Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Chile’s woes

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The Chilean government has so far confirmed that 795 people are confirmed dead following Saturday’s earthquake, and two million have been made homeless. More have been killed and made homeless by the following tsunami. However, our media coverage always gets round to talking about looting, just as it did in Haïti and New Orleans. Focusing on looting is demeaning to the people who are caught up in the crisis, many of whom have lost homes and livelihoods. If disaster should strike this leafy borough of West London, I would not expect orderly queues outside of Waitrose either.

Looting is theft whatever the situation, but entirely forgiveable given this situation. However, in the city of Concepción, population 500,000, the Chilean army has deployed 7000 soldiers to prevent looting and protect property. It strikes me as a peculiar prioritisation to use military resources for property protection rather than humanitarian assistance. To underline the perverse decision to prioritise stuff over people, the army shot and killed a citizen two nights ago. Socialists often describe the military as primarily mobilised in defence of property rather than human life, and this is an example of such an abuse of state force under the guise of ‘rule of law’. Read David Osler’s article for more on this.

As with much of South America, there is a massive class divide in Chilean society. Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile by a narrow margin in 1970 and started to implement a socialist programme. Throughout his short presidency he was roundly opposed by the political right and the propertied class. Of course the US felt it necessary to assist the military coup that ended his presidency and his life, largely in support of its business interests in Chile. This lead to the dictatorship of Pinochet, Thatcher’s old friend, who presided over the mass murder of opponents.

Since 1990, Chile has had democratic government by centre-left coalition governments. Although Pinochet is gone, his ghost still haunts Chile, and no government of the last two decades has effectively drawn a line under the era of military dictatorship, and much of the legislation of that period remains in place. The failure of unity among parties of the left in Chile has been one reason for this inactivity, and was the main reason for the election of Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing president since the dictatorship. Piñera is no Pinochet, but more of a Berlusconi, as a media tycoon and billionaire. His agenda is pro-Colombian and the further deregulation of private interest in Chile’s mining industry, the privatisation of the the nation’s mineral wealth.

The ordinary people of Chile, whether directly affected by this last week’s disasters or not, have a difficult future ahead of them. The poor will continue to get poorer, while the rich benefit from increasingly deregulated labour and privatisation. The deployment of the army to protect property rather than assist in relief even before Piñera is sworn in as new president does not bode well.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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