Chile six months since the earthquake

With exquisite timing, seismologists warned last year that “the Concepción-Constitución area of south central Chile is very likely a mature seismic gap”. In layman’s terms, it was ripe for an earthquake. But even the scientists were too optimistic. The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck there six months ago – on ­February 27 this year – was stronger than their worst-case­ scenario, and the fifth-strongest recorded anywhere since 1900.

I heard about the seismologists’ warning from Guillermo Franco, a Spanish earthquake expert who works at the catastrophe risk consultancy AIR Worldwide in the US. He is an old friend, and a month after the earthquake we unexpectedly caught up in Santiago. My Chilean wife Ana and I had come to visit family, and Guillermo, who had come to Chile to survey the damage, joined us for our family’s welcome lunch.

The capital had escaped with minor damage – a few collapsed roads and fallen-in roofs indicated by rubble tidily piled up on street corners – leaving us to lament the devastation in the south. Over Chilean staples – avocado, steak, fresh grapes and peaches – Guillermo indulged our curiosity with tales of toppled apartment buildings and flattened adobe houses, his impromptu slideshow illustrating the devastation. A boat was stranded far inland near the coastal town of Dichato, where houses were crushed from behind by a wave that the earthquake-triggered tsunami sent up a canal. But the most striking fact about this overwhelming force of nature was not how much damage it caused but how little. Some 500 people died, tens of thousands fewer than in Haiti’s magnitude 7 earthquake six weeks earlier. Chile boasts exceptional preparedness for earthquakes – for ­example, a best-practice building code. Since the quake, ­specialists have flocked here to see what they could learn.

But Chileans are ambivalent about the admiration. Haiti in particular is not a country with which Chile likes to be compared – it sets the bar too low. “The Chileans are very strict with ­themselves,” Guillermo told me of his discussions with colleagues. Even as ­outsiders ­congratulate them, they focus on how they could have done better.

There is an element of hubris in this. At first, Chile’s then president Michelle Bachelet had insisted that the country did not need international aid. But within days a string of setbacks forced a climbdown. The tsunami warning system had failed. Damaged infrastructure had cut off large parts of the country and was delaying aid. Worst of all, looting erupted in and around Concepción, Chile’s second city. A day after the mayor pleaded for food and water, scenes of desperate parents and not-so-desperate opportunists breaking into supermarkets – and of riot police lobbing tear gas – were flashing across television screens. A state of emergency was declared, the armed forces deployed and a curfew imposed.

But the damage was done – not to the world’s admiration for an impressive disaster response, but to how Chileans like to think of their country. The earthquake and its aftermath exposed truths about Chilean society that outsiders do not see and Chileans prefer not to. And it did so at an extraordinarily delicate moment, when Chilean society was in the middle of another tectonic shift – this one not geological but political.

That shift was hotly debated over a dinner I attended at the home of Andrés Almeida, a journalist who edits the political blog “El Citizen Almeida”. In a 1988 plebiscite 56 per cent of Chileans had put an end to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The four presidential elections that followed revealed a static political landscape, with the centre-left ­Concertación ­coalition winning every time, with 51 to 58 per cent of the vote. The chasm between the pro- and anti-Pinochet camps had remained too wide to cross – until the fifth election, last December. On the right, it featured Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman making his fourth attempt at the presidency. But he looked fresh-faced against the stolid Concertación candidate, former president Eduardo Frei. The left was also riven from inside. Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a young socialist deputy rebuffed in his quest for the nomination, mounted an independent bid and took a big bite out of the left’s first-round vote. In the January run-off, by just 52 to 48 per cent, Chile elected a president from the right for the first time since 1958.

Almeida’s guests argued over what would dominate the Piñera presidency, which began in March: the business-oriented conservatism of his National Renewal party or the ideological zeal of his larger, more dynamic coalition partner and Pinochet heir, the ­Independent Democratic Union? The president’s non-ideological image had suggested this would be a “government of managers”. Almeida remarked that despite Piñera’s rhetoric of change, “he campaigned on doing the same as Concertación, but better”.

And why wouldn’t he? Rightwing economists find little not to like in Concertación’s policies. Solid growth in 18 out of their 20 years in power won Chile accolades abroad. The crowning achievement was admission last January to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich countries’ club. In the 1970s the “Chicago boys” – US-trained economists in whom Pinochet put his trust – had transformed Chile into a laboratory of free-market economics. Concertación left in place the main components of the model – low trade barriers and private health insurance, pensions and education. In macroeconomic policy, Chile makes the International Monetary Fund proud. The law mandates a structural budget balance and sequesters copper revenues in a stabilisation fund.

