Thursday, March 4, 2010
How Ghost of Pinochet Influenced Quake Response
Many Chileans are blasting their government for a slow response to security problems in the wake of the Feb. 27 earthquake and tsunami. Some mayors and military commanders -- sensing an outbreak of crime amid the ruins -- urged President Michele Bachelet to send in troops and impose a curfew immediately. But Bachelet hesitated, according to various press reports. To her and some of her advisers, the thought of soldiers patrolling streets and curfew restrictions was a bitter reminder of life in Chile after the 1973 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But looting, theft and shootings soon came over the most heavily damaged areas. Police forces were quickly overwhelmed, and public angst swelled. With the situation growing out of control, Bachelet acted. Two days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake, the president signed a special order granting the military control over affected communities. A 16-hour curfew was imposed, resulting is scores of arrests. On March 4, Defense Minister Francisco Vidal declared the security situation under control. Meanwhile, government and military officials pointed fingers at one another. The interior minister accused the air force of being slow to provide helicopters to the epicenter zone, which delayed the emergency response. The head of the air force insisted that two hours after the quake, aircraft were "ready to depart wherever we were told." The navy has a major base right in the devastated area of Concepcion, yet its personnel wasn't much visible in emergency operations. Why? According to a fire department official interviewed on radio, the base itself was heavily damaged and the navy had its own casualties to deal with. Update: In an interview with the New York Times, President Bachelet dismissed "speculation" that she held back on sending troops into disaster areas because of her own experience under military rule.