NPR logo Military Aid Efforts Provoke Dark Memories In Chile

Military Aid Efforts Provoke Dark Memories In Chile

Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims Thursday in the coastal town of Pelluhue, Chile. Fernando Vergara/AP hide caption

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Fernando Vergara/AP

Soldiers and rescue workers carrying damaged Chilean flags search for victims Thursday in the coastal town of Pelluhue, Chile.

Fernando Vergara/AP

Chile's military began delivering food Thursday to areas ravaged by the massive earthquake and tsunami, as survivors cheered the arrival of convoys filled with plastic bags of oil, flour and canned beans.

Downed bridges and damaged roads have slowed the flow of aid to desperate survivors of Saturday's 8.8 magnitude temblor and subsequent tsunami. The official death toll stands at 802, according to ONEMI, Chile's emergency management agency.

While water and electricity service has resumed in much of the capital, Santiago, most people in Concepcion still lack basic services. Nationwide, as many as 500,000 homes have been destroyed.

President Michelle Bachelet said in a radio broadcast Thursday that it will take Chile three to four years to recover from its largest earthquake in half a century. She said the country will probably need to rely on international loans to finance the cost of reconstruction, which some estimates put at $30 billion.

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Bachelet, who is set to leave office next week, said the rebuilding of schools, roads, hospitals and other public infrastructure will dominate the four-year term of her successor, Sebastian Pinera.

The disaster has brought the first significant presence of soldiers in the streets since Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s. The Chilean army general overthrew a democratically elected socialist government — with covert U.S. backing — in 1973, and human rights groups say tens of thousands of political opponents were tortured and thousands killed during his 17-year regime.

Bachelet's decision to deploy soldiers to quell widespread looting and deliver aid was reportedly a difficult one. She was arrested and tortured by the military in the mid-1970s and lived in exile for many years after her release. Bachelet's parents also were tortured, and her father — a high-ranking military officer before the Pinochet coup — died in prison.

Professor Constanza Gerding, who lives in Concepcion, recalled that soldiers were a constant and often brutal presence at the time. Her father, a journalist, was imprisoned.

"You learned not to trust anyone, not to talk to anyone," Gerding told NPR. "The streets were always full of military all the time, and there was a curfew just like now, and the situation was very tense."

Although many Chileans have dark memories of the Pinochet years, the past two decades have healed some of those wounds. When looting got out of control in Concepcion, some residents were relieved to see troops in the streets.

"Though aid was slow to arrive, when it did, most people were grateful to the soldiers who helped distribute it," Gerding said.

Edith Sanhuesa was one of the first people to get a relief package. Her adult daughter and grandchildren are staying at her house, and all they had left for food were some hot dogs that a neighbor gave them.

"The army has done a good job, because we were in danger of being robbed, and they guarded our neighborhood," Sanhuesa said. "This time, they were there to protect us."

Still, not everyone is reassured by the military presence. Hernan Vidal, 23, grew up hearing stories about past military abuses and still has a negative opinion of the army.

"I don't know what they exist for," he said. "I guess to defend the country and to fight. But they're real dictators, and it's always their way."

But even Vidal said he accepts that the soldiers are necessary to stop looting and other crimes.

A soldier named Francisco Belmonte whose own home was damaged by the quake was bivouacked in a small park in Concepcion. He said the disaster had helped change people's thinking about the military.

"Before, we weren't liked because of what happened in the past, but now people feel calmer. Now we're responsible for their well-being," Belmonte said. "If we act poorly, imagine how that would affect people."

From NPR's Scott Neuman and Jason Beaubien, with material from reporter Annie Murphy and The Associated Press