With a left like this, what room is there for a rightist platform? Not much, thinks Joaquín Vial, chief South America economist at Spanish bank BBVA, which operates across Latin America. “[Piñera] believed that by making the state a little bit less obtrusive and having a little bit more pro-growth agenda, he was going to achieve 6 per cent growth [up from 4 per cent]. After 20 years of Concertación what they wanted was to prove that they could manage well.”

In fact the right’s victory is as likely to expand the state as shrink it. “Chileans have grown accustomed to expecting more and more from the state,” said one influential journalist at Almeida’s dinner. The main effect of the earthquake would be to strengthen those demands as the government takes a leading role in reconstruction. The election was not a mandate for change at all, he argued. All but half-a-million voters in the middle voted as they had always done.

The 7 per cent who tipped the balance, however, may hold the key to how Chile is changing. They are voters who switched from Enríquez-­Ominami to Piñera in the run-off – a change of allegiance as incongruous as if Barack Obama’s supporters, had he lost the Democratic nomination for US president, had opted for John McCain rather than Hillary Clinton.

The Santiago thoroughfare Calle Morandé is a study in contrast, stretching from La Moneda, the modestly elegant presidential palace, through a now seedy centre where fast-food joints, craft shops and sex cinemas vie for space. Number 632, where Enríquez-­Ominami had told me to meet him, was sealed off from the street by maroon roll-down gates. It took me a minute to find a bell, and several more for an undersized door to open. Bent double, I entered to wait. MEO, as he is known, was out for lunch.

The gritty chic of his campaign headquarters, which is what this once-stately building was, captures the type. Many dismiss MEO as a lightweight. Married to a TV presenter, he looks more like the filmmaker he used to be than a potential president. He calls attention to his shoulder-length hair by a tic of incessantly running his hand through it. He is also a scion of the old left – Pinochet’s forces killed his father, an armed revolutionary. Yet the 37-year-old disparages the old left as much as he criticises the right, and champions such causes as the green movement, minority rights and sexual equality. And he is no mere dilettante: he is building a new progressive party to harness the 20 per cent support he gained in the presidential poll.

MEO is unusual in that he entertains comparisons with Haiti and does not think Chile always comes out ahead. “In Haiti, the president couldn’t be found for three days … the person who incarnates the state was gone. In Chile … you can criticise the state for reacting late, but it was always there. What failed here was Chilean society. The pillage and robbery … demonstrated that Chile had much less society than it thought.” He tells a story of a man who armed himself with a gun for 10 days. “The first two days, he was afraid of thieves. The next eight, he was afraid of his neighbours … What type of model is this in which Chileans ­display the most ­primitive ­Hobbesian behaviour?”

His dystopian analysis struck me as alarmist. But I was reminded of it when a friend, recently returned to Chile after years abroad, mused that “the hardest thing to get used to is to feel ­insecure again”. Once you start looking, this distrust of others is everywhere in Chile. Across Santiago, tall gates close off houses from the street and direct life inwards. Ubiquitous dogs – frequently large, always loud – reinforce the sense that ­people are forever on guard against strangers.

Por la razón o la fuerza reads the motto on Chile’s national crest. Originally referring to independence from Spain, it now seems to echo the preoccupation with security: if not by reason then by force. Hence the consistently high proportion of Chileans who still condone Pinochet. Hence perhaps also the extreme social conservatism: divorce, for example, was not ­legalised until 2004.

Fear also held back the post-dictatorship centre-left – fear of the reactions it might provoke. It had little choice in the 1990s, when ­Pinochet retained considerable power. This changed after foreign indictments exposed his corruption and despotism. Even then, the ­Concertación coalition contented itself with incremental change. Ricardo Lagos, the first socialist president since the 1973 coup, took office in 2000 “with a lot of political capital and didn’t use it for anything”, says Joaquín Vial. In ­Almeida’s juicier metaphor, Concertación was like a man who wastes the opportunity to pick a bar fight with the guy he hates despite having 10 beefy ­weightlifters backing him up.

But incrementalism left unmended the splits that fracture Chile. ­Democracy did not overcome tribalism: even today young people often vote according to family tradition. Economically, Chile is not one country but several. The fruits of economic growth fall more unevenly here than in any other OECD country: the richest 10 per cent of households get 39 per cent of national income, 26 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. Most ­Chileans still live in the developing, rather than the OECD, world.

Doubtless, poverty has lessened. “When I was a kid, people in the rural areas lived like [it was] the Middle Ages,” said Vial. “That has completely disappeared … they have connection to water, sewage, electricity; they have a ­colour TV and a car instead of a horse.” The minister of finance, Felipe ­Larraín, insists that Chile can become a developed country by 2018 – by which he means eradicating extreme poverty and achieving the per capita income of Portugal – if growth is lifted to 6 per cent. Vial’s current forecast is 4.8 per cent growth this year and 5.6 per cent in 2011.

