Opinion: Chile earthquake could deepen inequalities

Opinion: Chile earthquake could deepen inequalities

Ariel Dulitzky is a clinical professor in the School of Law.

Looking at the images of the devastating earthquake in Chile, several questions come to mind. Last year, Sebastián Piñera defeated the candidate of the Concertación, the political coalition that was in power in Chile since the return of democracy to the country in 1990, and now president-elect Piñera is set to take office on March 11. This transition requires that during the first two weeks of the aftermath of the earthquake the government and the opposition must collaborate to coordinate the rescue and reconstruction operations, and the earthquake is testing the capacity of the political parties to work together.

At 8.8 on the Richter scale, the Chile earthquake was almost 500 times more powerful than the Jan. 12 quake in Haiti. The Chile earthquake struck 22 miles below the surface while the Haiti earthquake struck only six miles below the surface. Its epicenter was farther from large urban centers than the Haiti quake was. These factors and the magnitude of the aftershocks explain, in part, why the number of lives lost, rising to more than 200,000 in the Caribbean country, are much higher than the nearly 800 in the South American one.

But we cannot forget that Haiti's development indicators are also much worse than Chile's. Life expectancy in Haiti is 61 compared to 78 in Chile. According to the indices of infant mortality, 57 out of 1,000 children die in Haiti compared to eight in Chile. The Haitian gross national income (GNI) per capita was $660 while Chile's per capita GNI was $9,400. Last year, Haiti ranked 149 out of 182 countries, whereas Chile ranked 44 in the United Nations' Human Development Index. So, at least, we can speculate that the disparities in terms of destruction and loss of life in Haiti and Chile could be explained in part by the levels of poverty in both countries.

Chile has a high level of income inequality compared to other countries, even when compared to other Latin American countries -- the region with the highest levels of inequality in the world. Future studies will tell us if the loss of life and destruction in Chile also reflect the high levels of inequality in the country. But for sure, we can assume that the poor people of Chile are not as well-situated and prepared as their better-off fellow country people to cope with the loss of their homes and the alterations in the delivery of basic services. Again, it is unclear what the reconstruction process priorities, which need to be implemented by the new government, are going to be. Are those priorities going to focus on poor Chileans? Will those programs diminish or expand the inequality gap in the country?

As the search for survivors continues, President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of exemption due to looting, especially of food. Now the Maule and Bio Bio regions of Chile are under curfew and controlled by the army. The military forces are helping with public order, rescue labors and the distribution of aid. Not ever since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet did the Chilean Armed Forces play a role in providing internal security. For those of us who remember the violent and repressive past, one can only wonder about the meaning of President's Bachelet words that the Armed Forces will act with all "due severity" to stop the looting. Now that the troops are again in the Chilean streets, what is going to be their role under the new government?

In the next couple of weeks, months and years, Chile will fade from the headlines, but the situation on the ground will remain precarious. The country will be reconstructed not only in its infrastructure, but also in its social fabric, political process and in the relationship between civil and military authorities. It remains to be seen where the balance between civil and military authorities will be struck and whether the inequality gap between poor and rich Chileans will remain the same, increase or decrease.

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The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Hispanic Graduate Business Association and the group Chilenos en Austin are hosting Con Chile en el Corazón, a musical and cultural event this Saturday (March 6) from 6:30-10:30 p.m. to benefit earthquake relief efforts in Chile. Learn more about the event or how you can help support the relief efforts.

Photo by Atilio Leandro on Flickr.