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Watching and Wondering

March 2, 2010

Like many of you, I have been watching developments in Chile. The available information suggests that despite the widespread devastation in the central Chile region of Bío Bío, the investments made there following the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake paid at least some dividends, particularly in reducing the loss of life. Indeed, a large proportion of the nearly 800 deaths now reported occurred not in damaged buildings in Chile’s second city of Concepción, but in coastal communities where evacuations had begun but could not be completed before tsnuami waves crashed ashore.

As most of you realize, Chile occupies a sliver of land nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the crest of the Andes where the Nazca and South American tectonic plates come together. The subduction zone created by this intersection has produced some of the strongest instrumentally measured earthquakes in recorded history. Great earthquakes with moment magnitudes greater than 8 occur here more frequentlythan any other place on the globe.

The intensity and frequency of these geological shifts are not unlike the intensity and frequency of political shifts that have defined Chile’s recent social and economichistory and defined its character as a nation. The country has veered from socialist rule to a right-wing military dictatorship and back in the period since the Valdivia Earthquake. Notwithstanding this turbulence, the country emerged from this turmoil in a position to become one of the few South American success stories.  Since 1990, the country has led the continent with a strong and diversified economy in which per capita GDP has grown at a rate much faster than its neighbors. Sadly, not all Chileans have shared in this prosperity, but most have benefited from the stability that has marked the country’s recent political history as poverty rates have fallen significantly despite persistent income inequalities. Despite the faintest glimmers of hope in the months before the January 12 earthquake, Haiti seemed locked in an economic and political death spiral that the earthquake only accelerated.

Initial damage estimates suggest that the economic effect of the Chilean earthquake equals something between 10 and 20 percent of the country’s annual real gross domestic product. In comparison, the damage in Haiti is probably many times the annual real GDP, which leaves the country dependent on international aid for its recovery.

One of the great ironies of the Chilean earthquake is the fact that so many of its highly trained responders had only recently returned from Haiti, where their considerable skills were surely put to the test. Chile’s experience as a leader in earthquake response clearly prepared it well for what it experienced on Saturday morning, but it may also have made the country’s leaders reluctant to ask for help sooner.

This week, outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet made a request for international aid. Chile’s needs include field hospitals with surgical facilities, dialysis machines, water purification equipment, satellite phones, generators, and mobile bridges. Although the country refused initial offers of assistance from international donors, Chilean political leaders chalked this reluctance up not to a misplaced sense of self-efficacy dealing with what they are now calling an unparalleled disaster, but rather concern that unfocused help could be worse than the situation itself. This diagnosis is not without precedent or just cause as evidenced by the slow transitions from response to recovery that have accompanied comparable disasters in other countries.

So, what can we expect in Chile? This country has displayed remarkable resilience in the past. It knows better than most countries what this disaster will require of its people and leaders. And its people have learned the importance of sticking together under difficult circumstances, having seen one another and their nation through all sorts of trials and tribulations.

Despite strong shaking in the nation’s capital, life there has returned to normal in many respects. The country’s copper mines have resumed operation. And the country’s military has supported police in restoring order in the cities and establishing air and sea support for the transportation of vital goods.

This military’s prominent role in the humanitarian relief effort stands in stark contrast to the human rights abuses attributed to it over the 17 years of rule under General Augusto Pinochet. Likewise, the willingness of Chile’s government to welcome Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday looks beyond the role her government and ours played in deposing the nation’s popularly elected socialist President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 (strange coincidence, eh?). Clearly, Chileans are a forgiving people.

But forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Indeed, Chileans, informed by their past experience recovering from catastrophic events, seem mindful of what lies ahead. I am betting they are uniquely capable of bouncing back better and stronger than before. We would do well to watch their progress closely.

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