Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS
SANTIAGO, May 18 (IPS) – ”The situation is critical,” said activist Iván Salazar, referring to the slow progress in providing emergency housing to people left homeless in his native Cauquenes, one of the Chilean towns hit hardest by the devastating Feb. 27 earthquake.
”If Cauquenes was in the Santiago metropolitan region, the problem would practically be solved by now,” Salazar, who belongs to a group of people from that town, Cauqueninos Unidos, that is planning a demonstration Thursday in downtown Santiago along with other organisations, told IPS.
”The places reached by the media have received aid, which is why we decided to hold a protest outside the seat of government,” said Salazar, who lives in the capital but travels regularly to visit his family in Cauquenes.
His home town in the region of Maule, 350 km south of Santiago, was one of the hardest hit by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked six regions in central Chile and unleashed a tsunami that wiped away entire fishing villages.
According to the most recent government report, released May 15, 521 people were killed by the quake and tsunami.
”The help has been slow to arrive, overly centralised and top-down,” Salazar complained. ”We haven’t seen much government support for grassroots and citizens’ groups. Sports clubs, cultural centres, local residents’ organisations haven’t been called on to work with the authorities. Organised civil society has not been actively participating. That has slowed things down.”
Not only people in Cauquenes are protesting the slow pace of aid. On May 12, a woman in Penco, in the region of Bíobío, 500 km south of the capital, partially burned down the temporary house she was given, to protest its poor quality.
But the government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, who took office on Mar. 11, announced Monday that it had already reached the goal of delivering 40,000 emergency housing units, before the Jun. 11 target date, while it reiterated the promise to continue working to provide permanent solutions for the families left homeless.
Half of the small, wooden temporary houses were built by A Roof for Chile, a non-profit organisation founded by Jesuit priest Felipe Berríos in 1997 that was granted 27 million dollars collected in the ”Chile Helps Chile” Telethon held in early March.
The government, which estimates that some 400,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged throughout this country of 17 million people, is carrying out programmes like Manos a la Obra (Hands to Work), Aldea (Village) and Impermeabilidad (Waterproofing).
The first programme, which has a budget of 15 million dollars, purchases building materials for reconstruction in the 239 districts hit by the quake, of a total of 345 districts in the country.
The second brings electric power to the emergency homes, as well as street lighting, community bathrooms, perimeter fencing, gravel streets and social centres to the temporary new ”aldeas” or villages.
In the central regions of Valparaíso and Bíobío, 77 emergency communities have been built for more than 3,400 families.
The third programme provides waterproofing for the houses by covering them with polyethylene sheeting.
But Father Berríos, who announced Monday that he was leaving A Roof for Chile to get involved in humanitarian work in Africa, said he feared there would be social unrest because those left homeless by the quake have gradually been forgotten and the problem has faded from the headlines — a view that has been expressed by other critics as well.
There is also concern that the low-cost temporary homes will become permanent housing.
”The emergency is not over,” Rodrigo Jordan, head of the Fundación Superación de la Pobreza (Foundation to Overcome Poverty), a non-governmental institution that receives financing from the state, told IPS.
The Foundation, along with the Catholic Church’s Caritas Chile, launched the campaign ”Por un Chile entero”, which is collecting money until Jun. 4 for 1,500 families in six towns in dire need of assistance: La Estrella, Marchihue, Constitución, Pencahue, Quirihue and Curanilahue.
”The campaign is aimed at making sure people don’t forget about the people left homeless by the earthquake,” especially since things are practically back to normal in the capital, for example, Jordan explained.
He sees the protests as a reflection of ”a desperate situation because the families not only lost their material belongings but also their chances for a future,” given the loss of thousands of sources of jobs.
In Constitución, he said, post-quake unemployment is estimated at 40 percent.
”The earthquake and tsunami not only destroyed the homes and belongings of thousands of Chileans, but also plunged them into poverty. When you visit the emergency camps or ‘villages’, you see that the families are poorer than they were before,” Jordan said.
”The public apparatus has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the catastrophe,” Salazar said. ”The problem is not a lack of will, but that the government institutions haven’t asked for help or opened up to other organisations to work with them to make the response more timely, agile and appropriate.”
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