Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism: Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

Posted March 3, 2010

Only a month and a half after a powerful earthquake laid waste to Haiti, the most oppressed country in the western hemisphere, Chile, supposedly Latin America’s ‘most advanced,’ was hit by a even stronger tremor.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, when the country was still deep in sleep, a quake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, 500 times more potent that the one that ravaged Port-au-Prince, rocked the central regions of Chile. The seismic movement occurred miles off the Chile’s coastline and its impact was forcefully felt in an arc reaching the capital Santiago and beyond to the north, Valdivia, where the piers were destroyed, to the South, and as far as Buenos Aires to the east. The seventh (Talca) and eighth (Concepción) regions were particularly hard hit.

Damage from earthquake

After initial reports that seriously underestimated the quake’s devastation, gradually it has become apparent that the country has suffered an enormous social and infrastructural toll. Moreover, the quake has starkly revealed the exclusionary side of Chile’s much touted neoliberal experiment.

Inevitably, as the extent of the destruction is gauged and state’s response is evaluated, comparisons with Haiti have surfaced. In most instances, Chile is pointed to as a model in earthquake preparedness and subsequent relief efforts. Even progressive seismologist Roger Bilham, appearing on Democracy Now, referred to Chile’s handling of the disaster ‘as a tremendous success story.’ He added that ‘earthquake-resistant construction prevails throughout Chile’ and that ‘they have an intelligent government that enforces these regulations.’

Many of the points being made, such as Chile’s more effective regulation around construction, its stronger and more functional state, and its overall higher level of development, are certainly valid. Yet there are at least three differences we should not lose sight of: 1) the epicenter of Haiti’s quake was immediately next to its most populated areas, 2) Chile’s epicenter, besides being further out, was 22 miles beneath the earth’s surface, whereas as Haiti’s was only 5 miles below, and 3) though the earthquake hit Chile in the middle of the night and Haiti’s hit in the late afternoon, Chileans, being accustomed to the drill, ran outside, whereas Haitians, having never experienced an earthquake and their response being conditioned by hurricanes, had the unfortunate urge to run inside their deathtrap homes.

One has to wonder at the outcome if the quake in Chile had been centered right next to and right beneath Santiago’s or Concepción’s poor neighborhoods. Still, as the disparate death tolls suggest (thus far 3000 deaths and missing persons have been reported in the wake of the Chilean quake), Chile undoubtedly fared much better. But beneath the more positive assessment lies a grim reality produced by Chile’s neoliberal model. The extreme free market policies inherited from and pursued vigorously since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship have generated catastrophic vulnerabilities among Chile’s working class and have needlessly aggravated the suffering caused by the earthquake.

Erosion of State Capacity

If the country is no doubt in better shape than Haiti, what the Chilean quake also reveals is that amidst Chile’s glorified economic ‘miracle’, there are deep and wide pockets of Haiti-like conditions. It is estimated that out of a total population of 17 million people, at least one million families have lost their homes. Half a million homes have been completely destroyed. Another one to two million have been seriously damaged. By comparison, it is estimated that the Haitian quake left one million people homeless out of a total population of ten million. To this day in Chile, there is no plan in place to provide these people with proper housing. The government simply has no contingency plans in place to respond. While the state is functional, it has been stripped of its capacity to act in such circumstances after decades of religiously pursuing neoliberal policies.

In fact, president Bachelet’s first appeal to the Chilean people was to ‘be positive’. More recently, president-elect Piñera has pulled a wholly inadequate plan out of his ass. According to reports, his ‘Levantemos Chile’ or ‘Lets Pick Chile Up’ plan relies ‘on the solidarity of the business world’. Since then, relief plans have focused on private donations by way of Sabado Gigante host Don Francisco’s well known telethons and the charity of Chile’s new crop of millionaires. So much for the Chilean state’s much touted seismic preparedness. That the state was caught off guard and in a state of paralysis was demonstrated by the initial almost laughable discussions about whether to declare the affected zones as disaster areas eligible for state resources. Further, the top brass of the armed forces is claiming that it took days to receive orders to mobilize for relief.

