Chile – destroyed and reorganizing

An earthquake and following tsunamis destroyed great parts of Chile, killing people, ripping apart families, and affecting infrastructure, business, politics, animals and ecological relations. This is my short report on thoughts and fears of the reorganization phase, based on following Chilean television and Swedish news flows.

The proportions of the destruction due to the tsunami that came 30 minutes after the earthquake are beginning to emerge as first journalists (2 days), and later aid workers and military forces are working their way down the southern cost of Chile (3 days) . The area of destruction seems very big, now spanning some 300-500 km. Many, many of the villages and tourist spots along the coast that in many ways define the sense of Chile as a country by the sea, are almost completely destroyed. I have attached a link from the national television of Chile.

A debate is arising criticizing the authorities for responding slowly. In fact, two days after the earthquake journalists were the first to arrive to these devastated villages. There are no proper water sources, food or electricity. Also, there is a debate concerning why there was not a proper warning of the tsunami from the Chilean military navy responsible for this task. People in the destroyed areas, being from a country that has experienced earthquakes and tsunamis before and having been trained in school, immediately ran to the hills, which could explain the low number of dead people; but still mourned every one. However, there are rumors that the Chilean Navy sent a faxed message to the national emergency organization which was not properly interpreted. Thirty minutes after the earthquake, eye witnesses have reported of a set of three tsunami waves, the first being some 4-5 meters in height, others claiming 8 metres, came rolling in, pushing some 2 km in land, moving boats, houses, and washing those humans not in safety with it.

What is interesting here is not resilience in itself. For sure, the Chilean society will reconstruct and start working in some way the weeks, months and years to come. In contrast to Haiti, the state is not destroyed, but fully functioning and with more resources and capacities; and with the crucial capacity to capture and steer international capital and aid organizations. Instead, what is interesting is the trajectory of resilience.

After this type of crisis, old habitats and common-days of so many people are ripped apart, and so many forged relations between both humans, species and machines are lost or loosened, speeding the whole of society – and in fact ecologies – into what ecological theorist like Buzz Holling would refer to as re-organization where different scales of dynamic processes (political, social, ecological) would structure re-organization. Social theorists, for instance Anthony Giddens would perhaps rather highlight how “the normal” has vanished, and how novel structuration processes are in play.

What type of new social relations will be forged, which old ones will be lost and what type of social structure will emerge in the wake of this crisis? Will the social system be less or more inequitable? What chances are there that many of these villages will not return but that people, in face of no jobs or a house to live in in the coming months, will move to Santiago where certainly many already have family and friends? And how will the crisis rearrange the relations between social and ecological systems?

What will for instance happen to local fishermen resource rights now in the hands of the local “sindicatos” and “las caletas”? What seems to be a strenght in this respect is of course that these sindicatos are organized on a greater scale (nation wide) which should grant some greater possibility for sustained collective action to secure these rights for returning fishermen collectives, as would be argued by social movement theorists like Melucci, Diani, and Tarrow.

I would appreciate anyone with more information on emergent initiatives outside the state and business sectors that are mobilizing for a progressive and equitable reorganization phase, to let me know.

Shift in state powers. One worry – or at least important factor – to understand what could come to structure the “reorganization phase” is a coincidence in the transition of state power (all complexity fans will see “punctuated equilibrium” lights blinking). In a few days Chile is shifting from a 20-year long rule by the left-centre coalition of Michelle Bachelet (since the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet), to the right-wing rule of Sebastian Pinera, the latter having promised in elections less interference of the state in societal development. What relevance has the (panarchy-inspired-/-marxist) “shock doctrine” hypothesis of Naomi Klein to do with this shift of political rule at the same time as an external shock? Will Pinera seize the opportunity and blame the earthquake so as to pull back some of the social and state-led reforms like education and large-scale social security systems that were put in place by the centre-left coalition under its rule? What framings of reality will Pinera support and actively strive to construct? Will it be one where business “should” play a leading role in reconstruction? One where deregulation of state health insurance and health care will “need to go” or at least not be expanded? Initial response is that he has decided to remake his whole 4-year plan and focus on the reconstruction of Chile, by some estimated to take between 20-30 years, but it is difficult to interpret what his plan means (or what the time period of 20-30 years means for that matter).

What social movements and sustained collective action processes can put enough pressure so as for the most marginalized of Chilean society to access state resources for the reconstruction of their communities, shools and economic outcomes? Surely the self-organizing capability of local groups will be important to access control of resources (the fishermen caletas are crucial), but if these are not linked across time and space, it will be difficult to sustain pressure and hopes for a better future, as the (new) common-day and normalization starts socializing the lifes of Chileans. As above, if anyone has information of such emergent social movements (including the role of unions, fishing sindicatos, NGO’s and similar), I would be most interested to hear.

I see a parallel here (post-crisis social movements) with how Manuel Castells conceptualized urban social movements – as struggles over public consumption (not production, which was the struggle over the means of production).

Something good coming out… Of course research has demonstrated that these crises “could lead to something better”, but I am very reluctant to frame what is happening in Chile or Haiti, or any region thrown into sudden crisis in those terms. Of course something good could come out; everything is possible right? But to frame this as an opportunity for anything is a slap in the face for all those that have lost family members, their home and community; and a disrespect to the dead. As belonging to a world elite as we academics do, I find it very important to reflect upon how we participate in shaping how things are viewed. If something good comes out, that something “good” will always be contested, and it will always have come out out of some kind of social struggle; i.e. persons forming collectives that can win power to reorganize into more equal – by some rationale – communities and societies. That something good is consequently not something that is just happening, with equal opportunities of turning good or bad, but a contested outcome forged out of social and political struggle. A multitude of actors are now grouping in Chile forging novel relations to carry out intended actions, which nonetheless will produce unintended consequences. To frame this as something good or bad is simplistic and could just come to play in the hands of some.

Like many, I am siding with the masses and the marginalized, and I try to understand the factors that will tend to structure reorganization towards a more unequal society.

As a final remark in relation to Haiti, which did not spur this activity in me. I have family in Chile (whom are all safe) and I feel therefore more emotionally affected, although what is going down in Haiti is in ways similar.


PS. A lot of events are currently structuring the reorganization phase at different scales. From my biased media view, here are some:

1. A Swedish reporter reported that in Curico a local radio-station became the nucleus of self-organization just after the earthquake coordination initial aid work and monitoring the situation. This later lead to that soup-kitchens was established at the radio-station gathering the city in mutual relationships of aid and solidarity.

2. In Concepcion the opposite seemed to have occurred. There bands of people robbed shops of food, TV-sets and refrigerators and were stealing from evacuated houses. This made others to arm themselves to protect property and family, leading to the shooting of several. Things calmed down when the army arrived and enforced a 18 hour curfew (for the first time after Pinoche the army was used for this bringing (in me and probably many Chileans) old haunted memories.

3. A 24 hour national TV show “Chile auyda Chile” was held to gather money for the reconstruction, following an old tradition in Chilean society to redistribute money through having the rich donating money to the poor administrated through the state. This was en event that gathered the nation, with the flag, the hymn, celebrities, president and soon-to-be president and with interviews of fishers and villages mourning their dead but with the strong belief to continue (“seguimos adelante”), and displaying help-workers, fire fighters and the army helping people. Just a few days after the big catastrophe, people – even in the most destroyed areas – had a party, quite amazing; and probably a general spirit-boosting event.

The event managed to gather a lot of money (30.1 billion pesos or $59.2 million), and the day after some of those that had robbed the stores in Concepcion, came voluntarily and returned some of the goods; some even making an excuse to the owner, some in public television.

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