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The Politics of Disaster Relief in Chile

Arriving in Chile this year for our annual visit, I began immediately to ask family and friends how the reconstruction was going a year after the terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit the central coast of Chile on February 27, 2010. I perused the press to see what was being reported. My first impression was that at least in Santiago, reconstruction did not seem to be much of an issue. People told me “Things are getting better”, “Reconstruction is slow, but it has only been a year”. I was disappointed to sense relative indifference in the views of most of the people I spoke with, but after all, since Chile’s big quake their attention had understandably shifted to the more satisfying miraculous rescue of the 33 trapped miners in the north near Copiapo. Also, the disastrous quake and tsunami had just occurred in Japan as we arrived in Chile, the effects of which were now filling the front pages of the papers.

So, to find more information on the recovery, I accepted an invitation from the Director of the Harvard University David Rockefeller Center, in Santiago, and attended a one-day meeting of Harvard faculty and representatives of Chilean governmental and academic institutions involved in earthquake response and reconstruction. The academics presented very interesting analyses, proposals and programs to address institutional shortcomings in the government’s and communities’ responses to the quake and the tsunami. Sociologists and health experts from Harvard presented very impressive plans for affected communities to take their own recovery and future in their own hands and proceed to rebuild their even in the absence of the desired level of support from government organizations. Much of the Harvard experience on this subject was gained working on Katrina recovery on the Gulf Coast of the US, which does seem to present enough similarities to suggest lessons relevant to Chile. Everyone agreed how essential it is to rebuild the trust in institutions responsible for early warning and first response in disaster situations like what Chile experienced. All very interesting, and all quite practical.

A representative of the Ministry of Housing and Urbanization (MINVU) presented details from the “Plan de Reconstruccion MINVU”, developed in August 2010 (and updated in January 2011) based on the precept that “It is impossible to pretend that the Government will reconstruct everything, or provide directives from a centralized plan in Santiago on the way reconstruction should take place; it must be the same affected communities, along with a large infusion of assistance and protection of the State, that will determine what paths they take for their own reconstruction”. It is an impressive plan, which you can see on the MINVU website, www.minvu.cl. Just a few months after the disaster, this very comprehensive plan has been put together with the important underlying premise that not only would the most affected areas be rebuilt, but the rebuilding would produce better and safer facilities. This approach, of course, takes longer and costs more than simply replacing what was destroyed, a reality that seems to have escaped many critics of the government’s performance.

The MINVU plan is impressive, and the MINVU presenter was extremely upbeat and optimistic about its ultimate implementation. (This is an important point, because it is not uncommon that Chilean organizations produce very sophisticated and technically high quality plans, only to come up short in the actual on-the-ground implementation.)

However, I was really attracted to a passionate presentation in the Harvard seminar by Mario Waissbluth, Director of the Centro de Sistemas Publicos, Universidad de Chile, who stated outright that as long as Chile continues to operate in an extremely centralized way, and increasingly so, attempts to prepare better systems for disaster preparedness, response and recovery will be for naught. Without significant empowerment at the local level throughout the length of Chile (and especially because of the length of Chile), the modernization of disaster preparedness and response will not happen as fast or as completely as it should. Waissbluth cited several cases that manifest the problem of extreme centralization of decision-making: Unsatisfactory response and still unresolved rebuilding or relocation of Chaiten, the village destroyed by a volcanic eruption in Aysen in 2008; Failure of the municipalization of the public education system due to serious understaffing of schools at that level; and the Curepto Hospital scandal in 2007 where a new hospital was allowed to be dedicated by President Bachelet and opened for patients without installing a whole series of basic and necessary equipment. He claims these problems stem directly from the fact that Regional institutions are weaker and staffed with less-trained and less-prepared employees than is the case with their sister offices in Santiago. These shortcomings are compounded by the fact that Ministry offices in the regions are not coordinated either with their central offices in Santiago or with each other in the same region, due to weak leadership in the regions and low priority and a paucity of resources targeted on the modernization of regional capabilities.

Waissbluth has written a lot about “La Economia Politica de la Descentralizacion en Chile”. He is a good source if you want to dig deeper into this subject. Decentralization “plans” have been around in Chile at least since the mid-1970s. It was then that the Pinochet government established the Regions of the Country, and announced a very impressive plan to move resources, authority, and decision making to the Regions. Not much happened then, or since. This subject has always seemed to me to be one of those good news/bad news things. The good news is that if Chile were to decentralize their economy, their educational and employment opportunities, the authorities to develop, build, and regulate more aspects of their lives, Chile would be stronger. The bad news? They probably aren’t going to do it.

What Harvard is doing in Chile, many other institutions from all over the world are also doing, to contribute to Chile’s immediate recovery. Some are assisting the Chileans look ahead and rebuild a better future. Some have fielded small, specific research and field activities, demonstrations that will hopefully expand in scope as they are proven to work. These specific demonstration and field research projects are in themselves valuable, but it seems to me that big policy changes are needed in Chile that can affect disaster preparedness and response on a large scale across the country. An institution like Harvard can and should use the influence it has to promote transformational public policy changes. Making a strong case for decentralization of public sector authorities and resources in Chile could be a huge contribution to Chile’s overall development. Harvard not only has its renowned brand as leverage, but many of the Officials in this Chilean government have studied at Harvard and maintain connections with that prestigious institution, giving this US institution a unique entry point to make a difference.

