Chile's tremble

Rescue workers search for victims and survivors after an apartment complex collapsed during an earthquake in Concepcion. Flickr image by Rodrigo LinfatiLast Saturday Chileans suffered the worst earthquake in 50 years. With an intensity of 8.8 it was the fifth biggest in world history. The violent displacement and friction of the continental plate provoked not only a massive earth movement but also a devastating tsunami. Fishing boats dragged by waves of eight meters to the centre of southern Chilean coastal cities conjure up images of apocalyptical dimensions.

At the time of writing more than 700 people are dead and the toll keeps on rising. There are hundreds of people missing. One and a half million are homeless and there is major destruction to infrastructure, especially bridges, ports, airports and hospitals.

The earthquake struck on the last weekend of the summer holidays. Like every other year thousands of Chileans were returning home. In Chile, March is a month when life comes back to normal. Back to school. Back to work. Not this March. It has become a month of sorrow and burials.

Chile is a land of earthquakes and they have been merciless with this long, thin country squashed into a 180 km wide corridor between the magnificent Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Chile is located in the highly seismic 'Pacific Ring of Fire.'

Is it trembling? Chileans casually query each other — almost as a daily greeting — while dim and sometimes imperceptible tremors shake the earth underneath. Chileans live with these tremors and seldom express fear. They are used to them. At least until something so cataclysmic — as last weekend's earthquake — occurs.

Earthquakes are deeply engraved in Chilean identity. Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda was so moved by the 1960 earthquake of 9.5 that destroyed the southern city of Valdivia that he felt compelled to write 'Earthquake in Chile, the Barcarola':

'For the fallen walls, the weeping in the sad hospital, for the streets covered by rubble and fear, for the bird that flies without a tree and the dog that howls without eyes, motherland of water and wine, daughter and mother of my soul, allow me to blend with you in the wind and tears so that the same enraged destiny obliterates my body and my land.'

The violence of the earth in Chile also drew German novelist Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (1777–1811) to write 'The Earthquake in Chile', a story of two lovers caught up in the devastation of the 1647 earthquake that destroyed Santiago, the Chilean capital.

Concepción, the second largest city in Chile, was worst affected by the weekend's earthquake. It was 115 km from the epicentre. I know this city well. I studied in the University of Concepción, the birthplace of the legendary Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR in Spanish).

I was in Concepción little more than a month ago. I was visiting old comrades and my sister and her family. At the moment of writing I have been unable to contact them. I know there is no electricity or water. No gas. Food is also becoming scarce. Vehicles rest abandoned due to the lack of petrol. Banks have run out of money. The desperate are now looting.

Concepción is a city that has been destroyed more than once before. So many times in fact that the historical centre no longer exists. And despite this, Penquistas — as people from Concepción are called — are proud of their city. In the past they would proudly tell you of the new, ultramodern airport, the new highway that had just opened. They would show you new buildings just completed and new construction just commencing. It was a mini-Shanghai — a construction site. Most of this is now gone.

Concepción — and its almighty river Bio-Bio — was the place where the Mapuches, the ferocious indigenous nation stopped the Spanish conquistadors in their advance to the south.

During the conquest — in the 1500s — the Spanish fought not only against the Mapuches but also against the devastating effects of Chilean earthquakes. Newly established towns were victims of earthquakes that appeared and disappeared. 'An earth tremble and earthquake came abruptly in that city [Concepción], so big that most houses fell and the earth open in so many parts that was an admirable thing to see,' wrote in 1570 Alonso de Góngora, a Spanish conquistador and chronicler.

March used to be a month when life came back to normal for Chileans. Now Chileans are searching for life under the rubble. 'Our history is riddled with natural resources testing the will, determination and solidarity that characterise us as a nation,' said President Michelle Bachelet just hours after the tragedy that hit this country of 16 million people.

On 11 March, President Bachelet will hand over power to Sebastián Piñera, the right wing billionaire elected president. The reconstruction of the country will be a colossal challenge. It estimated that damage might be as much as US$30 billion.

It won't be an easy time for this emerging nation. However as has happened in the past this disaster has the potential to becoming a catalyst for deep changes in the political and social outlook of this country.

For 18 years — during the dictatorship of general Pinochet — Chile was a nation of enemies. Perhaps this unparalleled tragedy will become a turning point. Perhaps it will become a time of solidarity and most of all a time when reconciliation among Chileans is finally achieved.

Antonio CastilloDr Antonio Castillo teaches in the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney. His books include Testigos Molestos (Undesirable Witnesses, CEDIC 1983), an account of the struggle of young independent journalists working under Chile's military regime 1973–1989. 

Topic tags: chile, earthquake, 700 dead, 8.8, Concepción, Penquistas, Mapuches



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i am just speechless

zio ledeux | 04 March 2010  

Horrifying. I really really hope your sister, her family and your friends are all right.

Matthew Thompson | 04 March 2010  

Excellent piece Antonio Castillo, you have brought a personal and cultural perspective to the situation. I trust your family is alright.

allegra | 04 March 2010  

Horrible, my prayers go out to all the people of Chile

hassan kalkata | 04 March 2010  

You've captured the colossal tragedy and the human spirit created by this disaster - it's hard not to think of Shakespeare's 'sweet are the uses of adversity' yet who would visit this catastrophe on anyone? I've never been to Chile but feel through your piece that I know it and share its struggle... Thanks Antonio.

Tony Maniaty | 04 March 2010  

Hola! Thank you for such a great article, it took me to a chronological journey. I end this comment in the same way you ended your article "perhaps it will become a time of solidarity ....." Tu amigo Salvadorenho....Herbert

Herbert Ayala | 05 March 2010  

Thinking of you Antonio, and I look forward to reading a follow up on how your sister and family are recovering. Who do you think the most effective aid agency is in Concepcion for people to donate to?

Sally | 05 March 2010  


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