Despite Chile's Prosperity, It's Vulnerable To Quakes

Chile is one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America. It's faced, in some places, with destroyed infrastructure — roads, bridges and houses. Larry Birns, director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, talks to Steve Inskeep about Chile's ability to recover from the weekend's damaging earthquake.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Chiles government says it could use outside help, and that is a change from the early days after the earthquake. Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs sees a hint of Chiles initial self-confidence in that early response.

Mr. LARRY BIRNS (Director, Council on Hemispheric Affairs): President Bachelet initially turned down outside help. It was only later on when she realized the impact of what was taking place in the country that she called upon the international community. I think that that was in a small way that that gave a glint of Chiles self-image that it could handle this tragedy on its own.

INSKEEP: Chile went into the disaster as one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America. Then the earthquake wrecked roads, bridges, houses and power lines. So we asked Larry Birns how tough it will be for Chile to rebuild its economy.

Mr. BIRNS: Chile has very valuable extractives. It's the world's largest exporter of copper. Chile also is a wine producing country. It has a rather good, inexpensive wine. It also is a winter fruit producing country.

INSKEEP: Have they also built upon those basic industries by building up a middle class that can become more of a consumer society and build up wealth, build up real estate wealth, and that sort of thing?

Mr. BIRNS: Well, Chileans are very much into real estate, and it's a very active economic sport in Chile. This is a country that if it was figuring in a French fantasia(ph) play, it would be called, you know, a haute bourgeois country. It has that sort of self-image. It has that kind of elegance to it.

And also, the Chileans have always been mortally afraid of isolation. Because during World War I, and to a lesser extent during World War II, Chile suffered from being cut off from the major sea lanes. And so there was real hardship economic hardship during the war periods. And so Chile has attempted to maintain links, and of course has always had a strong attraction to the United States, particularly to California. They look upon themselves as being the California of the South.

INSKEEP: So we've gotten a basic idea of where Chile gets its wealth. What early signs are there of how the earthquake affected this country's economy?

Mr. BIRNS: Well, the train system, the road system, they're easily cut by geological movements. You've got to think of that country as being very vulnerable to an earthquake of this magnitude. And in a way, the Haitian problem was there in the center of the city to solve or not to solve. The Chilean population is much more dispersed. The housing is much more dispersed. And its vulnerability, we've yet to see. I mean I think that the new stories coming out of Chile are going to be far more depressing than we're now hearing.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that...

Mr. BIRNS: Meaning that there are going to be higher rates of casualties and a slower pace of rehabilitation.

INSKEEP: You're forecasting higher casualties than Chileans initially assumed and that the world has heard so far, simply because it is such a widely dispersed country. Communication is not that great and we really may not know what's happening in a lot of cities and towns. Is that right?

Mr. BIRNS: Yes. Electricity is down and telephone lines are down. Latin American countries don't build electrical grids underground. There's been a huge havoc done to the electrical grid and communications are going to continue to be a problem for many days.

INSKEEP: Okay. Larry Birns, thanks very much.

Mr. BIRNS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And our coverage of the situation in Chile continues at npr.org, where you will find photos and more news on recovery and relief efforts.

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