New President Sworn In As Chile Recovers From Devastation

Host Michel Martin interviews Chilean journalist Jose Manuel Simian about the earthquake recovery efforts in that nation. Today is the inauguration of the country's new president Sebastian Pinera.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We want to return to those devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Aftershocks are still being felt in both places, and both places are still struggling to recover. Were going to talk about the recovery efforts in both countries but well start with Chile.

Two strong earthquakes rocked Chile today, ahead of the swearing in of President Sebastian Pinera, whos previously said rebuilding efforts will occupy much of his four-year term in office. He accepted the sash from outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet, who leaves office with sky high approval ratings, this despite a series of national complaints about how Chile initially responded to the earthquake. In contrast, international disaster response specialists have praised Chiles handling of recovery efforts.

We wanted to know more, so weve called Jose Manuel Simian, who returned to the U.S. from Chile earlier this week. He is a producer with New York One Noticias, which is a Spanish language local news station in New York City. Jose Manuel was in Chile visiting family when the quake struck on February 27th, and hes with us now from our New York bureau. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOSE MANUEL SIMIAN (Producer, New York One Noticias): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Jose Manuel, do you mind if I ask: how is your family? How are your people there? How did they fare through all that?

Mr. SIMIAN: Fortunately, my family and I were all right. Its a sad but undeniable fact that those who suffered most by the earthquake were those of working class in the lower socioeconomic structure of Chile. And were talking here of fishermen villages that were wiped away by the tsunami, and people who died in old adobe houses of poorly constructed buildings. So, we were lucky enough to not be in that situation, but its not really fair. Its not a very democratic situation.

MARTIN: So, again, housing, as in Haiti, that - so, the quality of the housing played a big role on who survived and who didnt?

Mr. SIMIAN: That is correct.

MARTIN: Well, Im glad to know your family is well.

Mr. SIMIAN: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: But, you know, its hard to imagine having a presidential inaugural transition in the midst of all of this. Was there any talk of delaying the inauguration or the handover of power because of the crisis?

Mr. SIMIAN: No, there was never any talk of delaying it. The ceremonies held today, Thursday, where the more modest. They spent way less money than they thought they would.

MARTIN: Now, you know, I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that former President Bachelet has sky high approval ratings of 84 percent, even though there was some criticism about how whether the government response was initially robust enough. Can you explain that contradiction?

Mr. SIMIAN: No one can explain it in Chile. People call her Teflon President. She has undergone several crises during her administration. The first one was when there was major rallies and demonstrations by high school students. The second one was the failure - initial failure, at least, of the public transportation system for Chile for Santiago, I mean. And the big third crisis is this earthquake in the last days of her term.

And she has been harshly criticized because she took almost 36 hours to send the troops to contain looting and criminal actions in the area of Concepcion, one of the most affected areas of the country. And in spite of this, she has 84 percent of approval, which is a historic number.

MARTIN: Now, there are two things I do want to ask about. First, there was that failure to issue a tsunami warning initially, that you mentioned, and second, that delay in calling out troops to maintain order in the streets. Can I ask you about both of those? Why was there a failure to issue this warning? And secondly, why did she wait so long to bring out the troops, if you know?

Mr. SIMIAN: About the tsunami, our FEMA equivalent NAE, the National Agency for Emergencies, had a sort of miscommunication with the agency of the navy that was in charge of sending the alert of the tsunami. This navy agency sent a fax, not even a phone call or an email, they sent a fax that was not read in clear terms and that tsunami alert was later called off. So, there was some miscommunication in the government and that was very sad because the biggest waves of the tsunami happened two hours after the earthquake. So, some people claim that some lives could have been saved if proper action was adopted.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. SIMIAN: The second question about the troops, its been reported that there was some clash between the ministers, the cabinet of Bachelet and her advisors, about sending or not the troops because a decree of I mean, a state of constitutional exception had to be decreed. And this would bring sad memories of the Pinochet administration.

