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Chilean Miners : What was the TV Show hiding?

Deeply moved, nearly a billion of us looked on. A whole nation—managers and workers, rich and poor—united in a common effort to save 33 Chilean miners, with their President leading from the front. Emotion, suspense, ratings, huge advertising revenues. But what did this TV extravaganza conceal?

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“Today, all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy,” President Sebastián Piñera said as he held a letter sent by the 33 trapped workers at the San José gold and copper mine.
(Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

That the "saviours" were in fact the culprits. Three hours before the landslide, the San José miners had requested permission to leave after hearing suspect noises. Their bosses’ refusal imprisoned them under several tons of earth. Is this surprising? No. On the 30th July, a Ministry of Labour report had already flagged up important safety problems at the San José mine, but no action was taken, and the Ministry kept silent.

Of course everyone was overjoyed at the happy ending. But the rescue show masked the extent of the problem: four hundred Chilean miners have died in the last decade. And more importantly, it masked the causes. "Poor investment and safety standards" said Marco-Enriquez-Ominami, Sebastián Piñera’s opponent in the last presidential elections. In fact, in 2009 alone, 191 000 work accidents were recorded in Chile, in which 443 workers died. And the Chilean government is directly responsible, as, it has refused for the last twelve years to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention C176 on health and safety in mines. Business enjoys unrestricted freedom, while the workers have no rights.

Behind the saviour hides a billionaire

His face appeared constantly on every screen : the Head of State — smiling, focused, concerned for his fellow citizens. But was this idealised image perhaps a little too smooth? Who is the real Sebastián Piñera, elected President in 2009 with 51.61% of the vote?

At 61, he is worth 1.2 billion dollars, which according to Forbes magazine makes him the 701st richest man in the world — a fortune he amassed thanks to measures implemented during the blood soaked Pinochet dictatorship years (1973-1990). At the time, Chile was the testing ground for the neoliberalism of the extremist economists who came to be known as the Chicago Boys. Piñera was able to profit from these privatisations by helping himself to the credit card sector.

Nicknamed the "Silvio Berlusconi of Latin America", Piñera now owns Chilevisión, one of the country’s largest TV networks, and Colo Colo, one of the biggest football teams and is also involved in distribution, the mining industry and pharmaceuticals. On becoming President, he was obliged to sell his shares in the Lan Chile airline (where he was the majority shareholder). He therefore wears two hats : Head of State and powerful businessman. When asked by the Argentinean newspaper Clarín about this ambiguous status, he responded : "Only the dead and saints have no conflicts of interest."

Piñera is certainly no saint. Monica Madariaga, Minister of Justice during the military dictatorship, has admitted to putting pressure on judges, at the time when Piñera was a bank manager. The level of fraud rose to nearly 240 million dollars. In 2007, Piñera was also condemned for insider dealing by the financial markets authority following his acquisition of shares in Lan Chile. As the great French writer Honoré de Balzac said, "Behind every great fortune hides a crime". That of Piñera is the colour of the blood of the dictatorship’s victims.

By hiding his past, and presenting him as a friend of the people, the TV spectacle at the San José mine handed the yellow-helmeted Piñera a real political opportunity. As a result, he rose in the opinion polls. The Chilean right, which dared not show its face after the dictatorship, has regained its prestige.

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Piñera and his mentor, military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Piñera, the posthumous victory of Pinochet and the USA

Despite the scandals, Sebastián Piñera knows how to present himself to best advantage. His electoral campaign stressed his "love of democracy" and the fact that he voted against Pinochet remaining in power during the 1988 referendum. His election thus owes much to his image as "the success man"—as if making a personal fortune implied the ability to govern a country. Quite the contrary, his fortune was built precisely on undermining the community.

And he’s getting ready to carry on doing so. This admirer of Nicholas Sarkozy intends to privatise state assets, under the pretext of covering the losses incurred as a result of the great earthquake of February 2010. It would mean selling 40% of Codelco (the no. 1 copper company) as well as another mining company — Cimm T&S — into private hands. This makes perfect sense, given that Chile is the world’s biggest exporter of copper. Remember that certain US multinationals committed the most heinous crimes in order to keep control of this wealth.

