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Chile earthquake: President Bachelet opens up to foreign aid

After days of holding off on accepting foreign aid offers in the wake of the Chile earthquake, President Michelle Bachelet has now welcomed help from abroad.

By Staff writer, Benjamin WitteContributor / March 1, 2010

Chile's earthquake: President Michelle Bachelet, second from right, talked to residents as she visited destroyed houses in Concepción, Chile, on Saturday, after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck earlier that same day.

Alex Ibanez/Chilean Presidency/AP


Mexico City; and Santiago, Chile

In the hours following the magnitude-8.8 Chilean earthquake Saturday morning, one of the world’s worst in a century, the country seemed miraculously spared, and the government declined immediate offers of foreign aid.

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Chile, after all, is one of Latin America's richest, most developed nations. And, unlike Haiti – the continent's poorest and least developed country – Chile was far better prepared to deal with Saturday's monster quake.

But after the death toll doubled Sunday to more than 700, with entire villages submerged by a tsunami, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet appealed for aid worldwide and said the catastrophe the nation faced was “unthinkable.”

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

While telecommunications failures and the isolated nature of the destruction zone were to blame for a failure in initial assessments, some say the government was slow to respond and that it should have accepted help immediately.
“There is a perception that the government did not correctly assess the gravity of the situation. There is also the pride of Chile, that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University. “There is a mistake there, that was probably the government’s fault. When earthquakes hit, it is perfectly legitimate for governments to take in aid immediately after.”

Santiago resident Carmen Medina has an even stronger take.

"I think that any help would have been welcome right away. Anything. They needed to send help immediately," said Ms. Medina, looking at a building that nearly collapsed in Maipu, in western Santiago. "Why [did they] take so long? Why do they have to study everything so much if it's so obvious we've got a problem?"

Others, though, thought that the government was wise to take time to assess the problem so that it could better organize relief efforts and meet real – not imagined – needs.

Victor Valenzuela, a resident of Santiago who was waiting in line for a bank to open, says that the government response was logical.

"You have to see what is needed," says Mr. Valenzuela. "So it's obvious the government should do an analysis of the situation and then ask help from countries, so that they don't send things that we might not need."

Camilo Navarro, whose adult daughter (who is fine) was living in an apartment building that collapsed in Maipu, says that he agrees with a more deliberate response to the catastrophe. "You always have to evaluate the real cost ... so that you do not come to rash decisions," he says. "You have to see the real needs. Whether it is food or materials for construction. The authorities have to decide."

Aid pledges roll in

The extent of damage is still unknown in Chile, but countries around the globe have mobilized to offer their support for the 2 million that are estimated to be displaced.

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