Chileans search souls as trapped miners, hunger-striking Indians crash bicentennial party

By Michael Warren, AP
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trapped miners force Chileans to re-examine image

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — The survival of 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground and the government’s unblinking effort to pull them out alive gave Chileans reason to be proud as they celebrated their nation’s bicentennial Saturday.

“These 33 miner-heroes, with their iron will, their spirit, their fight, their strength, are an example to all of us of what it means to be Chilean,” Interior Ministry official Cristian Barra said as a flag signed by the miners was raised next to the tent camp where families have held vigil. Another Chilean flag was signed by the families and sent down for the miners to unfurl.

The miners feasted on traditional Chilean meat pies — two each, baked in tubular form to fit through the narrow bore holes to their deep refuge. But they had to make do with sodas because doctors vetoed their request for another national specialty: wine. Rescuers also sent down fuel to power machinery the miners will use to move tons of falling rock as their escape tunnels are widened.

In the afternoon, the government distributed copies of a video from inside the mine showing the miners, many of them dressed in red, singing the national anthem. One broke into an impromptu performance of the “cueca,” a traditional Chilean dance, pretending the flag was his partner as his companions clapped out a rhythm and flashed V for victory signs.

Chile’s can-do ethos, evident in President Sebastian Pinera’s spare-no-expense approach to saving the miners, has brought the country to the threshold of the world’s club of developed nations, with the kind of stable economic growth that Americans and Europeans once took for granted.

But the mine disaster also is forcing Chileans to acknowledge aspects of their society long hidden from view. The miners’ faces — displayed across the pages of Chile’s leading newspapers — reflect lifetimes of scratching out livings in difficult conditions. And Chilean pride about the rescue effort is balanced by frustration that the government hasn’t done more to provide for all of its people.

Indeed, the miners, now stuck for 46 days, aren’t the only marginalized group whose survival has become a national concern during this bicentennial: 34 imprisoned Mapuche Indians are two months into a hunger strike, their latest tactic in a long and sometimes violent campaign to press for land and government resources.

“Chile is successful partly because we have inherited the Mapuche culture” of the nation’s original inhabitants, said Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarometro regional survey firm based in Santiago.

“It’s an austere culture — hard, dry, tenacious, persistent, and all of this has to do with success,” she told The Associated Press.

The miners survived alone for 17 days after 700,000 tons of rock collapsed in the central section of the San Jose gold and copper mine Aug. 5. They kept their wits, washing tiny bits of canned tuna and peaches down with sips of milk every other day to stretch a 48-hour emergency food supply. Above ground, their rescuers never gave up, despite bad maps of the mine that initially frustrated their attempts to reach them by carving narrow bore holes.

The government has refused to estimate the cost of the rescue, which includes three huge drills racing to provide the men with escape routes as quickly as possible. The “Plan C” drill, a towering oil industry machine brought in on 40 trucks, was expected to begin pounding down from this Atacama desert hilltop by Sunday morning. The drilling alone will cost nearly $5 million, meaning the overall bill could reach $10 million or more before the miners see sunlight.

Chile’s largest mining companies are flush with cash, apply modern safety standards and have access to the world’s best technology to extract the minerals that provide about 40 percent of the government’s revenue. But these men toiled in the hardscrabble lower ranks of the industry, in a poorly financed mine already proven to be unsafe, precisely because the risks meant earning slightly better wages, netting up to $19,000 a year.

In celebrating them as heroes, Chile is recognizing a group of people who have lived on the margins of society.

Descendants of Chile’s original inhabitants, who were pushed into the country’s frigid south only to lose that land to timber companies and other wealthy landowners, want similar recognition.

“In this famous bicentennial, the Mapuches don’t have anything to celebrate,” Mapuche leader Manuel Chocori told the AP.

No Chilean government has ever fully recognized the claims of Chile’s original inhabitants, who had resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years before a mix of settlers and Indians declared independence from Spain on Sept. 17, 1810, launching a war they finally won in 1818.

Only 6 percent of Chile’s 17 million people now define themselves as Mapuche in the nation’s census, although the vast majority have some Indian heritage.

While Chileans pride themselves on having Latin America’s strongest democracy — it has suffered only two coups in 200 years — it remains highly centralized. Most power is concentrated in the president, who appoints governors and leaders of huge state-owned enterprises such as the state-owned Codelco mining company.

Chilean society also has an authoritarian streak. Many welcomed — and some still long for — the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who with boots and rifles imposed a free-market model on a country that had been experimenting with socialism.

That model slashed inflation, invited unprecedented foreign investment, dropped protections for Chilean industries and let markets decide prices and salaries. Working people suffered: unemployment reached 39 percent by the time democracy finally returned.

But Pinochet’s leftist successors basically followed the same economic model, and careful management of Chile’s mineral wealth has enabled the country to ride out the global financial crisis, with relatively low debt, unemployment of just 6.5 percent and strong 5.5 percent economic growth expected this year. Chileans’ per capita annual income of $14,000 trails only Argentina in Latin America.

Chile “is a country in good shape, a country that seen from the outside is in very good shape. But the people inside, in Chile, don’t see it this way. We are always complaining,” said author Isabel Allende, the niece of President Salvadore Allende, the leftist leader who died while under siege during Pinochet’s coup.

Some dictatorship-era figures also believe Chile has been on the wrong track.

“This country had huge possibilities of becoming a developed country when the military government ended, with all of its wounds overcome,” retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, the army’s second-in-command under Pinochet, told the AP. “Unfortunately we have only managed to keep the wounds festering.”

A string of post-Pinochet leftist governments ended last year with the election of conservative billionaire Pinera, a hard-driving entrepreneur who pioneered credit cards and built LAN Chile into one of Latin America’s largest airlines.

He has promised to eliminate severe poverty, create 1 million jobs and make Chile “the best country in the world.”

The death of a miner or a hunger-striking Mapuche could stain the image of a president who has staked his presidency on getting the miners out alive, and who said Friday that his government would begin negotiations aimed at improving the Mapuches’ situation by year’s end. He said he would not allow the Indians to die, but hasn’t sought court permission yet to force-feed them.

He doesn’t have much room for error.

“This Mapuche issue is bringing to the surface a series of hidden aspects of our culture, which no one wants to show off,” said Lagos, the poll director. “It will be violent. It will be hard. It will be surprising to those who see Chile differently, as a peaceful country without ethnic problems, because we’ve hidden them.”

Associated Press writers Eva Vergara and Federico Quilodran in Santiago and Vivian Sequera at the San Jose mine contributed to this report.

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