Chile earthquake: A political storm brews

Saturday's 8.8 Chile earthquake came days before next week's landmark transition from outgoing President Michelle Bachelet to conservative President-elect Sebastian Piñera. Are the two playing politics with quake relief?

By , Staff writer , Correspondent

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    Residents rescued items from destroyed homes in Los Pellines , Chile, Tuesday, after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake hit Chile early Saturday, causing widespread damage.
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    A soldier patroled a street in Concepcion, Chile, Tuesday after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck central Chile early Saturday, while the government sent soldiers and ordered a nighttime curfew to quell looting.
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Chile's political transition next week – in which conservative President-elect Sebastian Piñera will take office, ending 20 years of rule by the Concertacion leftist alliance – would have been a landmark event even without Saturday's magnitude-8.8 Chile earthquake.

But the massive temblor that rocked this nation 13 days before President Michelle Bachelet leaves office has added more political strife as the transition nears.

By and large, Chile has come together in the midst of its worst natural disaster in decades – a relief to residents who are seeking a unified voice as they begin to rebuild their lives. But the jockeying for power between Ms. Bachelet and Mr. Piñera, who criticized the lack of security in the immediate aftermath of the quake, hints at tougher political times ahead.

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IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

“Bachelet has 11 more days in government. It is logical that from the beginning of the earthquake, she should have asked Piñera to be a part of [recovery efforts] for continuity,” says Oscar Godoy, a political science professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. “In her first public appearance, when so many people hoped that she said, ‘you can count on the [incoming] president,’ she did not.”

Piñera frozen out at the beginning?

After not receiving an invitation to partake in the first discussions after the Feb. 27 quake, says Mr. Godoy, Piñera and Bachelet finally met on Sunday. Since then, ministers from both governments' cabinets have been meeting to discuss recovery operations – after the quake, and a tsunami moments afterward, left more than 700 people dead and up to 2 million displaced.

Many Chileans expressed relief that political differences seemed to be placed on hold for now. “Most do not want the topic to be politicized,” says Camilo Navarro, a resident of Santiago. “We all have to be on the same side, supporter or opponent. We are all Chileans.”

Their cooperation today is an effort to unify the country in the midst of disaster, but also a practical matter. “They arrived at the [conclusion] that all the energies should be focused on reconstruction,” says Ricardo Israel, a political expert at the Autonomous University of Chile.

But Mr. Israel notes that it is in neither leader's political interest to be criticizing the other. Depending on who is asked, Bachelet is either a hero – a woman who has reportedly driven herself to the national operation response office and to affected communities to assess damage – or a president who waited too long to send in troops to restore order and oversee the distribution of aid.

Critics slam Bachelet's 'slow' response

For her critics, Bachelet is under pressure for a slow response. She waited for more than 48 hours to accept offers of foreign assistance, preferring to study the actual needs before welcoming the aid. Many supporters thought this was a wise response. Others said it wasted valuable time to help people buried or left homeless without food or water.

The Chilean Navy also apologized to the nation Sunday for not immediately issuing a tsunami warning, a move that could have spared the lives of residents in coastal villages submerged underwater. She is leaving office with an approval rating of around 80 percent, but criticism of her handling of the crisis could chip away at some of that support.

Piñera withholds criticism

Piñera will have to depend on the opposition to get anything done in his new administration, whose first years will be marked by the tragedy. “In practical terms, no one is criticizing the other. [Piñera] wants to start a political truce, because he will have to go to Congress to get resources for reconstruction,” says Israel. Some estimates put the price tag of rebuilding the nation at $30 billion.

“This is going to be a big weight for the president who begins next week, he’s going to have to move [the nation] forward,” says Hector Moraga, a newspaper vendor in Santiago.

Despite the appearance of truce, political conspiracies abound: One young man said a conversation he had Sunday evening with friends centered on the idea that the current administration was not handling the situation well so that blame will be placed on the new incoming government.

That might be a radical position. But more political fodder is bound to emerge as the Concertacion wraps up 20 years of governance and a right-leaning party takes over, testing the unity of Chileans across the country.

IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

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