Even though the public in Santiago did not seem too interested in the reconstruction of earthquake damage, it was obvious from my perch in Santiago, that earthquake and tsunami response and reconstruction were, in fact, at the top of the politicians list of priorities. The opposition members in Congress were fast and furiously looking for reasons to accuse members of the governing coalition of incompetence and corruption in managing the reconstruction program. The opposition had been stirred up by the long and contentious process recently completed to obtain approval from Congress for the special package of reconstruction funding. So they focused on questionable actions and controversial statements made by the hard charging, swashbuckling “Intendente” of Bio Bio Region, based in Concepcion, and by the time I had left Chile in mid-April, she had been forced from office. Still licking her wounds, she and her supporters were figuring out how to recover and return to the fray, possibly as a candidate for Senator in the next election. She had been terribly aggressive in her criticism of the prior government’s and her predecessor’s actions in response to the disaster, right from the day she was appointed to her position by President Pinera. In one short year, she has fallen victim to the same accusations she had leveled against others.

Later the same month, the Minister of MINVU (who authored the impressive plan described above) resigned in a rain of accusations over her performance. Her situation was not helped when El Mercurio reported that as of the end of March, 13 months after the destruction, only 3,000 permanent housing units had been built, out of the planned 60,000 to be constructed on sites owned by victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Sure, there are reasons for the delays, like sorting out legal titles of land, processing subsidy payments for new homes and upgrading coastal zoning and building standards to avoid a repeat of tsunami destruction. But, progress this slow rightfully is drawing criticism and public pressure on the government to perform better. After all, this is an administration that came into power in part due to their purported ability to “get things done”. There is an interesting set of pictures on page 130 of the MINVU plan mentioned above: the first is a photo of the Nataly Gillmore family receiving reconstruction program subsidy number 100,000 in December of 2010 accompanied by President Pinera, the Intendente of Bio Bio, and the Minister of Housing. The second picture shows the Gillmore family in front of their new home in Cobquecura, just a month later, standing alone with no officials present. Someone seems to have been clairvoyant in orchestrating the second picture, for so shortly after the picture was taken; two of the three officials were already gone from their positions. The third, President Pinera, well, he will probably stay around for awhile longer.

Politics in Chile occasionally looks a lot like politics in the US. Unfortunately, unconditional, mindless partisanship replaces rational thought and decision making in Chile also. This debilitating partisanship led some congressional members of the opposition to criticize harshly Pinera’s decision to put out a fairly aggressive tsunami warning for the Chilean coastal towns and cities after the earthquake in Japan. They suggested he was playing politics by hyping the impending danger and unnecessarily alarming the population in a cynical attempt to convince Chileans (to his political benefit), that his administration’s approach to vigilance and disaster preparedness was going to be superior in comparison to the faulty tsunami alarm process back in February 2010 under President Bachelet. These criticisms of Pinera’s warning were eventually somewhat muted when it turned out that some coastal areas, Dichato among them, did flood considerably as a result of the Japan earthquake (so did coastal areas in California). Not what most people would call a “tsunami”, but flooding that warranted limited evacuation nonetheless.

A Chilean friend a long time ago introduced me to the Chilean term “chaqueteo”. The term is used to depict the action of switching sides on an issue easily (literally, quickly turning your reversible jacket around, or putting it on, taking it off, depending upon what seems most acceptable in the moment). In this case, first criticize Bachelet for not giving the Tsunami warning, and then criticize Pinera for giving a warning. “Chaqueteros” abound…

But sometimes, notably, politics in Chile it is different. Very soon after the disaster in Chile in late February 2010, the head of the Chilean disaster relief organization ONEMI, was fired by outgoing President Bachelet. It is pretty clear that she and others responsible for being on top of the public warning and information systems in a natural disaster did not do their job on February 27, 2010. Nor had they done their job prior to this event, to prepare the country and its citizens for an eventual catastrophe like the earthquake and tsunami. So, she was fired. Distinct from the notorious George Bush “Good job, Brownie” moment during the Katrina debacle, in Chile there was no “Good job, Carmencita!!” moment; she was just fired!

Now, a year later, a series of investigations are being held to determine just what is going on now with the reconstruction (leading to the two resignations mentioned earlier), and what actually happened at the moment of the disaster at 3:34 AM on February 27, 2010. In part these investigations are necessary for healthy learning and growing, but also because there are pending accusations and lawsuits linked to lives and property lost possibly as a result of direct actions taken or not taken by authorities at the time.

Ex-President Bachelet has at least once returned to Chile to be questioned by a public prosecutor who is investigating the deaths of 156 Chileans who died in the tsunami on that fateful day. And all the officials, civilian and military, involved are also being questioned, and their testimony is or will be reported publicly. We shall follow this to see how it evolves, but the political process will surely prove what one eloquent Harvard professor stated in the seminar I attended in Santiago, to the effect that “We are never satisfied with a response to a disaster, because it is, after all, a disaster”. The question is, can the political process in Chile get beyond partisan recriminations and posturing, to instead address the challenge of turning dissatisfaction onto healthy learning and growing.

I now realized, however, after several days of searching for information on the recovery process in Chile, that at this point what I really needed to do was to get out of Santiago, to go see for myself what was going on in Concepcion, Dichato, Loanco, Chanco, Pelluhue, Curanipe, and Constitucion. These were places I visited just prior to the quake, just after the disaster, and again most recently in September 2010. So, with my friend Gerry (Flick, my usual fact-finding partner decided to spend his vacation on the Gulf coast of the US, fishing and partying, instead of his usual escape to Chile) we traveled south to first visit an old friend in Arauco (see prior posting, NAYA), and then do some earthquake/tsunami reconstruction fact finding and observation. That report follows soon, I promise, in the next posting on this Blog.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.

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