Saturday, 20 March 2010

Early days

Michelle Bachelet's learning curve lasted at least two years, and she had extensive experience in government before becoming president. That is why it is unfair to begin dumping on the current government for what has been a pretty awful first week in office.... which is not to say that the major newspapers have not been unprofessionally fawning in their reporting.

One example is yesterday's emergency, last minute meeting between Interior Minister Hinzpeter and José Miguel Stegmeier, who had been named by this government as governor of the province of BioBio. Turns out Stegmeier had some dogdgy dealings with the unsavoury characters at Colonia Dignidad, a german colony in southern Chile which has been linked to Nazis, the military dictatorship, and child abuse. Even after decades, the entire truth on Colonia Dignidad has yet to emerge, and I suspect we have not heard the last of Stegmeier. He is, in fact, named in some ongoing lawsuits against the Colony.

The episode is an interesting case study. For one thing, the front page of this morning's Mercurio had two huge headlines on Piñera's hectic work schedule and the first aid package anounced by the government, and only a small square on the right hand column making reference to the Stegmeier affair.

Second, one has to ask what kind of vetting has gone on in government appointments. Are they really this hard up for people? Why is the right still linked to these characters?

Third, however, is that credit is due to the government, and especially the Interior Minister, for acting quickly. They did not try to justify, defend, deflect or delay. Hinzpeter called in Stegmeier on a Friday night, and fired him. It augurs well for the Hinzpeter method.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The PPT Presidency

I know that Chile likes to show the world that it is a serious country, with serious, business-oriented leaders, but does Piñera really have to start off his presidency with a Power Point presentation to visiting leaders?

Is God Concertacionista?

If there is a word that everyone has used to describe yesterday, 11 March 2010, it is surreal.

Sebastián Piñera's inauguration took place in a climate of nervousness and fear.....not because of him or his MBA Coalition, but because of the constant aftershocks that are being felt throughout the country since the 27 February earthquake.

But then, just as he was about to take office, we were hit with one of the strongest aftershocks yet --either 6.9 or 7.2 on the Richter Scale, depending on who you believe. Frankly, the 0.3 points makes little difference. I was at work, on the fifth floor of a very sturdy building, and the thing moved like a cocktail shaker. Now I know what an olive feels like.

It was only later that I managed to see the images on TV of the interrupted inauguration. As the image above shows, foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of Bolivia and Paraguay, stayed put but looked nervously to the ceiling (I suspect to the TV lighting, which swayed like Tarzan on a vine). Out on the streets of Valparaiso, the soldiers meant to maintain peace, order and good government ran for the hills as the emergency services, who screwed up so badly last time, announced a tsunami warning.
In the evening, Piñera, who had hoped to enter Santiago triumphally riding in Salvador Allende's Ford Galaxy (Kafka, where are you when we need you?), didn't, because nobody wanted to be out on the streets in the midst of so much seismic movement.
You have to feel badly for Piñera. For someone who has wanted to be president for so long, yesterday must have been a most unsatisfying day. Still, people will remember the day for a long time. Especially President Lugo, who wins the prize for Most Freaked Out President.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

So long, MB

After the extraordinary bad luck of having to deal with a massive earthquake in her last days in office, yesterday's poll showing that Michelle Bachelet's popularity remained at stratospheric levels must have been a welcome going away present for her. It also got me wondering about the phenomenon. Why is Bachelet so popular?

No single answer is enough. As I write in this column, there is a Reaganesque quality to her (a description I am sure she would hate). As with Reagan, Bachelet has come to be a smiling symbol of optimism and a better future. She leaves office coated in Teflon.

But she is more than a happy face. The policies, the hard work, the strength in the face of adversity, are all things that are directed to, and can be related to by Chileans from every background, but especially lower middle class Chileans.

In my piece, I hint at the PR machine around Bachelet, but I am not quite that cynical. I think the PR strategy is to sell a product that is genuine. In today's politics, it's not enough to care, you have to care on camera. Everyone from John Paul II to Mother Teresa to Princess Diana knew that. So does the soon-to-be-ex-president.

