Bachelet's quick Chile quake response helps her reform campaign

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 04, 2014 3:09 PM

By Alexandra Ulmer

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's efficient response to this week's earthquake is a far cry from her handling of a massive quake that hit four years ago, a turnaround that analysts and citizens say has put her and her reform drive in a stronger political position.

Emergency services and security forces moved quickly to limit the damage of an 8.2-magnitude quake that hit northern Chile on Tuesday. Quick evacuation orders as well as a series of emergency drills in the area in recent weeks helped keep the death toll to just six.

It was in stark contrast to the center-leftist Bachelet's poor management of the 8.8-magnitude quake that slammed central-south Chile in 2010 and triggered a devastating tsunami.

Four years ago in late February, Bachelet instructed people to return home just as massive waves were about to come crashing in. Over 500 people were killed in that disaster, 156 of them by the tsunami.

Bachelet, who was imprisoned and tortured during Chile's 1973-1990 military dictatorship, then dithered about sending in the army to restore order. Looting spread and aid trickled in slowly.

It was the low point of her broadly successful first term in office. The government's management of the quake was so bad that some families of the victims later tried to bring Bachelet to court over the deaths.

But Bachelet returned to power last month and her deft management of this week's emergency should shore up her popularity, leaving her in a stronger position to push through tax, education and constitutional reforms aimed at fighting income inequality.

"With the earthquake, she has more support and more room to negotiate (in Congress)," political analyst Guillermo Holzmann said. "She can leave the opposition in a situation where it can't articulate an alternative ... There are more chances that her reforms go through now."


This time around, Bachelet let well-equipped emergency services and her interior minister take center stage, organizing evacuation efforts while she gave orders behind the scenes. Soldiers were quickly deployed to quake-hit areas.

"She didn't feel the need to be in front of the cameras like last time around. She let other government representatives do that," said political scientist Robert Funk. "It was a good, measured reaction."

Bachelet herself went to the northern city of Arica to inspect damage, and she was evacuated alongside ordinary Chileans when a strong aftershock hit on Wednesday.

"Now her leadership is credible," said Pablo Chandia, a 52-year-old shopkeeper in Santiago. In 2010, "she improvised a lot. It wasn't serious. This time, she was prepared."

Power cuts and evacuations meant many in the north weren't aware of how Bachelet was managing the disaster, but they felt the state's presence.

"Wherever you went, there were police or soldiers," Alvaro Hurtado, a 33-year-old engineer, said of the evacuation in Iquique. "I'm really glad they're here. (Otherwise) when it's dark, people go out to steal."

The United Nations also lauded Chile's quake response.

Still, more than 2,600 homes have been damaged. Some in poor villages in the Atacama desert are suffering from power cuts and water shortages.

Holzmann said the government might weave a relief fund into the tax reform bill being negotiated in Congress.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Jan Paschal)