A year after joyous miner rescue, Chile struggles with conflict

After soaring to a 65 percent approval rating following the miner rescue, President Sebastian Piñera's rating is now at 30 percent as his country is riven by protests, riots, and other crises.

Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters
Students make a Nazi salute with their arms as they mock riot police during an evacuation of the Catholic University of Valparaiso, which remained occupied by students for four months in protest against the government to demand changes in the public state education system in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago on Monday. The students are demanding for free and better state education, as well as for an end to profit-making in the public education system.

A year after Chile gained a boost of public confidence and national pride by rescuing 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground, the country is now wrought with political and social squabbles that are demolishing politicians' approval ratings.

The image of national unity, flag-waving, and people hugging in the streets has given way to grimmer imagery. Demonstrations by students, environmentalists, unionists, and indigenous activists have given rise to riots, with troublemakers tearing down streetlights, trashing banks, and even invading homes. Police, under pressure to halt the unrest, have launched hundreds of canisters of tear gas, deployed water cannons against thousands of marchers, and killed a bystander with what was supposed to be a warning shot.

President Sebastian Piñera has suffered the most from the unrest. After just scraping to an electoral win in late 2009, Mr. Piñera soared to a 65 percent approval following the miner rescue. At the end of last month, his approval had fallen to 30 percent, according to a nationwide poll by Santiago-based Adimark GfK. That is lower than any other president in the Americas, according to Mexican pollster Consulta Mitofsky.

But Piñera's rivals aren't gaining from the national malaise either; the opposition has only 17 percent approval according to Adimark.

Officials close to Piñera say that the approval ratings will rebound once the student issues are resolved and the public sees his achievements, such as a new welfare program that pays the poorest families so long as children attend school and get medical checkups.

A high point for Chile

The mine rescue was unprecedented. After the San Jose gold and copper mine collapsed, the 33 men survived 17 days underground without any contact with the outside world. After initial contact by a drill with a 4-inch bit, they lived off rations and clothes lowered through such holes for another two months. Crews drilled an elevator shaft and, finally, lowered a rescue capsule to extract the workers one by one. It was the deepest rescue ever by drilling, and their 69-day ordeal was the longest that miners have ever survived before rescue.

The public was ebullient following the rescue, but the excitement faded through a series of crises. The national soccer coach resigned after a noisy fight, a Patagonian region went into rebellion over natural gas prices, environmentalists organized marches against the approval of new hydro dams, and students took to the streets to demand free public education. Many high school and university students have now boycotted classes and taken over school buildings for five months.

Piñera's spokesman Andres Chadwick said this weekend that the student movement has been taken over by the "most radical, most intransigent, hardest, most ideological" groups, leading to a breakdown of dialogue.

Improved mine safety

The government has taken a low-key approach to the miner anniversary. First lady Cecilia Morel and the current and former mining ministers will visit the city of Copiapo tomorrow to unveil a monument donated by the Chinese government, and to join the rescued miners to watch a film about the operation.

Mining Minister Hernán de Solminihac today swore in new mine inspectors, more than doubling the inspection staff. He said the government will inspect more than 4,500 mines this year, up from 2,500 last year.

Increased attention to safety in the wake of the San Jose accident appears to be paying off. Seventeen miners died in Chile through September, down from 45 in all of 2010, the National Geology and Mining Service said on its web page.

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