CHILE’S second city is under lockdown today, with the country’s post-Pinochet military offering an object lesson in what Marxists mean when they describe the state as the ultimate guarantor of property relations.
Concepción was close to the epicentre of Saturday’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake, in which at least 723 people died. Food and water is running out, so the population has taken to self-service shopping in a bid way, gathering what they need to eat and drink from the ruins of fallen supermarkets.
These scenes are by no means rare. We witnessed them in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and again in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince earlier this year. There can be little doubt that if disasters of similar scale struck Birmingham or Brussels or Barcelona, we would get a repeat performance.
When it comes to securing the basic necessities of life, occurrences of this nature are clearly inevitable. What else are people going to do?
True, some are helping themselves to plasma screen televisions while they are at it. This behaviour is hardly morally commendable. But in the wider scheme of things, heavy duty military mobilisation to prevent theft of consumer durables does not suggest itself as a natural first concern for the authorities.
Yet this is what appears to be happening. Some 7,000 troops have occupied the city, and the local military commander has sent soldiers out with megaphones to warn Concepción’s 500,000 inhabitants that a dusk to dawn curfew has been imposed.
‘I would advise criminals not to mess with the armed forces. Our response will be severe, but within the context of the law,’ he added. One person learned ‘not to mess’ the hard way, and was shot and killed last night.
Meanwhile, there are clear signs of class polarisation, with reports that property owners are organising groups to defend their property, or at least what is left of it. Whether these groups are armed or not is not specified.
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has weighed in with the obligatory condemnation of ‘pillage and criminality’. What would be rather more to the point would be for Ms Bachelet to condemn the incompetence that has left her government unable to cope with the proverbial ‘small earthquake in Chile, not many dead’.
This was scarcely an unforeseeable event. An administration more concerned with saving lives than stopping the theft of televisions would be detailing the army to help people survive, rather than gunning them down.
Either get some food in there or let the unfortunate earthquake victims use what might otherwise go to waste. And remember that when the massive bill for the damage comes in, the cost of a few poxy TVs is neither here nor there.Posted at 14:13, 2 March 2010