The stripping of the social functions of the state is apparent in the failures of the Tsunami detection and alert systems. Though the navy is now claiming that it did indeed activate its alarm system, the fact is that residents of coastal towns received no official warning, much less help evacuating. When the Tsanamis hit a few hours after the quake, they washed away entire fishing and beach communities like Constitución, Curanipe, Pelluhue, and Dichato, and even partially obliterated industrial ports like Talcahuano, where the wharfs have been destroyed and 80% of the 180,000 residents have been left homeless. The people of these towns managed to save themselves only by following their instincts to head for the nearby hills. Even then, thousands remain unaccounted for. In small town of Constitución alone, at least 350 were swallowed by the sea. Thousands of artisanal fishermen have lost their means of subsistence with no safety net to fall back on.

The loss of the state’s regulatory capacity is evident in the damage to newly built middle class high-rise condominiums. Over the past ten years, Chile experienced its own housing boom. Many of the newly constructed buildings were 15-25 story condominiums aimed at young professionals. A walk across Nuñoa (a trendy middle class neighborhood in central Santiago), for instance, makes you feel like you’re in the middle of an inverted Tetris game. They have sprouted like mushrooms. These building are allegedly built to withstand powerful quakes, even exceeding strict construction codes.

Santiago building boom

So far, reports are that they fared well. In his NYT op-ed, ‘Santiago Stands Firm’, architecture professor Sebastián Gray gave the country the highest marks suggesting that our ‘height of civilization’ explains why ‘of the thousands of contemporary mid- to high-rises in Santiago and Concepción, most were able to withstand the quake with only cosmetic damage, if any. Thank the stringent building codes and responsible building practices that have existed here since the devastating earthquakes of 1939 and 1960, which leveled many older structures.’ In his view, the ‘few modern structures [and highway overpasses] that crumbled’ were ‘spectacular exceptions’, that is, the few bad yet unrepresentative rotten apples.

I suspect, however, that this is not quite accurate. One of these brand new buildings toppled over completely in Concepción, killing dozens of residents. The bodies of sixty to 100 people are said to be buried in the rubble; the figure would have been higher, but it had only recently opened and had not reached full occupancy. This building was billed as the height of ‘structural quality and safety’; on February 27 it snapped in two like a matchstick.

A similar two year old building in the Maipu district of the capital collapsed. Another, built by the same company responsible for the Concepción deathtrap, has been quietly vacated by officials in the Nuñoa district. Reports are emerging of other hushed evacuations. The cosmetic damage reported by Gray seems to be widespread and irreparable structural disrepair. In Nuñoa, at least one resident reported that the foundational underground beams had been compressed into ‘S’s’ like putty.

I’m willing to bet this is the case with a number of these new buildings. It’s unconceivable that the construction companies did not cut corners in this unbridled race to erect these buildings. And one can only speculate the degree to which the endemic corruption that characterizes the ruling Concertación political coalition included inspectors and regulators who took bribes to look the other way. It is a well known fact that infrastructure concessions were granted in ways that benefited state brokers who cut profitable deals with contractors. These arrangements favor the pockets of officials over the safety of consumers.

The day after the earthquake, a progressive bishop from Rancagua, a city just south of Santiago, was the lone voice denouncing these corrupt practices: ‘for a few pesos, men have evaded the law and have built buildings in a seismic zone that are not made to withstand earthquakes.’ So far, this phenomenon has received little media attention, though, as if anticipating what might come, the housing minister warned that the government would not hesitate to prosecute companies that violated building codes. I won’t at all be surprised if in the coming weeks scandals start to emerge. It seems ‘the degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country’ lamented by Gray, far from being exceptional, is widespread indeed.

In addition, entire sections of hospitals have collapsed.

Talca’s public hospital is illustrative. In of the neediest cities, the hospital has been forced to operate outdoors. Already suffering a systemic crisis, hospitals such as these—the very ones that the poor depend on—have been put out of commission in spite of having been built in theory to withstand severe quakes. The devastation of hospitals explains why, after days of denial and then ambivalence, the Chilean government is finally pleading for international aid in the form of field hospitals.

