My country Chile, reborn from the ashes
This year's disasters have tested a nation already suffering with the legacy of political strife. But Chile's spirit is unbroken, says Jaime Collyer
Friday 15 October 2010
Chile is, from its very foundations, a mining culture. In one sense or another, most people here have a connection to the industry, and that has been true for generations. The current mining minister's ancestors worked in the nitrate-extracting industry in the same region where the 33 miners were trapped for the last two months. In the 19th century my own ancestors came from Glasgow to lay down the foundations of coal mining in the southern part of the country.
That connection is not confined to the industrial age. Since pre-Columbian times, Chile has counted on the underground for its living and survival. But that same underground has sometimes made a mockery of our collective trust, our illusion that this is a benign country, and exchanged the minerals hidden in its cavities for the pains and sorrows that come with an earthquake. And so, as we have gradually absorbed these lessons over the centuries, we have learned that even as we subconsciously thank our soil for its wealth and gifts – silver and gold in the beginning, coal, nitrate and copper afterwards – we must also renege on our gratitude when the "subsoil's gloomy strategies", as Pablo Neruda put it in his verses, devastate our cities. Every20 years or so, we are forced to reconsider our appreciation for the land.
This year has been particularly demonstrative of these two facets, of this Janus-facedcreature living under our feet. On 27 February the second most devastating earthquake in our history destroyed half of the country from the capital, Santiago, to the south. Endless mistakes arose in the next few hours, on the part of national authorities, naval forces, and even the population itself. We were baffled, confused, strangely unprepared for this new blow from the subsoil. Too many years had gone by since the earth's last lash: we had forgotten how the betrayal felt. The economic – and quite asymmetric – growth of recent years had spread among us the illusion that Pachamama, the Mother Earth of our indigenous ancestors, had in the end decided not to tremble beneath us any more. Besides the more prosaic consequences, the earthquake sapped our confidence as a nation.
The episode at San José mine has changed all that for the better, and even shown us our best side again. First to ourselves, and then to the rest of the world – supposing the rest of the world remains very much interested in us after the33 miners are back on the surface, something that is not at all certain.
The oppositions between the earthquake and the later collapse of San José mine are multiple. The earthquake devastated the south; the miners were trapped in the north. After the earthquake, almost nobody did the right thing; the collective response was, for some days, pillage and desperation.
In the case of the miners, it has been quite the opposite: their families never abandoned Camp Hope – the recently created city in the middle of nowhere where they stubbornly remained for days and weeks, even when the authorities had all but given up on them and claimed there was no more than a 2 per cent chance that their33 lost men were still alive.
The government also did what a government is supposed to do for the people. I am far from being a fan of President Sebastiá* Piñera and his coalition, but I have to say that my perception of him and his cabinet, of their efficiency and commitment, has been decisively reinforced by this extraordinary episode; and I'm pretty sure that that perception is shared by most of the Chilean population now. His entrepreneurship and hyperkinetic mood, which many Chileans perceived before as a predator's tendency, is now seen as a desire – even a naïve determination – to solve things immediately, without too much bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was, in fact, the main problem during the earthquake, and the indirect cause of the deaths of some 300 people. Piñera's efficiency and resolution has resulted in the rescue of 33 working men from the underground. Needless to say, the approval and collective enthusiasm also extend to Laurence Golborne, the mining minister.
I wouldn't say we have all become right-wingers who will unconditionally vote for Piñera's coalition in the next election. What we have recovered here, with the strangely providential collapse of San José mine, is our self-confidence as a nation, and a sense of community, of Roman comunitas, of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbours, our friends, our most efficient representatives. It had all been so weakened at the beginning of the year – not so much by the earthquake itself but by the many mistakes that followed.
That natural history, the chronic struggle Chile fights against its subsoil, has greatly coloured our national response. But perhaps another metaphorical reading has been at the back of our minds as we have celebrated the miners' rescue, and perhaps it is even more important. It is more intricate, and it is an awkward interpretation that many of my countrymen will not share – most of all, because of the obliviousness which Chileans have cultivated during the last two or three decades, or which has been imposed on them when they come to think of their recent history.
That history is, in fact, well established. It tells of how, over the last two or three decades, our country went through one of the most shaming and painful intervals it has ever known. It tells of an impasse in its democratic path in which, among other horrors, defenceless citizens – men and women – were punctiliously tormented, and their corpses collectively hidden under the earth, or made to disappear by unscrupulous thugs who were by then in charge of our destinies.
We have taken a long road since then. Many have been our efforts to overcome that period; many of them have been in vain. Still the wound festers. Thousands of bodies were buried in unknown places, and that left in our minds and our memories a loose end, too hard to tie up.
Amazing as it may sound, the miners' rescue has finally returned things to some natural and much required equilibrium. Our common efforts, our best energies, have been finally destined to un-bury a bunch of 33 men who, at some point, were also lost for everyone, and forever unrecoverable. Whose destiny was also uncertain: we didn't know if they were dead or alive, and at some point we came to think that we wouldn't ever know it.
But in the end, we were given an answer; and it was an answer that we could hardly have dared to expect, an answer that gave us cause to rejoice. That's why everybody speaks now of some sort of national renaissance, of a starting-over as a nation. And maybe it is the reason why the cage in which the miners have been rescued is called Fénix (Phoenix), the mythical figure that is reborn from its ashes. The government also speaks of imminent changes in the mining industry laws to protect its workers effectively, and we must hope that the goodwill lasts.
There was a time, not long ago, when we never would have believed that it could. But now things are different. It is, in some way, as if we have recovered our lost innocence – that spirited state of mind which used to inform the communal life of this country before so many corpses were sadly buried and forgotten under the earth. Amen.
Jaime Collyer is one of Chile's most eminent literary figures, part of the New Chilean Narrative generation of writers. His most recent novel is 'The Alleged Faithfulness of the Parties', 2009, Random House
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