When solidarity makes up for State failures

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 15, 2014


As normally happens after a natural catastrophe, Chileans have shown solidarity with the victims of the tragic fires befalling Valparaíso. Chileans, like most other Latin Americans, step up and to help their fellow-nationals in need in times of disaster. Although commendable, that show of solidarity also exposes institutional failures. In Valparaíso, lack of preparedness, outdated urbanization, housing and construction policies in areas prone to forest fires and an insufficiently funded structure of first-responders collaborated to make the fires one of the worst preventable catastrophes in recent Chilean history.


A natural catastrophe, like an earthquake or a tsunami, tests both the institutional strength of the country affected and its social fabric. When state institutions are strong, the citizens affected by the natural disaster can feel protected by an institutionalized system of first-responders and subsequent reconstruction programmes. A strong civil society will provide the necessary safety net of human support. The state and civil society complement each other. While the state provides an institutional setting for the first response and the reconstruction, civil society offers that valuable and complementary human touch.


Too often in Latin America, dysfunctional institutions have failed to provide the appropriate responses when a tragedy strikes. Institutional shortcomings become evident when a hurricane, an earthquake or any other natural disaster brings death and destruction. On those occasions, civil society makes up for state failures. The Catholic Church and other denominations, international organizations and national NGOs often step in to fill the void. They become the first-responders — even if they have not been properly trained — and often they take on the challenge of reconstruction. On those occasions, despite the gratitude felt for the efforts made by civil society, there is a sour aftertaste in society. Solidarity made up for the failures of the institutional system to provide an adequate response to the crisis.


Like the most developed countries in Latin America, Chile prides itself on having strong institutions and a well-functioning government. Tax collection is efficient, social programmes earmark spending to the lowest income quintiles, and government corruption is kept at bay. Because the country is also regularly hit by earthquakes, Chileans have developed a strong institutional system to prepare for those catastrophes and deal with their consequences. Construction building regulations are strictly enforced. As a result, when earthquakes hit, few buildings are severely damaged. In the February 27, 2010 earthquake only a handful of buildings fell down. Despite the strong 8.8-magnitude, which made it one of the worst earthquakes in world history, Chilean infrastructure resisted well. A couple of apartment buildings which collapsed or were rendered uninhabitable caused several deaths in Santiago and Concepción but the legal consequences for those responsible were severe. A subsequent earthquake happened just minutes before the inauguration of President Sebastián Piñera on March 11, 2010. The quake threw many of the guests attending the inauguration into a nervous wreck but the ceremony continued as planned. Nobody doubted that the Congress building was sufficiently strong to avoid damage.


Chileans were not adequately prepared for a tsunami in 2010. The massive wave which hit several smaller Chilean coastal cities minutes after the earthquake caused dozens of deaths. Lack of preparedness on the part of the government, absence of protocols for evacuation from low-lying land and an erratic leadership resulted in many deaths which could have been avoided. Fortunately, lessons were learned and when a new strong earthquake hit a coastal area on April 1, 2014, protocols were in place to evacuate areas which could be hit by a new tsunami.


Although Chileans are well-prepared for earthquakes, the fires recently ravaging homes in low-income neighborhoods in the hills of Valparaíso showed that the country is ill-prepared for those human-made disasters. As Chile’s most important port, Valparaiso has historically been affected by fires. Strong winds in summer —and before the rainy winter — and difficult access to the hills make the area an easy target for forest fires. The unregulated growth of low-income housing makes it difficult for firefighters to get to the area. Insufficient or non-functioning fire hydrants makes combating fire almost impossible when the firemen manage to get there. In February, 2007, a fire caused by an electrical short circuit ravaged part of downtown Valparaíso, destroying historic buildings in the city named by UNESCO as a world-heritage site. In February, 2013, another fire ravaged dozens of low-income homes in Rodelillo, another Valparaíso hill.

The April 12 fire, the biggest in over a century, exposed the insufficient preparation in Chile for these kinds of catastrophes. As a result of the institutional void, we have seen the emergence of solidarity. An active civil society has stepped in. Unfortunately, despite the strong sense of community and solidarity Chileans have shown, the actions by civil society are also filing a void which exposes institutional unjustified shortcomings in preparation for these recurrent manmade disasters. For a country which prides itself on being the most developed nation in the region, that is a shameful institutional failure.