Of course, the most vulnerable of the population will probably receive the least assistance from the state. Peruvian immigrants in Santiago, for instance, have been particularly hard hit. In recent years, tens of thousands of Peruvians have migrated to Chile to work as construction workers, restaurant workers, domestic workers, and in the informal market. They basically live in the shadows. Many had settled in the old quarters of Santiago center. These contain the buildings most affected in the capital. I’ve gotten sporadic reports of old brick and adobe buildings collapsing on families. As these people live semi-clandestine lives in Chile, getting an accurate account of the damage they’ve suffered will be difficult. Worse still, they do not have the influence to get the help they need at a time like this.

Proto-Class War?

There are interesting reports of looting coming out of Chile following the quake.

Like a small tsunami, these people, Chile’s working class, are doing what is necessary to obtain the milk, food, diapers, water, medicine, and gas — the fuel everyone relies on for cooking and heating — they need to survive.

And of course, they are being met with repression. Reports of people taking these basic necessities have been accompanied by the obligatory accounts of looters taking advantage of the situation to pillage TVs and appliances. The right-wing (UDI) mayor of Concepción made hysterical declarations about independent shop keepers defending their modest patrimony with shotguns from tumultuous bands of thugs. Another mayor of the region has exhorted cops to shoot to kill. Reminiscent of Katrina, there seems to be a campaign to create a certain political climate. (The underlying message seems to be that poor mothers may, perhaps, have the right to feed their children, but when the rabble tries to enjoy the comforts of modern technology, they are crossing the line.)

It’s not clear how much if any popular organization there is in these attempts to obtain food and confront the police. Though some reported that the looters were ‘more organized’ (than what?), most of it appears pretty spontaneous.

What is clear is that the state is responding with a heavy hand. Even before the troops were deployed, the police, programmed from years of putting down street demonstrations, responded to the crowds by firing tear gas canisters and aiming their high powered water tanks at the looters. Further, and most interesting, it seems that the state decided on this response after meeting with the top supermarket and retail executives. These industry heads demanded and got a meeting with Bachelet and her interior minister, Perez Yoma, a powerful Concertacion cacique, when they saw that people were taking matters into their own hands.

Besides Carabineros, Chile’s national police force, Bachelet decided to send in the armed forces. Troops have been deployed to Concepcion, Temuco and other affected cities and towns as I write this. Another outcome of the meeting was a curfew that first imposed in Concepción from 9pm to 6am, and later extended to other towns and longer hours. Naturally, these measures will be presented as an effort to guarantee the delivery of goods in an orderly fashion. The government has already announced distribution of a basket of basic goods for those that behave.

What the episode makes clear is who calls the shots in Chile. Attention to this issue did not emerge until business forcefully raised its concerns. The state will now take minor steps to distribute some goods to the affected poor. But the main message of its actions was that it immediately stepped up to make sure that the private property of the huge retailers, and their fundamental power to shape the distribution of commodities, would not be threatened even when the goods will probably go bad or be thrown away.

Bringing in the Military

Apparently, the story is more complicated than cops being overwhelmed and then the army being sent at the behest of business leaders, though this is certainly part of it.

Sunday morning, as people woke up in Concepción only one day after the quake, they immediately headed to the new mega-markets (WalMart types) to take advantage of this opportunity to acquire the goods they usually have trouble acquiring. At that time, the Carabineros, the national police force, ALLOWED women to go and get what was needed. I imagine this was the result of two factors: a) their fear of the enraged poor, b) their own popular origins, and c) their sympathetic inability to turn away masses of mothers at a moment like this.

Two things happened at this point. First, things did get out of hand. They were unable to do this in an orderly fashion. When people heard what was happening, they rushed over. Young men in particular started ‘riling things up’, liberally taking and distributing all kinds of goods to those gathered. Second, and more importantly, the retail and supermarket executivess got wind of this unacceptable reality–cops ALLOWING workers to take was they needed!–and it was at this point that they held their meeting with Bachelet, a meeting that is no longer being reported in the news.