MARTIN: So there was a feeling that there might be some - whats the word, resistance by the people to having troops on their streets, that it would not be welcomed?

Mr. SIMIAN: Exactly. You need to understand that Bachelet is the fourth -consecutive president of this coalition that was formed to defeat Pinochet. So - and she was tortured, her father suffered abuses, and so it was really hard for them to have this image of the troops taking control of the streets as the last image of the government.

MARTIN: How did that work out, by the way? Now that that decision has been made and the troops have been deployed, how is it being received, to your knowledge?

Mr. SIMIAN: It was successful. It took a few days to really re-establish the rule of law, but people were still claiming that they had to defend themselves and they had to organize by themselves in their villages. Some of them have lost their houses, so they were living on hills, and they had sticks and, I mean, (unintelligible) made guns to defend themselves.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what it is like out on the streets in the harder hit areas? For example, there were a number of reports about, you know, whats the word Im looking for, kind of roving packs of youths, looting people and robbing people kind of willy-nilly. That even though the physical destruction was not as extensive as it could have been and has been in other areas, particularly given the severity of the quake, it was a very severe, very severe quake. So there are mixed reports about just how extensive the damage is and whether the behavior on the streets was as frightening as some people say. What was your sense of it, and how are things now?

Mr. SIMIAN: Well, as I said, things are back to normal now. The troops took control of the most affected areas, but I think that the most striking images were those of people looting supermarkets and at first it was people who just went and broke into the supermarkets trying to get the basics for survival. They were afraid that they wouldnt have water and food for the next few days because the country had been - the highways of the country were severely damaged.

So, the supply of food and water would be interrupted. But then after this initial wave of people came into the supermarkets, there was another wave of people that came in and stole high definition TVs and refrigerators. So this was the talk of the town in the days after the earthquake. Why did people steal things they didnt really need?

MARTIN: So, in the couple of minutes that we have left, could you just tell us a little bit about the new president, Sebastian Pinera? Can you just tell us a little bit about him and what his platform was when he campaigned and, of course, obviously now, his attention has to be really focused very much on the recovery efforts, but would you just tell us a little bit about him?

Mr. SIMIAN: Sure. Pinera is a very interesting character. He is a right wing pragmatist. He is a billionaire. You know, the Forbes list of wealthiest people in the world just came out a few days ago, and he is 453 in that list and his worth is, I think, like $2 billion. He owns a TV station, an airline, the most popular soccer club in the country. So, theres been some issues about his ability to separate his politics from his business. He is a pragmatist. He is not as conservative as most of the people who support him, which is a very interesting thing. He was elected on a platform of efficiency, but not necessarily of conservative values, which is what defines Chile as a country.

MARTIN: And finally, what has he - he said clearly he is going to have to devote much of his time to reconstruction efforts. Has he set any particular priorities?

Mr. SIMIAN: He hasnt said which his priorities will be. He has said that his programs for governing will have to modified, but as of now, he has just said that he will introduce some emergency bills into the Congress as soon as he is sworn in, but theres not many specifics yet.

MARTIN: And, I know that you just got back and we appreciate your taking out the time for us after getting back. Can I just ask you, just briefly, what was it like for you? I mean, here you are, youre a reporter, youre used to reporting on events but you were on vacation, and how are you?

Mr. SIMIAN: Well, if you grew up in Chile like me and you are over 30, you have probably lived at least one major earthquake. The last one was in 1985, which caused significant destruction. It wasnt as bad as this one. But we have a culture of earthquakes in Chile. My grandmother, when this happened, she started remembering the 1939 earthquake and the 1960 earthquake. So, I wasnt that scared, but my wife was American and was traveling with me through the country, she has never lived anything like this. And then the most striking thing is that as we returned from the south of Chile to Santiago, we crossed over the areas of more devastation and that was just shocking.

MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you. Im glad youre well and your family. Thank you. Jose Manuel Simian is a producer with the Spanish language local news station New York One Noticias, and he was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to join us at our bureau in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SIMIAN: Thanks for having me.

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