33 miners, one country, and one president- the rescue reality show

by anekdotales

when one of the 33 miners rescued on the 12th of october finished the new york marathon he thrusted the spectacle of the miners’ rescue back into the media. the rescue was one the most watched events in history, ranking 5th in a list of the most followed web events. there were more people plugged in to the miners’ rescue than those that tuned in for man’s first steps on the moon.  and after spending nearly three months more than 700 meters below ground, perhaps its no surprise that the lost miners were received with such a media spectacle.  however this writer can’t help but be struck by the way in which these miners’ plight and rescue was managed, manipulated, and exploited by chile’s president sebastian piñera.  the president has not only used the spectacle to launch himself into the international political economy, but also to deflect national and international media attention from domestic problems- a failing economy in the wake of the earthquake and tsunamis, an increasingly violent response to neo-liberalism, and the military occupation of traditional mapuche territory.  these issues if not resolved threaten the stability of the Chilean state.

mining in chile produces nearly 49% of the country’s export and almost 35% of the world’s copper production. during pinochet the entire industry was effectively privatized and the copper was exported wholesale to the rest of the world.  international mining companies enjoyed a truly neo-liberal economy.  tax exemptions established during the dictatorship together with the utter in-existence of labor regulations made the country’s mining industry incredibly profitable for multinational mining companies.  according to most accounts nothing has changed.

373 miners have died in mining accidents in the last decade and more than thirty have died this year.  the san josé mine that collapsed on the 5th of august had been shut down due to security concerns in 2006, then reopened  and closed again in 2007.  there is speculation that the mine was permanently reopened in 2008 only after mounting political pressure- obviously security doubts remained.  in the weeks leading up to the collapse, miners had complained multiple times of strange sounds and rock movement.  but their concerns fell on deaf ears.  in the beginning of the rescue effort 200 miners held a protest near the mine entrance, denouncing the company for lack of safety standards and withholding their salaries.   and even today after the miners’ rescue the company responsible for the san josé mine continues to deny culpability, and some argue executives have begun moving their capital out of the country in an attempt to avoid paying compensation.

when the rockburst collapsed various parts of the mine, most thought the men had been lost.  17 days passed before communication with the trapped miners was reestablished. but news of the contact wasn’t made public until piñera could reach the mine to talk to the miners himself.  before the mine collapse pinera was criticized for his government’s slow and sometimes confusing response to the earthquake.  his popular image was still the cut-throat capitalist he’d worked so hard to nurture, chile’s wealthiest man before his election.  but the president was reincarnated with this new tragedy, recasting himself as the benevolent, reassuring father figure.  the president threw all of his media might at the rescue.  all of the major channels, including pinera’s own chilevision, gave the rescue effort unprecedented 24 hour coverage. the Chilean and world public watched glued to their televisions and computers waiting for updates on the miners’ situation.  it was a regular telenovela (colombian soap operas) complete with estranged love affairs and celebrity cameos.  to her horror, one miners’ wives found her husband’s lover at a vigil. and the uruguayan survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the andes, that would later be the basis for the hit film “alive”, made an on location appearance in support of the miners. rumors of a similar movie in the works are already spreading. piñera prepared a team of press consultants to debrief the miners as soon as they’d been returned to the surface. in some cases even before the miners greeted their family.  and in obvious exploitation of the heightened press coverage various companies strew their logos across the mine, branding themselves in supposed altruism.  to sum it up, the miners’ rescue was the largest reality show ever broadcasted.

in the chaotic context of a country reeling from the global financial meltdown and a  month of earthquakes and tsunamis, Piñera found solace in the image he’d created of the miners’ rescue.   in both the international and national media it was as if the miners had become personalizations of the country’s year of tragedy.  effectively he’d created a dizzying narrative of national hope, perseverance. a narrative he’d use strategically not just playing the role of the miners’ savior, but the nation’s too.  and with the miners’ successful rescue it seemed he’d self fulfilled his own prophecy. at least that was what one was led to believe, yet the chilean reality is far more complex, conflictive and active than the narrative pinera and his political machine have developed.

increasing over the last decade santiago, and various other chilean cities have  repeatedly been the scenes of street battles between the police and anti-capitalists, students, and mapuche.  and over the course of the last 5 years bombings of banks, police infrastructure, and multinationals have become common place in the capital.  so much so that “el caso bombas” (how the media and government refers to the re-accuring attacks)  has become part of everyday conversation.

