Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile: The Militarization of Natural Disasters

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters shed light on social cracks and fissures invisible in everyday life. These disasters provoke social crises that states tend to resolve with militarization, which in turn shows the profound crises that our societies have been undergoing.

“The epicenter is in the ground, therefore there shouldn’t be a tsunami,” was the navy’s response at 5:20 a.m. to President Michelle Bachelet, almost two hours after an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale shook Chile. Ten minutes later, the tsunami alarm that had been issued at 3:55 a.m. was deactivated.1 Before and after that time, several gigantic waves battered the southern coast of Chile. Of the more than 800 deaths, half were caused by the tsunami.

The navy recognized its error. “We were not very clear; we were not precise enough to tell the president if the alert was to be maintained or cancelled,” Admiral Edmundo González of the Chilean Navy, said on March 3.2 The error caused a bitter controversy between the government and the navy, since hundreds of deaths probably could have been avoided.

Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma blamed the armed forces for the government’s slow response after the earthquake. He maintained that the communication systems failed and that the air force delayed almost six hours in making a helicopter available for the president to do a visual inspection of the area “because the pilots weren’t there.”3

As a result of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami, electricity and the water supply were cut off, highways became impassable, and the most important airports had to be shut down. In the southern cities of Concepción (the second-largest city in the country with 250,000 inhabitants) and nearby Talcahuano (200,000), as well as Talca (200,000), stores and pharmacies were closed because there was no electricity. People with no access to food or water for four days felt abandoned and hopeless.

Who can you Trust in Critical Situations?

According to all accounts, it took four days for food to arrive in the zone of Concepción, the most damaged region, 500 kilometers south of Santiago with a total population of more than 500,000 inhabitants. The earthquake occurred early in the morning, Saturday, February 27. Official reports from the Interior Ministry’s National Emergency Office state that food began to arrive between Tuesday, March 2, and Wednesday, March 3. As usually happens, aid first arrived in the city centers, then, to the extent it was possible, to outlying areas.

In dozens of coastal towns whipped by gigantic waves of up to 20 meters, aid was delayed for nearly a week. Half a million homes were destroyed. People were living outside, without food and water, and dealing with the fear and uncertainty caused by frequent aftershocks. And those who should have kept them informed did so poorly and too late; those who should have brought them food weren’t even capable of providing the president with transportation.

“I am amazed by the absence of the state during the first two days of the tragedy,” a woman from Concepción told IPS news agency. “There was nobody to give us information, nobody to give us any help. That’s why there was a loss of control. One felt abandoned.”4 That “loss of control” took the form of looting in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of supermarkets, and only stopped when more than 10,000 soldiers were deployed and a curfew was imposed from 6 p.m. until noon. “The images of soldiers taking control of the cities evoked the worst scenes from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet,” wrote the IPS correspondent.

To many observers, the looters weren’t criminals (although criminals later joined in), but desperate men and women. Meanwhile, the right wing demanded a heavy hand and the newspaper La Tercera paid homage to Vice Admiral Luis Gómez Carreño, who during the 1906 Valparaíso earthquake had ordered looters to be shot by firing squads to reestablish public order. “Gómez Carreño subdued the scum and returned the city to order by means of ‘gun-barrel’ dictatorship.”5

Gabriel Salazar, one of the country’s most respected intellectuals and recipient of the National History Prize in 2006, maintains that “looting has occurred not only after earthquakes, but has been a constant phenomenon [in Chilean history] since the 19th century, occurring in the wake of political upheavals, civil war, and even labor strikes.”6 In other words, in addition to the desperation, there is a political culture that explains the looting, something that not even the Pinochet dictatorship could control.

Now social violence is “more massive, more virulent, and more challenging than ever,” he says, as a result of “dormant frustration produced by the [neoliberal economic] model” and a lack of “political channels for that social discontent.” The majority of looters detained were poor youths, a social sector that was always victimized by an army “formed by killing mapuches and later bums and peons.”7 Salazar is even more explicit: By his accounting, there have been 23 massacres in Chile, all against the lower classes.

The “Social Earthquake”

Ariel Dorfman is a highly acclaimed Chilean author who lives in the United States. He was in Chile in 1960 when the most powerful earthquake ever recorded occurred, and in a recent article discussed how his country has changed in the 50 years that separate the two earthquakes. He points out that now the GDP (gross domestic product) is 15 times greater than it was in 1960 and the economy is one of the most advanced in Latin America, but wealth “has not been accumulated without severe social and even moral consequences.”8

Among the most significant is that Chile “has also become a more egocentric and individualistic society where, instead of a vision of social justice for all, the citizenry is, for the most part, engaged in a frenzied race toward ever more consumption and subject, of course, to the accompanying stress and anomie.”

The deep solidarity he witnessed a half century ago seems to have considerably diminished.

A third point of view is offered by Mario Garcés, also a social historian, who centers his analysis on what he refers to as the “social earthquake” that preceded the disaster.9 His comments can be grouped into four major themes:

To the extent that authorities weren’t capable of either informing or responding to the public, only “local know-how” prevented an even greater disaster. Everyone in Chile has lived through at least one earthquake and knows what to do. Those who live in coastal zones head for the hills, those caught in houses or buildings know how to protect themselves underneath beams and doors, and know to go out in the street when they can.