Repression of 'looters'

Helped by the sensationalist harangues of Concepcion’s mayor, Bachelet and Perez Yoma at that point acceded to business’ demand to send in the army. At this point, most of the affected towns of the South have been heavily militarized. There are now 11,000 troops in Concepción alone! Their treatment of local residents has been extremely violent and arbitrary. Scenes of soldiers detaining and pointing their guns at workers are reminiscent of the military’s behavior after the 1973 coup. Yet this time, the Socialist Party is squarely behind the repression. Bachelet and other heads of the SP have thrown their full weight behind these measures; indeed, they ordered them!

The New York Times reporting on this is confused (what’s new?).

‘But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of residents that they lacked food and water, eventually settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but not televisions and other electronic goods. Ms. Bachelet announced that the government had reached a deal with supermarket chains to give away food to needy residents. Her aides also called on residents not to hoard gas or food, both of which were being bought up in huge amounts by residents fearful of shortages.’

The ‘settlement’ allowing staples to be taken was the on the ground reality before the meeting. Since then, it’s hard to imagine that the supermarket chains agreed to give away food. By Sunday night, there were 1300-1500 troops on the streets of Concepcion. 2000+ were deployed to the region. By this Monday morning 160+ residents of Concepcion had been arrested for looting. The following day, up to 100 more were arrested. It’s hard to imagine that you would need such a militarization and that so many people would have to be forcefully apprehended if the big supermarkets were giving away food. In fact, I have found no reports of these supermarket chains fulfilling their part of the alleged deal.

The repressive logic of the militarization has even hampered rescue efforts. As the NYT reported, ‘firefighters in Concepcion were about to lower a rescuer deep into the rubble when the scent of tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to interrupt their efforts.’ Warding off looters obviously took priority over saving lives! Yet, as the high numbers of detainees on Tuesday suggests, the looters did not back down without first making their point. When the state’s hardware prevented them from ‘redistributing’ goods from the megastores, they first set them ablaze before relinquishing the streets.

Part of the motivation of some of the looters was a shapeless class rage aimed precisely at emptying these stores. People know that they, their families and their neighbors don’t have access to this stuff, so the idea for a minority of the looters is to take everything (or at least leave nothing), even if they can’t directly consume it all. Better to have the stuff in their control, in their neighborhoods, rather than on the shelves of closed supermarkets.

(For more pictures of the looting, repression check out here and here.

Targeting the Point of Consumption

The earthquake exposed a basic reality of today’s Chile. There are the millions of working people who have been systematically excluded from/by the current development model. What you see in the faces of the thousands of people looting is desperation to secure the goods needed for daily survival. Vast chunks of Chile’s working class live day to day in the most precarious conditions. “People have gone days without eating,” said Orlando Salazar, one of the looters at the supermarket. “The only option is to come here and get stuff for ourselves.” He said this only 24 hours after the quake.

His exaggeration reflected more than the hyperbole that these calamities evoke; workers in Concepción, and throughout Chile, experience chronic deprivation. Ironically, the quake offered them the opportunity to obtain the food, water, etc., which under normal circumstances they are not sure to come by. The quake has thus revealed the daily and basic material uncertainty that neoliberalism has produced for large swaths of the working class in Chile.

Whereas popular attempts by Haitians to cover their basic necessities (which were also met with guns) represented a collective sense of abandonment and were organized to address needs communally, in Chile the looting reflects an paroxysmal reaction by desperate workers grabbing a small piece of what one of the world’s most unequal societies denies them on a daily basis. Moreover, as these workers who survive in the informal economy have at best a precarious foothold in formal labor markets, their grievances are far more likely to explode against sites of consumption and distribution rather than at the point of production. At the same time, the neoliberal state will increasingly respond to the exacerbation of social problems through the barrel of the gun.

A return to class politics?

A final question involves what political developments we might expect following the earthquake. Here are very brief comments. For one, I think that the disaster will tend to bolster the current regime in Chile. The two competing alliances will confront this situation with common language and policies. This is clear in their shared desire for and appreciation of the militarized response. This will tend to reinforce their power-sharing arrangements and lock in their hold on governing institutions.

