Chile’s pride in orderliness, economy suffers as looters plunder, quake victims wait for help

By Michael Warren, AP
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post-quake chaos, looting wound Chile’s pride

CONCEPCION, Chile — Chile’s president defended herself Tuesday against charges of government incompetence in a disaster that not only shattered lives and property but challenged the nation’s very identity.

A society built on pride in its wealth and orderliness found itself suddenly facing gangs of rioters, a wounded economy and a shaken sense of civic responsibility. A government that sent 15 tons of food and medicine, a search and rescue team and 20 doctors to Haiti after the earthquake there found itself seeking emergency aid from other countries.

In Lota, a former coal mining town of 30,000 along the heavily damaged coast, Mayor Jorge Venegas said Tuesday that a “psychosis” had taken hold.

A gas station went up in flames, gunfire rattled through the night and residents guarded streets against roaming bands of looters, he told Radio Bio Bio. He said 2,000 homes had been destroyed, thousands were living in the streets and people were wielding guns, iron bars and long sticks to protect their possessions.

“It’s urgent that the army reach our city,” Venegas pleaded.

“It’s a collective hysteria,” said Francisco Santa Cruz, 20, an aid worker caring for 56 families in a camp for the newly homeless in San Pedro, across the Bio Bio River from Concepcion, the biggest city in the quake zone.

Like Venegas in Lota, Santa Cruz said he heard gunfire throughout the night.

“They used to call us (Chileans) the jaguars of South America,” he said, using Chilean slang for proud and strong. “But now we know that we’re not even close to that.”

President Michelle Bachelet was on the defensive against a storm of claims that the government’s response to the disaster was a failure.

La Tercera, an influential daily, said the looting and violence showed “incomprehensible weakness and slowness” by authorities. El Mercurio, a conservative publication many consider Chile’s paper of record, called on President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office March 11, to “restore hope” to Chile.

The government on Monday imposed an 8 p.m-to-noon curfew and sent 14,000 troops to Concepcion and surrounding areas to stop widespread looting — after virtually every market in the city had been sacked. On Tuesday the curfew was extended to begin at 6 p.m.

“People probably are always going to feel that we could have done things better,” Bachelet insisted before receiving U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who promised American aid. “But the reality is given the extent (of destruction), it always will be insufficient.”

The death toll rose to 796 Tuesday and aftershocks continued to roll through the region; the stronger ones frightened residents living in temporary shelter.

Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 quake and subsequent tsunami ravaged towns and cities along a 700-kilometer (435-mile) stretch of Chile’s Pacific coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas.

Chileans seemed deeply troubled by what the disaster showed about their government — and themselves. Some looters were people grabbing basic necessities like toilet paper, but many appeared to be well-dressed citizens carting off electronic goods.

Catalina Sandoval, a 22-year-old construction engineering student in Concepcion, said she felt “rage, impotence and disillusion” with the lawlessness.

“I’m shocked,” Sandoval said. “Not only criminals but well-off people are stealing.”

Leonardo Sanhueza lamented in the Ultimas Noticias newspaper a “social disintegration” in the wealthy country that has led some people simply “to look out for themselves — and let the rest eat like dogs.”

Some Chileans were so troubled that even long-held civic beliefs were shaken. Since the bloody dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended 20 years ago, Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks.

But police were completely outnumbered when looting began after the quake, and residents Tuesday cheered an armored troop convoy and the arrival of a military C-130 in Concepcion delivering aid supplies.

The economy also took a severe blow in a nation of 17 million whose industry, negligible inflation and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America.

Booming copper revenues and prudent fiscal policies helped the government reduce poverty from 45 percent in 1990 to 13 percent today, and more than triple per capita annual income to $14,000 in that span.

But a huge wealth gap exists: A study by the World Bank several years ago showed the government spent 1.3 percent of its revenue on the poorest 10 percent of Chileans and 40 percent on the richest 10 percent. Many social commentators have noted the quake exposed anew the plight of Chile’s poor, among the worst affected by the disaster.

President-elect Pinera, a conservative billionaire, campaigned on a promise to grow the economy by 6 percent annually and transform Chile “into the best country in the world.”

Those hopes, however, were tempered by the quake. AIR Worldwide, a Boston-based consulting firm, estimated economic losses could surpass $15 billion (7.9 billion Chilean pesos). About 2 million people were injured, made homeless or suffered other major losses.

Destruction was widespread and food scarce all along the coast — in towns like Talca and Cauquenes, Curico and San Javier.

In Curanipe, the local church served as a morgue. In Cauquenes, people quickly buried their dead because the funeral home had no electricity. Close to 80 percent of Talcahuano’s 180,000 people are homeless, its port destroyed.

International aid has started pouring in.

Clinton said the United States is sending satellite phones, which Chile identified as a high priority, as well as water purification systems, generators and medical equipment. It pledged more help, including a field hospital Clinton said is “ready to go.”

“We have these things in our country, but how can we get them to the people if we don’t have bridges and roads?” said Bachelet. Most aid deliveries were being flown from — and to — airports damaged by the quake; Bachelet has said 230 tons of relief was on its way to Concepcion.

Argentina flew in a C-130 with much of a hospital — including a surgical and intensive care unit, ambulance and laboratory — three water treatment plants and power generation units, the military announced. Five more planeloads of aid were to arrive by Tuesday night.

Brazil said it was sending aid and an army field hospital. Peru said it was sending a hospital, doctors and 15 tons of blankets and tents. China offered $1 million in humanitarian aid. In Geneva, the International Red Cross asked donors for $6.5 million for water, tents and other relief.

The U.N. said Chile had told it the country doesn’t need food or water but rather temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers.

“The government is expecting that these needs will be filled largely through bilateral arrangements, and we need to stay within the parameters of what the country has asked for, and not to send anything that they didn’t ask for,” U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator Catherine Bragg said in New York.

There were small signs of normalcy in Concepcion. The government began distributing food baskets and water, and some gas stations reopened.

Orderly lines formed outside a supermarket — the only one in the city that hadn’t been sacked.

Associated Press writers Federico Quilodran in Santiago, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Peter Prengaman and Bill Cormier contributed to this story.

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