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Quake exposes social disparities in Santiago, Chile

Central Santiago is returning to normal, but basic services are still lacking in poor areas on the outskirts of the capital.

March 04, 2010|By Daniel Hernandez
  • Volunteers and members of the Chilean military prepare boxes to be filled with relief supplies as they arrive at the airport in Santiago.
Volunteers and members of the Chilean military prepare boxes to be filled… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

Reporting from Santiago, Chile — Central Santiago sparkled Wednesday.

Among towering skyscrapers and well-kept streets, businessmen, young locals and tourists lounged at cafes and bars. Malls attracted shoppers and public transportation operated normally. There was virtually no indication that one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded swept the region just four days ago.

But it was a different story on the city's outskirts. Buildings, roads and bridges were damaged, and basic services came to a halt for several days. More alarming, many said, was the social breakdown that followed in some areas of the Chilean capital after the magnitude 8.8 quake hit early Saturday.

In working-class Quilicura, a suburban municipality about half an hour's drive north from the city center, residents went three days without water and electricity. Looters raided supermarkets and homes, despite the minimal damage reported in Santiago compared with other Chilean cities, especially along the coast, punished far more severely by the quake.

"It was a wave of panic," said Patricia Gutierrez, 37, as she emerged from a guarded supermarket. "For me it was astounding to see my neighbors like that, eyes open, ready to defend themselves."

Some residents said they still had no running water. Waste piled up on sidewalks, as trash-collection services had not returned. The prices of basic goods rose sharply in the quake's aftermath, further complicating the return to normality.

At a small store that sells fruits and vegetables, the price of potatoes had more than doubled.

"We are the last ones to get services," said Elizabeth Meza, 42, the store owner's sister. "They looted everything. Everything."

David Ignacio, a 16-year-old boy handling crates of carrots and cabbage, said that when trucks came to Quilicura to deliver potable water, his neighbors turned on one another. "With blows, with sticks, people just fought over the water," he said.

The quake sparked in many people an anxiety over the deep social divisions that continue to beset the country even after 20 years of center-left governments and market-oriented economics, and even in the highly developed capital.

The Santiago daily El Mercurio has run photos of small boys in Quilicura wielding knives, sticks and pieces of metal to "defend" their neighborhoods. Scenes of widespread chaos in cities such as Concepcion have shocked society, said Sonia Diaz, a columnist at La Tercera newspaper.

"The country has grown economically, but socially, in terms of education, culturally, it's just a skin," Diaz said. "You can see it in the social explosions in the south, in the way wealthier people in this region went in and bought up everything in the supermarkets."

Quilicura and its neighboring comunas, or suburbs, are dusty and unattractive places. Many homes and apartment buildings look scraped together from different materials, and many windows and doors wear metal bars. Graffiti covers walls, streets remain unpaved, and dogs roam about. Even some of the residents refer to their neighborhoods as malo -- bad.

"When you say you are from Quilicura, there's definitely a social connotation to that," said Maren Jimenez, a U.S. demographer working at the United Nations office here. "But the reaction to the earthquake wasn't necessarily to the quake, as much as they feel they're forgotten at every moment, at every turn."

The looting reported in Quilicura was, at least in part, a response to the area's marginalization by Chilean society at large.

"Why did it take so much longer for the electricity to come back in Quilicura and not in central Santiago? You have to ask yourself that," Jimenez said.

By midweek, there were signs that people on the outskirts of Santiago were picking themselves back up. Basic services, including cellphone coverage, were returning in Quilicura. Mayor Juan Carrasco Contreras said that about 80% of the residents again have electricity and running water.

"We had some very, very difficult nights," he said. "In the darkness, for two, three nights, people felt unsafe."

Hernandez is a staff writer in The Times' Mexico City Bureau. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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