On the other side of the political ledger, unfortunately, things are not too encouraging. Unlike in Haiti, there are no strong movements and popular organizations that we can expect to be reactivated and to make coherent and defensible demands on the state. Instead, we might see the initial building blocks of new movements as people organize to address their basic needs and to respond to the state’s inefficacy and/or class bias in reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately the radical left is so weakened, that they will be unable to play a very important and constructive role when and if these fights emerge. Given this layout of political forces, it’s hard to imagine that the very real class rage that exists in Chile will be channeled into a coherent and purposeful radical class agenda.

But, on a more promising note, people may be more open to independent class politics as they directly experience the state’s blatant anti-popular and exclusionary response to the earthquake. The repression of ordinary folks trying to feed their families alone is definitely going to piss more than a few off. As their daily routines are disrupted, they will be thrust into new struggles and be open to new analyses. Already there are signs that people are turning to self-organization. As one Santiago resident warned: ‘Soon, people are going to start organizing and demanding that [officials] fulfill the many promises they have made on television and radio’.

There could be a repeat of the popular response to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, when people, left to fend for themselves, organized relief and reconstruction efforts on a community and neighborhood basis. This self-activity of workers and the urban poor was one of the factors that fed into the mass mobilizations and insurgent movements that exploded during the ensuing decade. If the small and till now marginal left can step in and provide a bit of direction to incipient post-earthquake organizing efforts in Chile, there may be promising baby steps in the right direction.


5 responses to “Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism: Deep Class Faultlines Exposed”

  1. Chilean Avatar

    The 2010 Earthquake (8.8) demonstrated that Chile was not prepared.

    The 2014 Earthquake (8.2) demonstrated that the country learned the lessons and did it the right way this time: 6 casualties -most due to heart attacks, and the damage to property ridiculously small for a 8.2 earthquake.

    The tsunami alerts become viral on the social media, the cellphone networks worked just fine, and the operators allowed free calls to everyone in the affected areas, so the whole country was able to get in touch with their friends and relatives in the affected cities.

    The Gov and Navy reacted quickly: 1 millon people evacuated to safe areas across 2500 miles of coast line, all in just 1 hour.

  2. Dianne Avatar

    I’m writing this partly in response to the previous post, “I was thinking that Chile.” I grew up in San Francisco, where there are earthquakes and wind almost all the time. I think that major damage occurs when a) building codes are not strictly enforced, b) when the builders have built in dangerous areas or c) when buildings/bridges are not kept up. It seems to me the point of the original blog was to point out how Chile’s infrastructure and building codes had been allowed to deteriorate under the “market rules” of the Pinochet regime.

    The United States has let its infrastructure fall into great disrepair! Part of putting people back to work should be prioritizing infrastructure–as well as developing renewable energy and mass transportation.

  3. Chloe Avatar

    Thanks for the article – this is the best account I’ve read so far.

    Here’s a NY Times article about a poll suggesting that 72 percent of Chileans think that their government responded too late and inefficiently to the quake.

  4. giselda Avatar

    I’ve been looking for an article like this since the quake, thanks.

  5. Isaac Avatar

    Here’s a statement from the Revolutionary Left Movement in Chile, posted on

    – – – – – – – – – – –

    The earthquake revealed in the most brutal manner the chains of interests connected with those who are part of the dominant economic and political regime. Although in this moment we believe what is most needed is concrete actions, small though they may be, of solidarity with the families and communities affected by the earthquake, we also consider it necessary to point out the following:

    1. The old government-constructed highways and bridges resisted the quake. The new highways in the capital, no. The highways that were privatized under the Coalition governments [center-left coalition that has won every election since 1988], which were propagandized as public-private investment, did not stand up to any single seismic movement and are destroyed. In spite of millions in government subsidies, in spite of contracts, in spite of the daily fees from users, all the overpasses, bridges, pedestrian passages have come down, killing people and injuring many more. …

    2. The Christian Democracy, from its control of the Ministry of Housing, left behind so much scandal and corruption in building low-cost housing that the Coalition ended up privatizing the low-cost housing program. Now, with the earthquake, people are being evicted in different parts of the country because their homes are dangerous. What is appearing are the consequences of the speculative fever in new housing construction, directly and indirectly subsidized by government programs, which have enriched well-known figures in the Coalition and the right wing: Entire middle-class housing complexes are at the point of collapsing, as did the 15-story apartment house in Concepción, killing or trapping more than 100 of its residents. Under capitalism, the business of real estate is not constructing homes but accumulating capital, which makes it worthwhile to lower the quality of construction, lower the quality of the materials, falsify technical reports and bribe inspectors.

