Is Chile's new president ready to deal with an earthquake's aftereffects?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

FIRST REACTIONS to Chile's massive earthquake, both in and outside the country, included a sense of relief that a shock that registered 500 times larger than that of Haiti's in January caused nowhere near the same amount of damage or loss of life. The death toll, which passed 700 over the weekend, was expected to rise further but not to approach the more than 200,000 killed in Haiti; though badly shaken, the capital of Santiago and the most affected city, Concepcion, are still mostly standing.

The second wave of reaction, however, has been more sober. Chile's leaders -- who include an outgoing president and a president-elect due to be sworn in next week -- are now talking about far worse damage than they initially anticipated, with potentially far-reaching consequences for Latin America's most successful economy. "This calamity is much deeper, much more damaging and much more serious than we thought," said incoming president Sebastián Piñera.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet at first suggested Chile might not need international aid; she was slow to declare a state of emergency in the most affected areas, which may have allowed looting to break out. Now she is talking about "an emergency without parallel in Chile's history" and asking for field hospitals, temporary bridges, water purification equipment and rescue teams. The United States, other nations and private rescue organizations are responding; their challenge will be to give Chile the aid that it requires without slackening the effort in Haiti, which still faces overwhelming needs.

Fortunately, Chile is better prepared than most other nations to handle a crisis of this kind. It scrupulously saved some of the bounty from its copper exports when prices were high in recent years, and as a result it has a rainy-day fund of nearly $15 billion to draw on. (One initial estimate put the damage at $15 billion to $30 billion; the latter figure is about 15 percent of the country's gross national product.) Chile's government debt is low, and its free-market economy is flexible and able to respond quickly.

Mr. Piñera, a billionaire businessman who is the first right-wing politician to be elected president since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, already has a plan, which he calls "Let's Raise Chile Up." Importantly, he plans to involve the country's robust private sector in the reconstruction. With luck, the disaster could have a silver lining in the revamping of vital infrastructure and housing. It will, in any case, offer a severe opening test for Mr. Piñera, whom some see as the leader of a new generation of Latin American leaders committed to economic and political freedom. Not only Chile will have a lot riding on his success.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company