In 1970, a progressive government led by Salvador Allende undertook to develop Chile and free its people from poverty. To do this, it had to regain control of the primary source of national wealth— copper—obtaining a fairer price and allocating the revenues to the pressing needs of the population. The United States let fly immediately : a financial embargo, destabilisation by the CIA, terrorist activities, every kind of blackmail... until the military coup d’état and the installation of the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. There were thousands of victims, and a whole progressive generation was massacred or exiled.

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President Salvador Allende speaking at the UN General Assembly in December 1972.

In his speech to the UN in December 1972, a few months before his assassination, President Allende described the looting of his country by the US copper multinationals, the Anaconda Company and Kennecott Copper Corporation, "The same corporations which have exploited Chilean copper for so many years have made over 4 billion dollars in profits in the course of the last 42 years, although their initial investments amounted to less than 30 million dollars. Take a simple, painful example and a flagrant contrast : in my country there are 600,000 children who will never be able to experience normal human lives because in their first 8 months, they were deprived of essential quantities of protein. My country, Chile, would have been totally transformed by these four billion dollars. A tiny fraction of this amount would have provided all these children from my country with enough protein once and for all." Piñera’s electoral victory is essentially a posthumous victory for the dictator, the return to power of the United States.

Besides, Piñera is planning to borrow from the Inter-American Development Bank, dominated by the USA — a loan which will also result in new anti-social cutbacks. This general offensive of the private against the public is hardly surprising now that there is a billionaire at the country’s helm. All semblance of independence between the two spheres has vanished: the Minister of Foreign Affairs used to run the Falabella department store chain, while his counterpart at the Ministry of Health was head of Las Condes private clinic, the country’s biggest. Even though they have temporarily abandoned these posts, they continue to take decisions which have a major bearing on their companies’ futures.

With such billionaires in power, it’s hardly surprising that business tax is ridiculously low — 3% in 2011 and 1.5% in 2012— all still under the pretext of the earthquake! In fact Chile occupies 21st place worldwide in terms of countries which tax capital the least — and first place in Latin America (source : Pricewaterhouse Coopers). The TV said nothing about the links between the dictatorship and Piñera, or about these anti-social projects.

Also covered up was the miners’ anger

In the country where the CEO is King, Piñera was still nevertheless obliged to set up a commission on work safety following the drama of San José —due to deliver its findings on 22nd November. He also set up a Mines Control Authority and ordered a review of mining safety regulations.

This is no gift from a big-hearted billionaire, merely a retreat in the face of popular discontent. Just after the miners were rescued, their colleagues demonstrated for their unpaid salary and bonuses, the continuous training of the young workers, the approval of their benefits, retirement for the elderly and redundancy money. Then, on 7th September, Chilean unions demanded the ratification of health and safety agreements not only in mines, but also in the construction and agricultural sectors.

But what the TV failed to point out was that these violations of workers’ rights are the result of the reforms implemented during the dictatorship. The Pinochet years turned health, education and social security into mere commodities — jobs became much more vulnerable and flexible. And these neoliberal reforms have remained virtually intact, as they remained unchallenged by the Coalition governments (alliances of Christian Democrats and Socialists) which followed one another in the twenty years after Pinochet. Flouting workers’ rights — even human rights — is still legal in Chile.

Piñera is implicated in this too — his brother José was Minister of Labour in the 1980s, during the dictatorship. It was he who applied the no-holds-barred neoliberalism of the Chicago Boys, insisting that pensions should be "capitalised", i.e. privatised. This disaster brings us back to Camp Esperanza. One of the 33, Mario Gomez, began working in the mines aged 12 and is still there today, aged 63! Why? Because his pension amounts to a pittance — thanks to José Piñera! Nothing of this was said on TV.

