Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

From Chile: An Insider’s Look at the Miners’ Rescue



The Chilean government wants us to know that the country is on the verge of a major transformation. Just last week, President Sebastián Piñera told the press that, by the end of this decade, Chile will no longer be a developing country. He went even further: within 10 years Chile will become “the first country in Latin America to defeat poverty and to ensure justice for all of its citizens.”

Piñera made these claims last week during his government’s massive, and entirely successful, rescue of 33 men who’d been trapped in the San José mine for two months. He was speaking to a huge, captive audience: there were around 2,000 journalists at the mine, dispatched from 40 different countries to cover the dramatic rescue.

The place felt like a big, awkward festival. Reporters and victims’ families had set up tents among the rocks, a clown was singing songs to the miners’ children and here and there people were grilling sausages over open fires. We all had name tags around our necks identifying us as press, family or rescue workers. Everyone was milling around, waiting for the rescue to start.

The president took full advantage of the situation, jumping into the limelight right away and staying there even after the last miner was hauled up from the mine shaft. He gave hourly press conferences. He spoke English to the international press. Dressed in a red windbreaker, he strode around the grounds slapping engineers on the back while his wife, in white, hugged the miners’ wives.

But for all the president’s brashness, the government wasn’t taking any chances. This is one of the first times that Chile has been in the world’s eye (many Chileans have been quoted as saying that “nobody knew what Chile was” before the accident) and the government seemed determined to make a good impression.

Of course, the international media was already impressed. From the moment that the miners were first discovered, the press seized on their story. It’s not clear why, exactly, the story grew so big. After all, mining accidents in, say, China or the Democratic Republic of the Congo do not attract thousands of foreign reporters.

But as the weeks went by, more and more reporters poured into Chile. The Atacama Desert filled up with journalists, all under pressure to file daily stories while they waited for the rescue to begin. They fought bitterly among themselves for access to the miners’ families, and survived on recycled scraps of gossip about life in the shaft. In this environment, it is not surprising that the Chilean government managed to impose its own narrative on the coverage.

In large part, this meant using secrecy and control. Chile’s state-run television, TVN, was given the exclusive right to film the miners’ rescue as it happened. They were allowed to set up cameras and reporters around the mine shaft itself, while the rest of the press corps was confined to a mountainside overlooking the operation. Too far away to see anything, we huddled in the press tent and watched TVN’s feed on a big-screen TV.

Down in the mine, the government had already pressured the trapped men into signing a “secrecy pact,” a blanket non-disclosure agreement that forbids them to tell anyone about the discussions they had with the government while they were in the mine.

I spoke to Miguel Fortt, the engineer who designed the Fenix capsule and who served as a liaison between the miners’ families and the government. He told me that the government had promised special, highly-paid jobs to a few of the trapped miners in return for their help in keeping order.

This is the main thing the government wants to keep secret. Piñera has been talking endlessly about Chilean unity and the lessons that the miners taught us about teamwork. In fact, it appears that the miners were quite divided at first, grouping themselves under three different leaders. Besides Luis Urzua, who became the government-recognized group leader, there was a former soldier and a contractor vying for the leadership position. Each group had its own rescue plan, most not involving outside help.

Faced with this chaos, the government imposed order from the outside, buying the loyalty of some of the miners and instructing them how to unite the rest into an orderly system. Then the world was shown image after image of the miners cooperating with each other, cleaning their cave and preparing, smoothly, for the rescue.

Piñera is using the mine rescue for two things. First, to show off Chile’s economic power, and second, to show how the country has reinvented itself in the 20 years since Augusto Pinochet left power. No longer will Chile be known for dictatorship and state-sponsored torture; now it’s pulling people up out of the darkness and into the day.

Piñera is trying to frame the rescue as a moment of unity for the country. We can all agree that mine accidents are horrible. But do all Chileans even agree on that? Miguel Fortt told me that in 2010 alone, there have already been 34 people killed in mining accidents, largely because of a lack of government regulation. These deaths have gone unreported; they aren’t spectacular, they don’t lend themselves to photo spreads. Who cares about the 34 deaths, when we have 33 survivors? Who cares, for that matter, that the Pan-American highway is littered with memorials to roadside deaths, because there are no highway police up north to stop reckless drivers from killing each other?

There continue to be two Chiles; one rich, focused on the outside world and calling for its investment; the other desperately poor and simply trying to get along. In the south, the displaced Mapuche are still trying to win back their land; their stories are also going unreported.

We can be impressed by Piñera’s government and its beautifully run rescue operation. But let’s not lose sight of other challenges in Chile.

*Kate Prengel is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a journalist based at the United Nations and was at the San José Mine
for the miners’ rescue.

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