipulate emotionally charged occasions. This was evident in the finely staged media coverage of the rescue. Piñera’s main adviser is Ricardo Sepulveda, a filmmaker who was a ubiquitous figure near the San Jose mine. Every stage of the miners’ drama was carefully orchestrated, even before the rescue.
For the first 17 days after the mine collapsed, the 33 miners were thought to be dead.
At daybreak on 22 August Piñera was alerted that the miners were alive. Yet the anxious families of the trapped men were not told their loved ones were still alive until midday. Piñera’s minders were ordered to delay the good news until he arrived in San José. He wanted to be the first person to make the announcement. A winner always needs to be first.
In his tour last week to Europe, Piñera claimed total ownership of the rescue.
And something else which received less attention also occurred. Last week he told the British media that the rescue of the miners means Chile will now be known and remembered as an example of "unity, courage, leadership and success and not for Pinochet."
In an Orwellian twist, Piñera sought to erase Pinochet’s memory from the international consciousness. One wonders what his brother José Piñera — a former Pinochet minister — would have to say about this rebranding exercise.
One also wonders what Luis Urzúa (link in Spanish), the last miner rescued, would have to say about this. His father and stepfather were executed by Pinochet. Urzúa’s father — also Luis — was a union leader and member of Chile’s Communist Party. He has been "missing" — the terrifying symbol of repression waged by Pinochet against workers — since September 11 1973, the beginning of the dictatorship that deposed the government of President Salvador Allende.
The stepfather of Luis Urzúa, Benito Diaz, was another victim of Pinochet. Diaz was also a mining union official. He was one of the victims of the Caravan of Death, a notorious death squad that roamed in a helicopter around the country exterminating Pinochet’s political prisoners.
Benito Diaz was executed in the cemetery of Copiapo, the same northern city where Luis Urzúa was taken two weeks ago to recover from his two months underground.
In his presentation of Chile to world leaders, Piñera claimed again and again that the country was united. This is far from true.
Chile is a profoundly divided society — along both class and ethnic lines. The working and upper classes rarely interact and workers are regarded with disdain.
After being embraced by Piñera, Luis Urzúa said to him him: "I hope this won’t happen again."
But it did happen again.
The day after the rescue of the 33 miners, a 26 year old miner lost his life in a nearby mining accident. Over the last year alone there have been more than 31 accidents and 10 miners killed.
Last year more than 400 lost their lives. "Workers died because there is no investment in safety, while at the same time mining companies increased their production and earnings," said Miguel Barraza, a union leader of Chile’s Mining Federation.
The rescue was a handy smokescreen for Piñera’s failure to deal with the destruction caused by last February’s earthquake and tsunami — but it didn’t hide everything
Raul Bustos, one of the 33 miners rescued, became an annoying reminder of Piñera’s failure. Bustos and his family had been forced to leave the destroyed port city of Talcahuano, one of the worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Destruction and unemployment are the only thing left standing in this part of Chile.
With work gone at the Chilean shipbuilder Asmar, Bustos and his family were forced to take the long trip north to find work in the mines.
In cities such as Talcahuano and Concepción — the latter, the third largest city in the country — numerous streets are still closed and unemployment is rising. "With the rescue the government has forgotten us," Maru Cherres from Concepción told New Matilda.
While Piñeras was busy staging the rescue of the 33 miners, in the south of the country 34 indigenous people — Mapuches — were on a hunger strike and drawing dangerously close to death.
One of the most dispossessed sectors in Chilean society, the Mapuche demands for land have been completely ignored and their leaders trialled under Chile’s anti-terrorist laws.
"The Mapuche situation is not a priority for Piñera," Alfredo Joignant told New Matilda. Joignant, a political scientist and one of the sharpest observers of contemporary Chilean society lamented the "great indifference about the Mapuche problem."
For this political scientist and commentator, "the rescue of the miners reinforced the individualistic character of Piñera." Joignant said the rescue of the miners was for Piñera a "triumph of image" yet also "an image that has been trivialised and will soon be forgotten."
And now, with the rescue of the 33 miners now complete, Piñera must engage with the problems facing his country. While the latest opinion polls show him enjoying more than 65 per cent approval, this will not last if he doesn’t start focusing on the increasing social and economic problems faced by Chile.
And not just the earthquake reconstruction and the Mapuche crisis either. Piñera has to do something about the more than 3000 public employees who have lost their jobs in the last six months. He also has to do something about that unfulfilled political campaign commitment to create more than 250,000 new jobs each year. So far, he has had little impact on employment statistics, beyond a slight increase in the number of domestic servants.
And then there is Chile’s main problem, of which Piñera with his billions is a constant reminder: the unequal distribution of wealth, one of the worst in the world.
So while the publicity storm around the rescue of the 33 miners has helped Piñera, it is certain that Chile — far from resting on rock — is resting on sand. Sand that, at any moment, could start to blow away.
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