Chile: Earthquake Reveals Social Inequalities

The February 27 earthquake in Chile left more than 2 million displaced, at least 497 confirmed deaths [es], and an estimated US$30 billion in damage. However, the lawlessness that ensued after the quake also left Chileans with a moral question: Is Chilean society a just one?

After the quake hit, a majority of Chileans helped others, assisted their neighbors in need, shared their food surpluses, and donated money in unprecedented ways. Nevertheless, a minority, however small, looted non-essentials, robbed homes, and intentionally set fire to department stores, despite the fact that the Chilean government allowed people to take essentials, such as milk, baby formula, bread, and flour.

Photo of empty supermarket in Concepción by heedmane and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo of empty supermarket in Concepción by heedmane and used under a Creative Commons license.

Chilean TV stations brought this reality to the homes of millions in a fairly accurate fashion [es], and so Chileans saw how some helped themselves to plasma TVs, refrigerators, and DVD players. The images of crime and looting, and especially the looting of non-essentials, began a national debate about existing social and economic inequalities in Chile.

In an article titled “What type of wood are we made of? [es],” Ricardo Carbone, a blogger, professor, and Director of the Center for Social Reflection and Action [es] at Alberto Hurtado University, argues that the quake exposed major social problems, and that it brought down the facades and appearances of Chilean society. Here, Carbone refers to the facades of people who looted non-essentials and worsened an already difficult situation:

…al igual que en los edificios que cayeron, la fachada era de ciudadanos bien formados y conectados con el mundo y el consumo, pero el interior no estaba soportado por valores sólidos ni principios fuertes. Rápidamente y ante la primera dificultad corrieron a tomar lo que pudieron.

…like the fallen buildings, the facade [of Chileans] was one of well-educated citizens that were connected with the world and consumerism, but their interior was not held by solid values or strong principles. Swiftly, and at the first sign of trouble, they hurried to take what they could.

The blogger exhorts Chileans to not only rebuild their infrastructure, but also to reinforce values that would create a better, more inclusive society. He also asked readers:

¿podemos esperar algo distinto en un sistema que genera segmentación y exclusión social?, ¿es el producto de una sociedad que obliga a competir y arreglárselas solo?

Can we expect something different in a system that generates segregation and social exclusion? Is it a product of a society that forces competition and to fix things oneself?

Most readers of this blog post agreed with the notion that Chile needs to do a lot of groundwork in education and the inculcation of values. One such reader was Alejandra Muñoz:

Se nos rompio la burbuja y duele ver la verdad. Ahora hay que entenderla, asumirla y trabajar por recontruir nuestros edificios y nuestra sociedad. Se puede perdonar, pero no podemos olvidar lo que ha pasado, ya que habra una proxima vez y no nos puede pillar sin aprender de lo errores.

Our bubble burst and the truth hurts. Now we ought to understand it, accept it and work for the reconstruction of our buildings and society. We can forgive, but we cannot forget what has happened, for there will be a next time and it cannot catch us without learning from our errors.

Though most Chileans agree that the public education system has not succeeded at providing equal opportunities to all Chileans, the looting of non-essentials could not have only been caused by a lack of strong “good values.”

Coyuntura Política [es], a Chilean blog, published the article The Earthquake and the Fractures of Chile by José Aylwin , Co-director of Observario Ciudadano [es], a Chilean human rights nonprofit located in Araucanía region. With regard to the looting of non-essentials, Aylwin writes:

Tales saqueos, al menos en algunos casos, encuentran su explicación en la percepción de injusticia que existe en sectores de la población que, en momentos de emergencia como este, consideran válido vaciar los estantes de las grandes tiendas y supermercados que, con el aval del estado, han acumulado riquezas a sus expensas, mientras ellos permanecen empobrecidos.

These lootings, at least in some cases, are explained by the perception of injustice that exists in segments of the population that, in moments of emergency such as this one, consider it legitimate to empty the shelves of superstores and supermarkets that, with the backing of the State, have accumulated wealth at their expense, while they remain poor.

In the article Collateral Damage [es], Patricio Navia, a blogger and professor, explains that in similar natural disasters in other countries, disorder has occurred too. To him, the fault lies with the government:

De haber actuado en consecuencia con el discurso de la normalidad democrática y asumiendo como realidad las repetidas arengas sobre el buen funcionamiento de nuestras instituciones, Michelle Bachelet hubiera tomado las medidas necesarias- incluido el envío de tropas a las zonas afectadas- para asegurar la paz y el orden … mucho antes de que las imágenes de saqueos y pillajes se hayan convertido en parte dolorosa -y evitable- de esta tragedia que enluta al país en su bicentenario.

Had Michelle Bachelet acted in accordance with the rhetoric about the democratic normalcy, and assumed as reality the repeated passionate speeches about the correct functioning of our institutions, she would have taken the necessary measures, including the deployment of troops to the affected areas, in order to ensure peace and order … long before the images of looting and pillage became a painful and preventable part of this tragedy that cast a shadow on our country in its bicentennial anniversary.

Video by YouTube user IORITER1 taken in Concepción:

In the blog Humanism and Connectivity [es], Andrés Schuschny posted an article titled Earthquake [es]. He describes the looting as follows:

Es terrible como una catástrofe natural desenmascara el rostro de la desigualdad de un país cuyos dirigentes no quieren asumirla. Porque, por ejemplo, si el 10% de los ingresos del cobre se hubieran, hace años, destinado a la educación pública y los servicios sociales (deudas siempre pendientes en la región) y no a incrementar los presupuestos militares, las compras de armamento sofisticado y el pasaporte a vidas de lujo por parte de los militares de alto rango, tal vez otra sería la historia y los “comunicadores” del sistema no estarían ahora refiriéndose “al LUMPEN” como una caterba de extraterrestres desbocados que afloran sin razón.

It is terrible how a natural catastrophe unmasks the face of inequality in a country whose officials refuse to acknowledge it. Because, for example, if 10% of copper revenues had been, long ago, destined to public education and social services (debts always outstanding in the region) and not to increase military budgets, the purchase of sophisticated weaponry, and a passport to a life of luxury for high-rank militiamen, maybe history would be different and the “communicators” of the system would not be referring to the “LUMPEN” (lowest social group) as a horde of loose aliens that surfaced with no reason.

Chile, with a prosperous and growing economy in the past decades, is considered to be a country with “high human development” by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Nonetheless, this economic growth is somewhat tainted by the country’s income inequality. The data in the UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2009 (.pdf format) shows that out of 147 countries with an available Gini coefficient (measure used to calculate income inequality), Chile ranks 124, despite the fact that it is ranked number 44 in terms of human development.

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