One of the world’s most unjust countries

Although "an economic miracle" in Washington’s eyes, Chile is in fact one of the world’s most unjust countries. CASEN (Centre for Research on the National Socio-Economic Situation) statistics show that poverty is rising at the same speed as GDP (the country’s overall production). GDP is indeed on the up, but only benefits a sector of the population, thereby further exacerbating inequalities. Poverty rose by 15% in 2009, affecting the under 3s in particular. One in four of the population is poor according to CASEN.

But these official figures underestimate the reality, based as they are on 1988 calculations, labelling the poor as those earning under 2,000 pesos a day — in a country where a single bus ticket costs 500 pesos! The cost of living is not therefore factored in. A more realistic estimate would list 8 million poor, i.e. half the population. Faced with this, UN Human Rights organisations remain silent. Meanwhile, the United States — grand defender of democracy — considers the country an ally and even an example. Is it purely by chance that Chile is moving closer to Columbia, considered a US agent in Latin America?

In short, Chilean society has been divided, stripped of its rights, misinformed and reduced to submission by the uniformity of the media. The aim of the Right, and even of the Coalition, has been the continuation of the military regime. The country is increasingly becoming a business paradise, repressing workers and unions alike. Sebastián Piñera ensures the model of the Constitution put in place by Pinochet in 1980 is preserved and is likely to take things even further. TV said nothing of this.

What is a TV show for?

To summarise (and learn some lessons, as we will be treated to more such shows in future). For days and days, the major international media kept trotting out the same fairy tale: the big-hearted billionaire so concerned about the poor! For days and days, the TV ignored the misdeeds and selfish plans of this same billionaire — his links to the heinous dictatorship, his servility towards the United States.

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Thirty-four Mapuche prisoners staged an 82-day hunger strike to protest against the use by the Chilean government of anti-terror legislation to criminalise attempts by the Mapuche to recover their ancestral land.

Chilean and international cameras were all trained on this spectacle. Nothing, for example, on the impressive hunger strike of the Mapuche aborigines. Harshly repressed, treated like terrorists, their struggle was wiped out. On the contrary, the TV spared no detail about the miners, down to their most intimate secrets. We learned of the double lives led by some, the hidden children and the mistresses. You’d think you’d switched on to pure reality TV. No information, just buckets of emotion. Producers and publishers are already talking about a film, a TV film and a book — the perfect opportunity to make a killing! In a quest for the poignant details, the log book of one of the survivors is coveted by all and sundry. It is estimated that potential buyers are ready to pay out up to 50,000 dollars. These 33 stories will thus be exploited to the maximum, totally exposing the private lives of the protagonists.

The whole TV "show" was designed to pre-empt reflection, working the emotional angles with carefully honed techniques, transfixing viewers and bumping up advertising revenues. The emotional side has been systematically exploited so as to hide the absence of any real inquiry into the causes of the problems. Work accidents for example are almost always the result of a conflict of opposing interests: profits versus safety.

No enquiry therefore into the responsibility of the "saviours" and the Chilean government. No inquest into our western governments which acted as Pinochet’s accomplices and refused to bring this criminal to judgement. No enquiry into fundamental topical questions — why it is that one Latin American in two is poor while the continent abounds in riches and multinationals make enormous profits? Why do our western governments oppose all those who attempt to fight against poverty? Why did these governments do nothing when the CIA attempted coups d’état to eliminate Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa? Why did they do nothing to counter the successful military coup d’état in Honduras? Journalists, union members and human rights workers are systematically killed and this provokes no international media campaign?

Instead of genuine enquiries, TV brainwashes us with messages along the lines of "billionaires and workers, all in the same boat". For real information, look elsewhere.

Translated from French by Andrew Morris

Michel Collon

Michel Collon Belgian journalist dedicated to uncovering the propaganda ensconced in the mass media. He directs Investig’Action, a team of independent investigative journalists. Last book translated in english: Liar’s Poker: The Great Powers, Yugoslavia and the Wars of the Future.

 
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