Funk in the New York Times

It's not every day you get quoted in the New York Times, especially if you live at the end of the Earth, so here you go.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Milton and the Earthquake

I have always thought that the Referente, Patricio Navia's long-standing list-serve on things Chilean, has been a fantastic contribution towards the creation of an international community of Chileanists. The material he sends almost daily is a useful eye on what the world says about Chile. But I fear that he goofed in circulating this op-ed piece from the Wall Street Journal.

There is nothing wrong with singing the praises of Milton Friedman, if that turns you on. Neither am I averse to the argument that neoliberalism -- at least its watered down, post-1982 form -- laid the foundation for the Concertación's economic success over the last twenty years.

But sloppy journalism is something else. Stephens conflates Pinochet's economic policy with the current economic situation and development levels, which is to ignore the Concertación's expansion -- however limited -- of the role of the state in health, education and other matters.

Worse still is Stephens' reference to building codes. Chilean building codes got anti-seismically tough after the 1939 Chillan earthquake, under the progressive Radical government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda. The reconstruction effort at that time, in fact, led to the establishment of many development institutions, such as Corfo, which still exist. In fact, since the implementation of Friedman's ideology, one of the things that has been watered down is the building code.

Today, which seismic standards remain tough, construction companies autoregulate their compliance. As a result, many of the most damaged buidlings in Concepcion and in Santiago were new apartment buildings. The highway that collapsed in Santiago, and Santiago's airport, were built by private concession companies, not the government, often importing foreign models and designs not apt for an earthquake-prone landscape. The older buildings that suffered damage in the south were often built of adobe -- precisely the kind of construction that Aguirre Cerda tried to stop. Those older buildings made of concrete, built, say, between 1940 and 1980, tended to survive mostly intact.

Having said that, I am struck by how well much of Santiago held up to what was still, here, a pretty strong earthquake. The subway was working the next day. Glass-covered office buildings hardly showed signs (on the outside at least) of damage. Most roads were in tact. The malls as well. But is this thanks to Milton?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

What would Jan do?

Much ink has been spilled over the last few days (figuratively speaking -- although now that I think about it....) on the issue of the post-earthquake looting. Undoubtedly, as in Katrina, it arose from, but also caused, much suffering. It raises questions regarding the delay in the government's -- and especially the armed forces' -- response time. Surely the ability to maintain full control of the territory at all times is a fairly fundamental responsiblity.

Nevertheless, much of the commentary has concentrated on how uncivilised Chileans are compared to others. Especially poor Chileans. How very ugly it has all been. Why can't we be more like the Swiss?

I am not a fan of these arguments. For one thing, besides the mountains, we are nothing like the Swiss (and their mountains don't shake). However, a few days ago David Brooks published this op-ed piece in the New York Times which shows how other societies react to extraordinary circumstances.

It also shows that, contrary to what some may be tempted to argue, misery does not cause inhuman behaviour. On the contrary, it is then that people really have the potential to show their humanity.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Hualpén vs Haiti: Maule vs Miami

It is inevitable that many people on the street, especially the broken up, lawless streets of Concepción, are criticising the government for its slow response, builders for shoddy construction, telephone companies for cut lines, power companies for outages, and so on.

So this posting (hat tip Two Weeks Notice), is refreshing.

There are two separate issues here. On the one hand there is the quality of construction and infrastructure. While tradtional Chilean building codes have strong anti-seismic elements, it has not escaped our attention that many new buildings, and most unforgiveably, Santiago's international aiport, have suffered serious damage. What is behind that? Laxness in enforcing building codes? Corruption? Laziness? Or, as one colleage put it, a blind desire to pretend we live in Miami, and not in the most seismically active country on earth?

The same questions can be applied to the second issue: government and military response after the fact. Why were government communciations impossible in the hours after the quake? Why did Hillary Clinton have to donate the twenty or so sattelite phones she was carrying on her airplane? Why does Chile have only three MASH units, each capable of handling a maximum of 50 or 75 people? Why was the government unwilling to declare a state of emergency, including curfews? Why do the regions outside of Santiago have no more than one or two representatives of the national emergency response agency?

Corruption? Laziness? A Miami mentality?

Monday, 1 March 2010

Picture of the day

There are so many photos of the last few days circulating, that it is difficult to determine which one best reflects what has happened. In this bicentenary year, I think this one speaks volumes. It is a statue of Bernardo O'Higgins, father of the country: