All Chile miners freed: Rescue succeeds

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Editor's update: All 33 Chile miners are freed after being trapped half a mile below the earth's surface for more than two months.

The rescue picked up pace as the 26th miner was brought to safety. Family members and hundreds of international media held vigil. Some men were brought to safety within 30 minutes of each other.

Chile President Sebastian Pinera welcomed the rescued miners who were then taken to a hospital for observation. Pinera pulled out all the stops to free the trapped miners. Will it help him politically?

SANTIAGO, Chile — By all accounts, it's been an exhausting year.

Chile's bicentennial year opened with an economic recession, dramatically peaked with an earthquake and was topped off with a prolonged indigenous hunger strike.

So, news over the weekend that drills finally reached the 33 miners trapped in a mine in northern Chile came as a welcome addition to the litany of events. The eyes of the world remain on Chile, with hundreds of reporters on site and millions glued to their TV sets waiting for the first man to emerge from the depths of the San Jose mine.

As the unprecedented rescue effort reaches its climax, the government is more than ready to bask in the success of a job well done — President Sebastian Pinera, of course, front and center.

But will he benefit from playing off the rescue efforts?

“I am sure that this moment will be one of happiness that no economic growth or job creation can compare to,” said Pinera last week, referring to recent upbeat economic projections that puts growth for this year at 5.1 percent and 6.1 percent for 2011.

There is no question that the government has done what it had to do, and well. It reacted quickly, sparing no expenses and bringing in multi-disciplinary teams of Chilean and foreign advisers and top experts, including a team from NASA, to help with the drilling and the vast, complex rescue plan that has left no detail unattended.

“Pinera wants to ‘privatize’ the state, not in terms of selling its assets, but by imposing a private managerial style within it. … His promised ‘new way of governing’ hasn’t been evident yet and that’s why he so wants to link the mine rescue to his style of government,” said Francisco Javier Diaz, a former presidential adviser to Pinera's predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, and now senior fellow at the think-tank Cieplan.

The rescue plan has been meticulous and Mining Minister Laurence Golborne’s calm, empathetic leadership has shot him up in public opinion polls. Not so the president.

Although according to a survey released last week, the government has a 56-percent approval rate, “the mine rescue effort has been too much of a show and has not influenced the popularity of the president. Pinera is a hyperactive workaholic who has had too much media exposure in many different issues, and that ends up playing against him,” said Carlos Huneeus, director of the polling firm CERC which conducted the poll.

Even members of his own government and allied political parties quietly complain that Pinera is an often impulsive control freak who centralizes decision-making and is obsessed with being in front of the cameras to take credit for all major and minor events.

A study published this month in El Mercurio showed that the Pinera government has spent more on public opinion polls during its first six months in office than the Bachelet administration did during its first year. The study notes that the government signed 17 contracts for more than $400,000 during those months.

Carefully calculating the effects on public opinion, Pinera has surprised many by making decisions that would have been expected to come from the center-left Concertacion coalition, which this year surrendered the presidency to Pinera after 20 years in office.

One was his unilateral decision in August to suspend a thermoelectric plant project that was to be built near a natural reserve, after mounting protests from local residents and environmentalists. Acting swiftly — and after speaking with his friends at Suez Energy, the company in charge of the project — Pinera dodged the bullets and emerged as a firm protector of the environment.

When it came to financing reconstruction, Pinera again surprised friends and foes by suggesting an increase in mining royalties, another apparent affront to the corporate world he comes from. Ultimately, the higher royalties will be voluntary and temporary, but the effect on Pinera’s public image lasting.

Today’s prime time reality show in the Atacama desert has turned into a virtual public, international test of the government’s drive and efficiency in confronting crises, but it has eclipsed other equally, if not more, pressing problems.

“It’s all so absurd. With the mine rescue it seems as if the earthquake never happened. It’s been forgotten,” added Huneeus.

Pinera’s four-year presidential term began only two weeks after the biggest earthquake and tsunami in Chilean history that struck about one-third of the country. Eight months later, some quake-stricken communities feel they still haven’t overcome the first stage of the emergency.

Last week, neighborhood associations from devastated areas like Talca, Dichato and Talcahuano, as well as old residential areas in Santiago, the capital, met to discuss their situation. They criticized the lack of community participation in reconstruction plans and claimed that at least Talca and Dichato are still “in crisis.”

Of the 2,800 emergency housing units promised for Talca, only 1,300 had been delivered, according to Guillermo Retamal, director of Talca con Todos, a non-governmental organization.

“We haven’t received any subsidies and there are still people sleeping in tents. … The emergency is not over,” he said.

Estimated losses caused by the earthquake total $29.7 billion (14.9 percent of GDP), according to the State of Public Finances report issued earlier this month. The cost of rebuilding public infrastructure is equivalent to nearly 4.2 percent of GDP.

No one understands how the costly mine rescue is being financed and why those funds, which appeared immediately out of nowhere, have not been available for reconstruction. It's a subject no government official seems comfortable talking about.

“The government has handled the miner issue very well, and that isn’t easy. Its response to the emergency of the earthquake was also adequate, but not so when it comes to reconstruction. But what has a lasting impact in the media are the first emergency efforts, so people’s perception is not bad,” said Diaz.