April 3, 2014 10:57 am

Chile earthquake provides early test for Michelle Bachelet

A resident looks at debris around a home after an earthquake and tsunami hit the northern port of Iquique April 2, 2014. Chilean authorities on Wednesday were assessing the damage from a massive earthquake that struck off the northern coast, causing a small tsunami, but the impact appeared to be mostly limited. The 8.2 magnitude quake that shook northern Chile on Tuesday killed six people and triggered a tsunami with 2-meter (7-foot) waves. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (CHILE - Tags: DISASTER)©Reuters

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, who returned to power on March 11, faces her first big test after the northern coastline of the world’s top copper producer was hit by a powerful earthquake on Tuesday.

After being criticised for her response to one of the biggest earthquakes on record at the end of her previous presidential term in February 2010, opponents are watching how the government copes with the latest natural disaster.

So far, the response seems to have gone well. Ricardo Mena, who represents the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in the region, said Chile’s reaction was fast and co-ordinated, and that efforts since the 2010 earthquake to improve tsunami alert systems and earthquake protocol had borne fruit.

As one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, Chile has developed strict building codes and evacuation procedures and become a leading example on how to respond to natural disasters.

With a low death toll of six given the 8.2 magnitude of the earthquake, and copper mines reporting no major damage, Ms Bachelet may face greater challenges implementing reforms promised in last year’s election campaign.

Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, says the government must handle the reconstruction efforts with care after thousands of homes were destroyed. “It doesn’t provide them with any political breathing room from a very ambitious reform agenda,” he added.

Ms Bachelet has promised to enact 50 reforms in her first 100 days of government, including a pledge to provide free and universal education by raising corporate taxes from 20 to 25 per cent.

She has already faced pressure after tens of thousands of protesters marched through Santiago last month demanding elections promises be kept, especially efforts to tackle social inequality. Chile has the widest gap between rich and poor among nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

On Monday, Ms Bachelet sent her tax reform bill to congress, assuring the public it would help “sustainable and equitable” growth, amid concerns the reforms could dampen investment and growth prospects at a time when Chile’s economy is slowing.

The economy grew 1.4 per cent in January from a year earlier, the slowest since the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, while the central bank recently cut its 2014 growth forecast as copper prices fell and mining industry investments slowed.

At the same time, inflation is accelerating, with consumer prices rising 3.2 per cent in February from a year earlier, the fastest pace in almost two years, as a weaker peso pushed up import costs.

Ms Bachelet also faces a looming energy crisis, with the government pledging to make a decision by mid-May over the multibillion dollar HidroAysén project, a controversial hydroelectric dam in Patagonia.

It is in this context that Ms Bachelet must also confront the aftermath of the latest earthquake – which may not be the area’s last, experts warned.

Although there were several aftershocks, some as big as 6.2 magnitude, seismologists warn that it is not the major earthquake that they have long been expecting in this region of Chile, which has not experienced a serious rupture since 1877.

Chileans in the area have been living in fear of major seismic activity for years, as a “seismic gap” has built up between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates which meet just off the coast of Iquique.

“It could happen tomorrow, or in 50 years,” said Mark Simons, a professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology.

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