Art & Activism: Chile 2010
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In spring of 2010, I was visiting friends in Chile when the country experienced a major earthquake. Fortunately I was north of the area most hard hit. However, the friends I was visiting work with a health care organization in Concepcíon, one of the most devistated areas. The people they serve, already poor and for the most part ignored by government assistance, now struggle to recover not only from the earthquake but from a change of government that took place immediately following the earthquake. And perhaps most frightening is the coming of winter in Chile before houses have been rebuilt and supplies are still slim. The following link is an article by a friend of mine who describes the conditions, in particular for women. I am moved by the level of community organizing that is going on in-spite of extraordinary hardship.
To read the article by Maxine Lowy, please click here.
Sent to the folks at La Peña in Berkeley on March 3, 2010.
I wish I could join La Peña’s musical gathering on behalf of Chile but I’m in Santiago! I am safe.
I will not try to share an update as things keep changing by the hour. Communication has been very difficult. There have been close to 800 confirmed casualties and there are still thousands missing. Many places, even in Santiago, are still without electricity, gas, water, food, shelter, cells phones, or Internet. Roads are damaged. The worst hit is Concepcíon and the nearby coastal towns and villages that not only experienced the earthquake but also the tsunami waves that followed.
However, little by little, the country is catching up to the size of the disaster. Dozens of trucks are getting through with supplies, neighboring nations are donating field hospitals, doctors are arriving from Cuba, and satellite phone systems are being installed. I’m sure to those suffering, it does not feel like enough. But it is a beginning. We are heading into fall and soon it will be winter so this recovery process must move quickly. The material damage is unimaginable, especially since so many of the towns were extremely poor to begin with. People’s homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and the number of people living in shelters is estimated at two million.
A week before the earthquake, I was actually in Concepcíon visiting a health organization called EPES (Educación Popular en Salud). I am friends with Karen Anderson, one of the co-founders, and I was being shown the new building as well as seeing some of the health education trainings that they initiate. We were also taking a short vacation and traveled farther south. As we passed by health symbols on the road side Karen would say, “That is one of our rural health team.”
Now, a little over a week later, they are all in grave trouble. We have finally heard that most are accounted for. An EPES team from Santiago which includes Karen has just borrowed a pickup truck from Maryknoll and is heading south to take supplies and evaluate the situation in order to be of better use. We have heard from the main coordinator of the EPES health team that the EPES building is standing although everything inside was hurled to the floor. He has been able to dig down and reach a well behind the building and supply water to 150 people who live in the community that surrounds the EPES compound.
The front line is, of course, the survivors of the earthquake. Then there are the major disaster relief organizations that include government, Red Cross, etc. In addition to these two essential components are corporations and private companies that will move in to build housing. These homes will be welcome but it is important for people who in live in the area to have some say about how this is done.
This is where the next level of support comes in. There are the organizations that already have long-standing relations with these communities and they will be working to find ways to offer the most essential and the long-term support.
EPES is such an organization. It trains organizers in poor and under-represented communities so they are empowered to have their own voice and manage their own lives. They will be putting together an assistance program not only to bring supplies but also to help train and support organizers so that they can begin to rebuild and have some control over how the rebuilding is done. This will be a much longer project than sending aid but, as has been seen in other situations, often the poor are railroaded out of the decision-making. There is another group with a long history in Concepcíon that is working to send women’s health teams who do trauma work.
And finally, there are people like you and me in the international solidarity community. Our first responsibility is to get money to responsible organizations. I’m sure many of you have organizations you trust. Let me also bring your attention to EPES (see below). And La Peña has a place to contribute on their site as well.
So, a bit on the personal side. This is the end of summer vacation here in Chile. I was visiting my friend Judy at the beach in Quisco when the earthquake hit. Judy and I ran out of the house. The two elder people in the home chose to stay in bed for fear of falling. It went on for a long time and then it was calm. There were not many people in the streets and since earthquakes are common in Chile (and in California), we went back to bed. Then the aftershocks began so we got up. As dawn came on I began to worry about possibility of a tsunami. I kept an eye on the sea as we were trying to figure out what to do. In hindsight, I’m profoundly grateful to be alive. Not too far south of where we were, towns were being washed out to sea.
We had one small battery-operated radio that could only find a little station in Argentina and they had very little news. I began to understand how serious this might be in other places if all the Santiago radio stations had stopped broadcasting. We had lost electricity so no lights, no phones, no Internet. I learned later that my friends and family were seeing the size of the catastrophe on TV in the States long before I was and they had no idea whether I was still in Concepcíon. Judy and I decided to return to Santiago. On the drive there, I got about 10 minutes of Internet on my laptop and I was able to get a message through that Judy and I were fine.
This was a huge earthquake. I have never felt anything like it. It felt almost lateral, not like the quakes I have experienced in California. Eventually we began to get news. We heard that President Michelle Bachelet had immediately gone alone in the night to her office to try and find out who was being affected. Unlike George Bush who sat still doing nothing after 911, President Bachelet headed out to see what had happened to her people. No one could have imagine what she would eventually find.
Yes, there is criticism of how long it took the government to act. I don’t know. I was not there. I know that Chile is days away from transitioning from Bachelet (who termed out) to Pinera, the Conservative candidate who recently won the election. I know there is often political positioning that goes on.
But from where I stand, one thing we can learn from this is to look to our own towns. Are we ready for disasters beyond our wildest imaginations? For examples, do we have agreements with our supermarkets that in the event of such a crisis, they become a distribution center answerable to the emergency response teams, to be reimbursed at cost at another time? This would have helped to avert some of the violence. Parents were desperate to get milk, bread, water, diapers, etc. for their children. Of course there were those who took televisions. There will always be those people.
It is a terrible tragedy here - so very sad and complex. Santiago is relatively quiet, the metro is running so some people are starting to go back to work. The long lines at gas stations and grocery stores (we stood in line for two hours on Monday to pay for our supplies) have shortened. However, it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s really happening. For example, I just spoke to a psychiatric doctor who told me that there are many houses outside of Santiago that look fine from the outside but the insides are completely destroyed. One of the psychiatric hospitals is down and the doctors from the remaining hospitals are meeting to figure out how to go out there and serve the clients. They may turn the individual client meetings into group meetings in order to serve everyone. Many immigrants live in the old part of Santiago, near the principal marketplace. They are primarily Peruvian and very poor, often living four families in an adobe. Many of these places came down. The doctors in the psychiatric ward allowed the women and babies to come and sleep inside and the men slept outside the building, hovering close to their families.
People feel helpless; not sure what to do. It is not easy to get to Concepcíon to help and now, with the military moving in to try and stop the violence, it gets more complex every day. People who lived under Pinochet do not like the idea of a “state of siege.” A general who used that term was highly criticized by the administration, which tried to assure the people that “…this is not a war, this is a state of catastrophe. The soldiers are here to restore public order, different from being at war with your people.”
So soon I will return to the US. I can be of more use helping to fund raise than I can sitting here feeling frustrated. The airport is not open yet so we shall see.
Hello to Chile Solidarity!
The letter from AHA and EPES
Dear Friend of AHA and EPES,
As you know, Chile was devastated by a major earthquake early Saturday morning. We’ve been lucky to hear from EPES (Educación Popular en Salud) co-founder Karen Anderson, who is currently living and working in Santiago for the ELCA Global Mission in partnership with EPES. The EPES Santiago team is accounted for but Karen is still in the process of trying to reach the team in Concepción, which is closer to the earthquake’s epicenter. We ask you to please keep them and all those that have been affected by this disaster in your thoughts and prayers.
While the true impact of the earthquake is yet to be fully realized, we do know that EPES will play a major role in helping the communities it works in to recover and rebuild, in addition to continuing the health, education and other support services it provides on a regular basis. With that in mind, we ask that you consider donating to support this work and ensure that EPES itself can survive this tragedy and provide much needed support to the poorest communities of Chile. Checks can be made out to AHA and mailed to:
Action for Health in the Americas
c/o Prince of Peace Lutheran Church
4 Northcrest Drive
Clifton Park, NY 12065-2744
Thank you, as always, for your ongoing support of and commitment to health and dignity in Chile and in the world. If you wish, AHA will be sure to communicate any new information as we hear from Karen and the EPES team.
With sincerest thanks for your solidarity,
Christina Mills, MD, FRCPC
AHA Board President