But “the same, only better” will not work if the sources of Chile’s growth run dry. “Did you know,” Larraín asked me sharply, “that under the previous government, productivity growth was negative?” Rarely mentioned in accounts of Chile’s success story, “total factor productivity” – the part of growth that cannot be explained by increased capital, say, or more hours worked – stalled after the early 1990s. Chile’s headline growth came from capital investment, trade and a favourable copper price. But sustainable wealth depends on learning how to make more stuff with the same resources. For that, skills and knowledge must extend deeper than the topsoil of the population, something Chile struggles to achieve. A 1998 survey placed 51per cent of adults on the lowest level of an OECD literacy scale.

There is progress – school participation rates have risen rapidly. Today, 70 per cent of students going into higher education are the first in their family to do so, says Vial, thanks to scholarships and loans. But social mobility works both ways: if those at the bottom move up more easily, those at the top are more likely to slip. “In ­families like mine,” says Vial, “there was this old joke: [if you are] not very able, you can always get a job in a bank … now it’s completely different. If your kids are not good students, there is no way you can make sure that they will have a good economic future.”

So far, this rankles at most. “We tend to be very conservative,” Vial explains, “so if people don’t come from the right background, it’s very difficult to accept them … With universities democratising themselves, you see people from all kinds of different backgrounds mixing up. And you sometimes get fiancés that you don’t like.” It is not hard to imagine a long-overdue improvement in mobility becoming more traumatic than this for a society so fearful of the unpredictable.

The earthquake unleashed a wave of genuinely national fellow-feeling, as the flag-waving, volunteering and charitable ­giving attested. But it did not “change everything”. The government’s less than sure-footed response stirred old ghosts. Some suspect Bachelet delayed declaring a state of emergency because she feared the symbolism of soldiers patrolling the streets. (She dismisses this.) In the last months of her mandate, meanwhile, Bachelet presided over three events highlighting Chile’s unhealed wounds: the reinterment of Victor Jara, a leader of Chile’s “New Song” movement whose murder by the Pinochet regime made him a martyr for the left; the launch of a Museum of Memory about the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity; and the reopening of a commission charged with documenting cases of torture. It was a clear warning that the incoming government would not be allowed to rebury the past.

Ensuring Pinochet’s abuses cannot be denied is the left’s greatest achievement. But the fight for truth was too consuming to allow for reconciliation. Chileans on the right are bitter that victims of leftwing violence are not honoured. And the focus on Pinochet creates blind spots to other human rights violations, such as against the indigenous Mapuche. True reconciliation will depend on the sliver of the electorate that can jump the left-right gap: young people who by temperament and lifestyle are progressives, but find it healthy to alternate between a right they think may have changed and a left they see has not. Free of their parents’ fear, they know, as one such voter put it to me after the earthquake, that the army is there to help.

Whether Piñera retains their support will determine the right’s – and Chile’s – future. His instinctive managerial approach will not cut it, while his forays into high politics have been unsure. Piñera said he wanted to be president to give people back “their right to live in peace”. That phrase – el derecho de vivir en paz – is not innocent; it is the title of an emblematic album by Victor Jara. This brazen attempt to appropriate the language of the left heralds a culture war rather than reconciliation. But Piñera has also stepped outside the usual trenches: he rejected a request from the church to pardon “repentant” soldiers in jail for human rights abuses.

The earthquake offered an unparalleled opportunity to make these two societies one. The victims were disproportionately the poor and those most reliant on public services. Though many have remained in temporary ­shelter throughout the southern-hemisphere winter, the government has so far received good marks for its reconstruction work. Its standing was further boosted by the search operation that this week located 33 trapped miners.

If he wants, Piñera can still usurp the left’s claim to be the guide to a more just society. Last month a survey showed that inequality had risen dramatically in the economic crisis. Piñera and Larraín have called for all sectors of society to contribute to reconstruction, and these are not mere words. Their financing plan raises corporation taxes and mining royalties – though the royalty hike was rejected by the opposition because it would tie the government’s hands on future mining taxation.

Next month, Chile marks 200 years of independence. It will be a ­paradox if the right picks up the interrupted work of a left that long ago ceased to be revolutionary – but also, perhaps, the only way this country can embark on its future in earnest.

Martin Sandbu is an FT leader writer. His last piece for the FT Weekend Magazine was about the Iraqi who showed Norway how to husband its oil. Read it at

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