In the information era, communication collapses along with other essential services. This is normal during a disaster, which is why real decentralization—of services as well as administration—is unforeseeable. That’s why “we shouldn’t underestimate old radio systems” or other traditional forms of communication. “How much have we really advanced in decentralization, how much have the political elites underestimated the importance of communal networks and skills, and how less severe would the disaster have been if those in political power could count on those same skills?” Garcés asks.

The difficulty with the food supply merits a more detailed explanation. Here the neoliberal economic model plays a crucial role. “The supply of basic products is in the hands of large private supermarket chains and the supply of medicine is in the hands of large pharmaceutical chains. That caused locally owned neighborhood shops to practically disappear. Then this oligopolistic supply system collapses, in part as a result of the earthquake itself, but also because it depends on electricity. As a result, supermarkets and pharmacies closed their doors.”

This is a key point, since it is connected to both the chaos and the “social earthquake.” In effect, there was no place to go to buy anything. Big supermarket chains are impersonal; employees don’t know their customers. Meanwhile, customers can’t buy anything because neither the cash registers nor the credit card machines are working, because “the system collapsed.” What’s even worse: No one knew when stores were going to open. The poorest of the poor have just enough to eat for one day, maybe the next, and nothing more. “How long was it reasonable for them to wait until all the systems of the major chains were fixed?” he asks.

Government aid arrived on the fourth day; looting didn’t begin until 48 hours after the earthquake. Plasma TVs, shoes, and electric appliances were also stolen. “In reality,” says Garcés, “patience was worn down by the oligopolistic supply system. But given the structural inequality of Chilean society, many also took advantage of an opportunity to ‘pass the check’.” He concludes that a society with less inequality, one that hadn’t destroyed its communal traditions, “would have other resources and skills to deal with the emergency.”

The inhabitants of the Boca Sur neighborhood, on the other side of the Bío Bío River, remained trapped between the river and the sea, since the three bridges that connected them to city of Concepción collapsed.10 I was there several months ago and could tell that if either the river or sea level rose, the entire neighborhood would be submerged. Richard Yañez, a community activist in Boca Sur, confirmed that the situation was chaotic and that residents were isolated. Help arrived on Tuesday, March 2 in Concepción, but “was only delivered in the center of the city, not the outskirts, which have nothing.”

Resorting to the Military

At times of catastrophe, government institutions, public services, and private enterprise often fail. It seems as if there’s a general collapse, to a great extent because the spread of the market economy has eaten away at the fabric of social ties. Relationships of trust and proximity—the relationships in small neighborhood shops where workers took food and paid for it at the end of the month—fell apart when big supermarket chains moved in. Communal spaces, plazas, taverns, and neighborhood festivals have been lost to urban speculation and the privatization of everyday life.

Society has consumed, or is in the process of consuming, the social resources to deal with the serious problems it now faces. In their absence, only one traditional organization remains: the armed forces. And so Chile turned to the armed forces, as did Haiti two months ago and New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Nevertheless, people are starting to create their own self-help mechanisms. On March 2, the Student Federation of the University of Chile convoked a meeting to analyze the situation and coordinate solidarity measures. Some 70 delegates of non-governmental organizations attended. In a few hours 6,000 volunteers were registered; volunteers were selected to go to the most affected regions and form work teams. The University of Concepción prepared to send mobile health units—10 buses with food and water—to the coastal pueblos.11

Among those attending the assembly were public health workers who denounced the government for refusing to send 120 volunteer officials from the union in the northern part of the country to reinforce workers at the Concepción hospital. Tenants from the grass-roots organization Pobladores en Lucha insisted “reconstruction be carried out by residents, not by the real estate and construction businesses responsible for the collapse of many buildings.”12 This was just one of hundreds of grass-roots initiatives.

The emergency has brought to light problems that will have serious consequences for the neoliberal business model. The Foundation Defendemos la Ciudad (Let’s Defend the City), through its president Patricio Herman, urged the state not to neglect its responsibility in cases of faulty construction that produced uninhabitable structures. “Thousands of families have suffered because new and relatively new buildings were deficiently constructed. This is unacceptable; Chile has very strict building codes because we are in a seismic zone. The buildings collapsed because of a chain of negligence involving business professionals and—let’s be clear—because the public sector ignored its regulatory and prosecutorial responsibility.”13

There are families who have spent more than 20 years working hard to pay for defective buildings or buildings that didn’t comply with anti-seismic building regulations. Will the government now send in soldiers to require real estate and construction industry officials to comply with the law, the way they did with the looters?

For Salazar, this is all part of a business earthquake, visible in the massive destruction of buildings, highways, and airports that were poorly constructed by businesses out to “cut corners.” On March 11, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera assumed the presidency of Chile. As several observers have warned, the nation’s reconstruction is an ideal situation for business deals.

Based on his experience as a historian, Salazar believes that the worst may be yet to come and there will be no way to stop social chaos. “There will continue to be enormous discontent and more theft. And if this continues, Piñera will have to resort to the army and begin his government with a state of siege, as Pinochet did.”14

Raúl Zibechi, an analyst with the IRC’s Americas Program, is a member of the editorial board for the weekly magazine Brecha in Montevideo, Uruguay, and a professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina. He is also an adviser to several grassroots organizations.