Chilean President Sabastian Pinera Rattled by Reconstruction Questions on Quake Anniversary

Article excerpt

A year after slamming a huge swath of central Chile, last February's massive magnitude 8.8 earthquake NotiSur, March 12, 2010 continues to leave President Sebastian Pinera on shaky political ground.

Despite being one of the largest quakes in recorded history, the Feb. 27 disaster--which prompted a tsunami and killed approximately 550 people--became old news relatively quickly in Chile, where people were willing distracted first by football (the national team performed well in the World Cup) and later by September's bicentennial celebrations. In the south, a group of indigenous Mapuche prisoners made news with a dangerous hunger strike NotiSur, Sept. 10, 2010. And in the north, the saga of 33 miners who spent 70 days trapped deep underground dominated headlines not only in Chile but across the globe.

The action-packed scenario seemed to suit the new president. Applauded internationally for his handling of the mine rescue, Pinera also scored political points on the human rights and environmental fronts for successfully negotiating an end to the Mapuche hunger strike NotiSur, Nov. 19, 2010 and for stepping in personally to block construction of an unpopular coal-burning electricity plant NotiSur, Sept. 17, 2010. By November, Pinera--Chile's first conservative leader after two decades of center-left government--saw his approval rating rise to 63%.

In recent months, however, the billionaire president seems to have lost his Midas touch. A tragic Santiago prison fire in December NotiSur, Jan. 21, 2011, bloody confrontations between police and indigenous activists on Easter Island NotiSur, Feb. 18, 2011, and a general strike in southern Patagonia because of proposed natural-gas rate hikes have combined to tarnish Pinera's once-gleaming political armor.

But perhaps the president's biggest problem has been a recent refocusing of national attention on last February's all-but-forgotten earthquake, which struck just 13 days before Pinera took office NotiSur,

March 26, 2010.

Eager to cut the increasingly popular president down to size, opposition leaders began late last year to publicly question the administration's handling of the reconstruction effort NotiSur, Dec. 10, 2010. Particular criticism was directed at Housing Minister Magdalena Matte, who has the daunting task of providing housing solutions for tens of thousands left homeless by the US$30 billion disaster.

Pinera and his Cabinet ministers dismissed the criticism as partisan grandstanding. Nevertheless, with the approach of last month's one-year anniversary of the deadly quake and tsunami, public scrutiny increased, putting the president and his allies squarely on the defensive.

Progress in numbers

President Pinera is standing by his government's reconstruction record, boasting that the task of rebuilding Chile's damaged houses, schools, hospitals, and bridges is already "more than 50% complete." Minister Matte has offered her own set of facts and figures, claiming the government already approved some 130,000 housing subsidies and has begun construction on 70,000 new residences. By the end of 2011, Matte says, the state will have provided 220,000 subsidies (theoretically one for every family left homeless by the disaster) and furnished 80,000 families with new homes.

"We've advanced at an incredible rhythm," she explained in a March 1 interview with Diario Financiero. "I think that in time, given the way we're advancing, this is going to be a model of how to go about reconstructing."

In the days leading up to the anniversary, President Pinera took his message on the road with a whistle-stop tour of damaged towns and cities in the Maule and Biobio regions, the areas hardest hit by the quake and tsunami. The president completed the trip with a Feb. 27 memorial address in the devastated coastal city of Constitucion, where he told gatherers that his government "has done everything humanly possible. …