Chile 28/02/11

One year on, Chile remembers those lost in last February’s earthquake, but the thousands still homeless find little appeal in Piñera’s calls for unity.

Sunday was marked by masses and demonstrations across Chile, as the nation remembered the victims of the earthquake which hit the south-central regions on 27 February 2010.

The quake, which affected around 800,000 Chileans and left over 500 people dead or missing, struck in the early hours of the morning and registered 8.8 on the Richter Scale. This was followed by several tsunami, as coastal regions were devastated by a series of massive tidal waves.

In Cobquecura, the site of the earthquake’s epicentre, President Sebastián Piñera lead a ceremony in which he claimed that the government had not forgotten about those affected ‘even for a single second’ since the disaster.

We have made great progress in the process of reconstruction‘, Piñera added during his speech, emphasising that ‘today is a time for unity, not division; a time for greatness, not pettiness’.

However, Chile’s opposition parties have provoked debate by refusing to attend the government-led ceremonies. Instead, the left-wing Concertación coalition chose to hold its remembrance event in Dichato, a seaside community that was a popular holiday resort until the earthquake left it a near-ghost town. Around a hundred Dichato residents gathered to mark the occasion with a candlelit rendition of the national anthem.

One of the largest demonstrations this weekend took place in the southern city of Concepción on Saturday afternoon, where some 3000 protesters dressed in black and carrying black flags marched in the city centre in protest at delays in the rebuilding of housing and the payment of compensation subsidies.

Similar protests were also held by citizens’ groups in the town of Constitución in the Maule Region, where Piñera was due to attend a remembrance mass for the 92 residents killed by the disaster.

With 130,000 people still without permanent housing, Piñera’s calls for ‘unity’ have seemingly failed to resonate with those among the Chilean population who feel that reconstruction works have been too limited and too slow.

Piñera’s predecessor Michelle Bachelet, whose administration received criticism from opponents for its reaction to the crisis last year, has commented on the current government, insisting that ‘all Chilean men and women want their president to govern, not to keep looking to the past for someone to blame‘.

Looking to Chile’s plans for the future, opposition has been mounting over the course of the week against Central Castilla, a proposed thermoelectric plant due to be constructed in the Atacama desert in northern Chile.

Ecologists and environmentalists have warned that the plant could have severe effects on the surrounding environment due to pollution from its carbon consumption.

Around 300 protesters took to the streets in the centre of Santiago on Friday 25 February to demonstrate against the proposed development. Although the march caused little disturbance to traffic in the capital, struggles between police and protesters resulted in at least ten arrests.

Despite objections, plans for the controversial project were approved on Friday by the Comisión de Evaluación Ambiental (Environmental Evaluation Commission) in the Atacama Region.

Opponents of the initiative have announced that they are launching a series of legal actions in an attempt to force the reversal of the regional authorities’ recent decision.