    3. Major government institutions have functioned slowly and poorly. The Hydrographic Services of the Armed Forces has committed criminal negligence in not knowing how to interpret its own instruments. It sent incorrect information to the National Emergency Office with respect to issuing a tsunami alert. This resulted in a delay of 24 hours before the government recognized that a tsunami was hitting the coasts of Constitución, Iloca, Pelluhue, Curanipe, Talcahuano, Concepción, Contulmo, Juan Fernández, etc. It left defenseless the coastal and island populations of our country, who were the hardest hit by this catastrophe in terms of injuries, deaths, disappearances and other casualties. … As a result of a lack of coordination between the central government and state institutions, large parts of the country are completely isolated, without water, without electricity, without food. … In spite of the financial resources, the help is not reaching where it should reach: the people.

    4. As time went by, the earthquake finally showed who it was really affecting … the poor. In the Bio Bio region, one of the poorest in the country, where unemployment is 10.4 percent and where the majority who work live from day to day, there is no drinkable water, no electricity, no food, many are unable to return home and are outside without overcoats. The speculators in misery are charging 3,500 pesos (approximately $7) for a kilo of bread and 1,000 pesos (approximately $2) for a quart of water. The people have broken through the barriers into the supermarkets to obtain what they need to live or to sell or exchange with others: water, milk, diapers, flour, food. … It is the women who began the movement, as often in our history, for their children and families. Although some criminal gangs have turned up to take advantage of the desperate situation of the people, the reality is evident: help from the government is not arriving or is arriving in insufficient quantities to meet the needs of the people. The people have not hurt small business owners — they went against the large supermarkets and distributors like Líder y Santa Isabel. …

    5. The people are turning to direct action to resolve their vital needs. Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, the mayor of Concepción, from the earliest moment called for military intervention, as did the president elect, Sebastián Piñera. The directors of the supermarkets (including D&S Wal-Mart and Jumbo) went directly to the Presidential Palace. Almost magically, the government declared a State of Catastrophe, which is a form of martial law that allows for the suspension of constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights, without needing Congressional approval. The Minister of Defense announced he was mobilizing 10,000 soldiers.

    Those logistical resources that for more than 12 hours were not used to help the earthquake victims, were freed to protect the interests of management and of the “order” inside the center of Concepción city. Not one soldier was sent to defend the little owned by the poor … or to repress the speculators.

    The [Michelle] Bachelet government in this way not only ended up as the most repressive of all the Coalition governments, not only ended up being the government that facilitated the return of the right wing to office, but also ended up handing over the Maule and Bio Bio regions over to the military and imposing a curfew, for the first time since the beginning of the transition to a restricted democracy, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

    We in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left are completely in agreement with the necessity, legitimacy and justice in the people’s opening the doors of the supermarkets and distribution centers to get their basic necessities that can contribute to alleviating in some way the effects of the earthquake that our country has suffered. Where our members can be an active part of this process, they should join in as quickly as possible. …

    [The soldiers cannot bring order to the poor neighborhoods,] because they have arrived once again to protect only the interests of the ruling classes and “public order” of the masters of power and wealth.

    This is a task that the neighborhoods themselves must take on. For this, we call upon the left revolutionary organizations to actively participate in the organization of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the earthquake and prepare themselves to confront the lack of basic necessities that are beginning to come to light.

    We call on the revolutionary organizations and the totality of the left organizations to defend the population, to combat speculation with the people’s necessities and the attempt of criminal gangs to take advantage of the situation.

    We call on the revolutionary organizations and the totality of the left organizations to contribute, to the extent of their capabilities, to raising an emergency struggle platform that will unite struggles and demands representing a broad sector of workers and community members.

    Facing the lack of support from the bourgeois government, people to the streets!


    Revolutionaries to the front ranks to gather and distribute food, water and clothing!

    The people advance through struggle!

    Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) of Chile
    Feb. 28, 2010