The Biggest Show on Earth

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Our Chilean correspondent Marcelo was in Copiapo when the 33 Chilean miners were lifted to safety. This is his report.

The incredible media frenzy has now passed, and Chile has returned to normal life. The global phenomenon is now a thing of the past and so too are the 24-hour transmissions dedicated to the 33 ‘heroes’ and to President Sebastian Pinera’s personal endeavour. Chile´s government proudly displays the ‘Fenix II’ capsule used to rescue the miners from the ‘gut of the earth’ in front of the presidential palace like a trophy of war. The San Jose Mine collapse ended happily for the 33 miners and their families, though the happiest of all are without a doubt the Chilean government, now rolling in popularity after an apparently well-planned and executed rescue mission.

However the real story behind the accident is a lot more sinister. The criminal negligence of the mining companies, the government propaganda machine and the complicity of the centre-left coalition together form an entangled web of deceit. The San Jose mining accident has brought to light the lack of safety precautions and the negligence of the multi-billion dollar mining industry in Chile. The worst culprits are the small scale mining companies, which in order to maximize their profits save on safety, putting the lives of the mine workers on the line. Daniel Sanderson, one of the 300 workers from the San Jose mine told the Chilean newspaper ‘UNO’ that ‘there were four ventilators and four jumbo drills with which the mineral was extracted. However, the person in charge of each shift would turn off the ventilators in order to turn on the drills, because if both worked simultaneously, the electrical system would drop’. They preferred to stop the ventilators than stop production, meaning the miners would have to endure the sweltering heat inside the mine. The bosses, said Sanderson, ‘saved a lot of money thanks to us, the workers’. The mine worker went on to mention that a year ago, a truck caught fire inside the mine, almost killing 17 miners. This incident, together with others, was not reported. While I talked with the miners families, many of them said that accidents, such as small scale collapses were an almost common occurrence in the San Jose mine, and they often led to loss of limbs. In July this year a worker lost a leg in a rockfall; The mining company San Esteban, owner of the San Josemine among others, has a appalling record of two deaths, 180 injuries and 52 serious accidents. The mine was last closed in 2007 after the death of a worker, and there is controversy as to who authorised the re-opening of the mine, with accusations that bribery was involved.

It was no secret to the experienced miners that a collapse was imminent. In their own words ‘when the mountain rumbles at midday it’s because it is very unstable’ and although the workers had informed the bosses, these did not take action. This is undoubtedly a situation of criminal negligence. The owners of the mines know that the state regulatory institutions are vastly underfunded and understaffed. At the time of the accident which trapped the 33 miners, Chile had fewer than 20 inspectors for an industry that employs 170,000 and contributes 40% of GDP. In comparison, in Ontario (Canada) where 22,000 miners work, there are 175 inspectors. Hardly surprising then that the mining companies abuse their power and increase their profits by putting their worker´s lives at risk, as they usually get away with it. There have been 31 mining deaths this year alone.

Spin mastery

The wheels of the huge propaganda machine started to turn during the first 24 hours of the accident. The President heard about it while on a visit to Colombia. On his return to Chile he immediately sent the Minster of Mining, Laurence Golborne, to head the rescue operation. From then on, it was all hands on. After 17 days of being trapped without a sign of life, rescue workers heard someone knocking on a pipe 700 metres away. It was a moment of huge happiness, verified soon after when the miners fixed a note of confirmation to the drill bore.

Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, Minister Golborne himself untied that note from the bore. As the executive in charge of the rescue, he spent roughly 50 days of the 70-day operation at the site, immersed in even surprisingly mundane details of his task. The minister, previously CEO of an important retailer, demonstrated a remarkable ability to market his contributions, appearing almost daily before the cameras to update the world on the progress of the rescue mission.

The manipulation of the media, and the government´s hidden agenda went to cruel lengths. The note which read ‘all 33 of us are OK’ was retrieved at about 10:30am on 22 August, but no official would confirm or deny its existence to family members until the president arrived three hours later to make the announcement at a press conference. Of course the attention was on the president and his minister, making front page of the world media. Most journalists had never seen so much press in such a small area. By the end, there were 2000 people in 230 press teams, 180 of which were international all crowded into a small mountain valley in the middle of a desert. It’s hardly surprising that the appearance of the first miner (Florencio Avalos) has been compared to the impact created by Neil Armstrong´s famous first ‘step for mankind’ on the moon: One billion people around the world are said to have watched the event.

President Sebastian Pinera and Golborne personally greeted each miner as they were lifted to safety, waiting for a solid 24 hours. It was a show of support with a substantial payoff: it helped cement approval ratings that have soared during the rescue. A survey conducted by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporanea (CERC) indicated that over the last two months, Golborne’s approval rating has soared to an unprecedented 87%, positioning him as a serious presidential candidate.

It is obvious to all that the government´s aim was to use the mining incident to increase its popularity, and also to cover up all other news stories. During the last two months, the national press was dominated by the news of the miners and the progress with their rescue, while a long-term hunger strike by Mapuche indigenous people demanding that their protests should not be subjected to former dictator General Pinochet’s terrorism laws was relegated into second or third place. But that was not all. On 12 October, the very same day that the miners were being rescued, the Chilean parliament tried to rush through a controversial law which limited the land and water rights of the indigenous communities. It was only just stopped after a strong protest on behalf of the indigenous groups.

While visiting the miners at hospital the day after the rescue, President Pinera announced a restructuring of the workers safety regulations, while some of his party members insist that the current regulation is adequate and that the law needs ‘just to be perfected’. It won´t be a surprise for anyone to hear that the 120-year-old mine that trapped the 33 miners may be opened once again in the future. After all, it is in the very nature of capitalism to make profits and if the wellbeing and safety of the workers is at risk, which in mining is especially true, then governments the world over may learn a few lessons from the masterfully spun Chilean plan.

 

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