Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was riding high in the polls last October when he led the globally celebrated rescue of 33 trapped miners. But since then, his 63% approval rating has dropped below 50% as the glow of the rescue fades and Chileans ponder the harder task before them: rebuilding the central swath of the country hit by last year’s massive, 8.8-magnitude earthquake. By many measures, say observers, Piñera so far has led a strong recovery effort. But at a ceremony last Sunday, Feb. 27, marking the quake’s first anniversary, he acknowledged that even in Chile, arguably Latin America’s most developed nation, “We still have a long road ahead to reconstruction.”
President Obama will get a sense of Chile’s triumphs and tensions when he visits the key South American ally March 21-22 during a tour that includes Brazil and El Salvador. But while Piñera’s stature is sure to get a boost from hosting Obama for talks on renewable and nuclear energy, fixing the earthquake damage has become a defining issue for a President who took office last year only days after the disaster hit. Chile suffered only a fraction of the deaths caused by the quake that ravaged Haiti just a month earlier on Jan. 12, 2010 – fewer than 600 in Chile versus more than 250,000 in Haiti – and Piñera’s government has done a better job getting homeless victims into decent shelter than Haiti’s has. But a year later, says political analyst Ricardo Israel of the Autonomous University of Chile, many Chileans feel Piñera so far “has failed to provide a grand reconstruction plan.”
Government officials dispute that charge, insisting the President, given the earthquake’s force – the fifth strongest in recorded history, causing $30 billion in damage – has made impressive inroads with a three-year housing reconstruction plan and a longer-term strategy for urban and infrastructure renovation. According to Pablo Allard, Urban Reconstruction Coordinator at Chile’s Housing Ministry, housing reconstruction subsidies have gone out to more than half the 220,000 families that qualified, and about 70,000 dwellings are now being rebuilt in and around cities like Concepción, Chile’s second largest. The goal is to have everyone back in permanent housing by the end of 2012. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 families are in temporary wooden structures called media aguas. “This is one of the most complex reconstruction efforts anyone has ever undertaken,” says Allard.
Critics say those numbers are exaggerated. But most of Chile’s damaged bridges and highways have been repaired, and all schools and hospitals are functioning again. Just as important, Piñera has created an early alert system. Because the quake’s epicenter was out in the Pacific, most deaths were a result of the tsunami that slammed Chile’s central coast – and the government of Piñera’s predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, was criticized for not warning coastal residents about the wall of water soon enough. The new National Civil Protection Agency hopes to use more efficient protocols and satellite technology to get communities like the fishing villages devastated last year evacuated more quickly in future catastrophes.
Still, when Piñera arrived in Concepción last weekend he was greeted by 3,000 protesters shouting, “reconstruction now!” and insisting the government should be further along, not just with housing but jobs. Granted, Concepción is a working-class industrial city more aligned with the center-left opposition than with Piñera, who is a billionaire and Chile’s first conservative President since the end of the brutral right-wing Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. But many protesters were media agua camp residents like Macarena Vergara, 28, who wonders why, if Pinera’s engineers could locate 33 miners buried 2,300 feet (700 meters) underground, she’s still in a flimsy hut with chronic water shortages, weak protection from rain and wind and a bathroom she has to share with another family. “A year later and the government still has no solution,” Vergara says. “They claim that everyone will have a new home by 2012, but I think we’ll still be living here in four years.”
Even the media agua camps are a decided level above the squalor of the tent cities most Haiti quake victims are still living in. But part of the problem is that Chile and Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, are on opposite ends of Latin America’s expectations scale. Another, Piñera notes, is the need to determine where it’s safe to rebuild houses and businesses, and how to make the new structures more earthquake- and tsunami-resistant. During last weekend’s commemorations, Piñera told frustrated residents in Caleta Tumbes, near Concepción, “Reconstruction means not only rebuilding what was there before, but rebuilding it better, much better.” Says Allard, “We can’t just build short-term ghettoes. We have to rebuild these cities to mitigate the [future] risk and exposure to earthquake and tsunami hazards.” Chile already has some of the strongest building codes in the hemisphere – a big reason so few were killed there last year compared to Haiti.
One of the chief criticisms of Piñera, a moderate conservative, is that he hasn’t fostered enough public participation in the reconstruction planning – the sort of democratic face he displayed, for example, with the miners. Piñera was lionized for his pro-active leadership during that drama. But rescuing hundreds of thousands of beleaguered Chileans aboveground is proving a more daunting task.
–With reporting by Aaron Nelsen/Concepción