Post-quake looting challenges Chile's perceptions of social progress

Weeks after the Feb. 27 earthquake hit Chile, a blackout affected millions of residents Sunday. The country is trying to recover from the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country last month and caused a tsunami that damaged the country's coastal region and put other countries throughout the Pacific on alert. Strong aftershocks hit the country March 5 and again March 11.
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 5, 2010

CONCEPCION, CHILE -- In a country considered safe, democratic and increasingly egalitarian, the stores were sacked.

One of history's most powerful earthquakes failed to topple many buildings in Chile. But just hours after the ground shuddered on Saturday, scores of looters fanned out across this city and towns nearby. The looters ransacked clothing boutiques, tried to carry away ATMs and crashed into electronic stores, lugging out plasma televisions and stereos.

Though there were middle-class looters -- some carried off their booty in expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles -- the pillaging was carried out largely by poorer Chileans, and it left some horrified onlookers wondering whether their country had really advanced as much as the economists and government officials had believed.

"I think there are very big resentments on the part of those who are poorest and marginalized," said Piero Mosciatti, a lawyer and director for Radio Bío-Bío, an influential news station that covers this region. "Chile is a country that is tremendously unequal, scandalously unequal. The statistics show it."

Such lofty discussion mattered little to looters such as Pablo Castro, 19, who traveled Wednesday to this city's port, satchel and jug in hand.

Candid and a little cocky, Castro said his goal was to find anything he could take home, from gasoline to prescription drugs. He readily admitted he was looting, both at the port, which was pummeled by a tsunami, and from the destroyed shopping district just yards from the harbor.

"This is done for necessity," he told a reporter just blocks from where heavily armed soldiers patrolled. "Everything is abandoned, and we are looking for what has been left behind."

At 14 percent, Chile's poverty rate is the lowest in Latin America. But inequality here has been historically severe, on a par with that in Colombia, a country known for serious rights abuses and a long-running guerrilla war.

It is the rosy statistics that Chile touts to the world, though: the region's economy, Latin America's fastest-growing in more than a generation; the fact that poverty has dropped dramatically since the 1980s; the big foreign investment. Under President Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist whose popularity rating recently hit 83 percent and whose term ends March 11, Chile has expanded social services and built or renovated more than 700,000 homes as part of an ambitious housing program.

But after the quake and the sacking of stores, some Chileans have questioned whether their country has done enough to close the gap between rich and poor.

"The people with resources have enjoyed Chile's economic success, but the masses have been unable to improve their lot," said Jose Arce, 55, a restaurant owner in the town of Linares.

Patricia Solar, 44, riding a bicycle in a shopping district here in Concepcion that was destroyed by looters, shook her head and muttered, "There's a lot, a lot of poverty -- all over."

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