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Chile's Leader Faces Criticism Over Quake Response
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Chile's Leader Faces Criticism Over Quake Response

Latin America

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Chile is dealing with the aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, all while on the verge of a political transition. Liberal President Michelle Bachelet's term expires next week. She'll be replaced by one of the richest men in the country, conservative Sebastian Pinera. Bachelet has strongly been criticized in Chile for her response to the quake. And some say the transition has complicated the government's handling of the disaster.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the capital, Santiago.

JASON BEAUBIEN: In an hour-long emotional radio appearance broadcast up and down Chile, President Michelle Bachelet defended her response to Saturday's earthquake.

President MICHELLE BACHELET (Chile): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: President Bachelet said that in the hours immediately after the 8.8 earthquake, all the communications systems in the country collapsed. She wasn't able to find out if there was a tsunami. She couldn't even reach some of her key staff to arrange a helicopter in order to tour the damaged areas.

In the 1970s, Bachelet was tortured by the military under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This week she was hesitant to send in the army to restore order in the worst hit parts of Chile, and she's been strongly criticized for this.

Chile is one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America. In the capital, glimmering skyscrapers jut up in front of the Andes. It has billions of dollars in fiscal reserves, and there's a sense of pride here that the country knows how to handle earthquakes. But Bachelet denied that she ever turned down offers of international aid.

Pres. BACHELET: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: What I said was we have to have an exact analysis of what it is we need so that we can ask for it, Bachelet said. Bachelet said rumors and misinformation are creating a national psychosis.

In addition to responding to criticism, Chile's first female president also stressed that the recovery is going to take time. She called for patience.

Pres. BACHELET: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Bachelet's voice cracked with emotion as she told her people to have confidence that her government is doing everything possible to reach areas still cut off by the quake and tsunami. But the criticism continues.

Mr. RAUL SOHR (Political Analyst, Chilevision): No doubt that Michelle Bachelet's legacy has been damaged seriously by the earthquake. That's no doubt.

BEAUBIEN: Raul Sohr is a political analyst at Chilevision, one of the largest TV networks in the country. It also happens to be owned by incoming President Sebastian Pinera.

Mr. SOHR: She's been most unlucky. It all seemed to be glory in the final days of her government, but now she has stumbled badly.

BEAUBIEN: Sohr says the failure of Chile's tsunami warning system, the looting in quake-ravaged areas and the slow pace of aid deliveries has made many Chileans feel that the government abandoned them during this crisis. He says the natural disaster has exposed the deep divide between rich and poor in Chile.

Mr. SOHR: What earthquakes do, they make countries naked. And you can see through all the weaknesses. And here, for decades, we have been talking about exclusion, about the people who are marginated. Well, all those marginals have come out into the streets. Some of them have looted the supermarkets.

BEAUBIEN: Especially in the capital, modern buildings withstood the quake unscathed, yet adobe and brick houses in poorer neighborhoods were severely damaged. Sohr adds that the earthquake also puts incoming President Pinera in a difficult spot.

Pinera has been careful not to step on Bachelet's toes during the crisis, and Bachelet says her administration is working closely with his transition team. But Pinera has made it clear that he would've sent the army in immediately.

President-Elect SEBASTIAN PINERA (Chile): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: At an event yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pinera declared maintaining public order as the government's first priority during a crisis, followed by the distribution of food and water. Pinera added, however, that this is not a time to assign blame, but rather for all Chileans to work together to solve the country's huge, current problems.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Santiago.

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