the government’s response to radical social movements continues the traditions of pinochet. it has been violent, theatrical, and incoherent.  for lack of any real evidence and out of fear of appearing incompetent the police have opted for the spectacle of heavily armed swat teams raiding squats and supposed radicals homes. some of the detained are inevitably released in short order, and the remaining are tried in military tribunals where the prosecution can use anonymous testimony and withhold evidence.  the press instead of presenting good reporting developing a public debate, is content with one dimensional depictions of a criminal underclass determined to create nothing more than chaos. the grievances and critique of modern chilean society proposed by these social movements are lost in the soundbites and headlines.

mauricio morales

when one militant, mauricio morales, was killed by the bomb he was transporting,  the police finally had the name of an actual suspect. it mattered little that he was dead, his identity unraveled a list of supposed terrorists.  and since mauricio’s death the repression has been wholesale, the raids have stepped up and the strokes of the state’s repressive brush widen with everyday. increasingly many individuals have gone underground for fear of reprisals by the state.

on the 14th of august 14 individuals were detained in perhaps the most publicly orchestrated raids since the dictatorship.  little if no evidence has been presented against the detained, and much of the state’s case is based on testimony of unnamed witnesses and snitches.  any critical review of their case reveals the impunity of a prosecution without limits. yet the media shadow cast by the miners’ rescue has made this repression invisible, the public eye is focused on that little light of hope.  pinera is effectively rooting out any radical opposition to his neo-liberal agenda, and doing so with the perfect cover- no-one is paying attention.

in the south of the country the mapuche community continues their struggle for self determination, and autonomy.  the mapuche struggle began with their resistance to the expansion of the incan empire, and continued through spanish colonization and the formation of the chilean and argentinian republics.

during the dictatorships of the eighties the agrarian reforms of allende’s government were reversed and southern chile was transformed. once a largely agricultural land the region was converted in an important wood production zone.    pinochet’s neo-liberal agenda again encouraged the entrance of international capital.   multinationals were rapidly becoming the sole property holders in southern chile, a reality that continued with the introduction of democracy in 1990.  by 1999 the situation had reached a boiling point.  many villagers found themselves completely surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantations, isolated from the outside world.  herbicides and insecticides used on the plantations was filtering into the aquifers and people were getting sick.  armed thugs were organized in paramilitary units to “protect” the plantations.  the coordinadora arauco malleco (cam), a local mapuche organization, responded to the situation by launching its first campaign against the lumber industry.  cam sought to force all of the lumber companies out of the region. through land occupations and sabotages cam made it increasingly difficult for the companies to do business.  the actions were followed by heavy handed and arbitrary police violence.  in many mapuche communities found themselves to a military occupation- a situation that continues up till today.   mapuche detained by the police and military for suspected involvement in the resistance movement were judged and sentenced by military tribunals- where testimony by unidentified witnesses and secret evidence were legitimate tools of the prosecution.

recently the military tribunals used to try suspected mapuche activists has been a source of widespread political outrage.  the tribunals have become the norm for trying all mapuche regardless of age, gender, or the crime their accused of committing. of the 106 mapuche prisoners 58 had been tried in military tribunals. the blanket accusation of terrorism is what the state has repeatedly used to legitimize it’s militaristic response.  and this response led to the hunger strike of 34 mapuche.  a hunger strike that lasted 89 days and unfortunately for the prisoners coincided directly with the miners’ rescue.

pinera exploited the miners’ rescue to divert national attention from the pressing issues facing the country and the region.  the virtual abandon by the government many communities have faced since the tragic earthquake, a vocal and violent opposition to neo-liberalism, and the increased radicalization and repression of the mapuche movement, have all been rendered insignificant by the spectacle of the miners’ rescue.  however this does not mean they cease to exist.  these realities continue because the agendas that created them remain in place- the neo-liberalism of pinera is the logical advancement of pinochet’s economic agenda, and the continued monopoly of ultimate judicial power remains in the hands of the military just as pinochet had wished.  the democracy of pinera is the perfection of the pinochet’s dictatorship… but “where there is misery, there will be rebellion” still rings true, no matter how much is spent on the reality show rescue.


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