Chile and mining. Mining and Chile. It is more than fair to say that both words are absolutely synonymous.

Every Chilean knows a miner; has one in their family. Every Chilean can relate to the sacrifices that a miner faces because they all have a father, a brother, a son who goes underground day after day to earn a living. Mining is deeply engraved into Chile’s DNA.

I can relate. My father’s home town — Huasco — is only a two-hour drive south of the San José mine, that one place on the earth that eyes the world over have been staring at, especially during the past 24 hours, as the Atacama Desert gives birth to the 33 miners stuck nearly 700 metres underground for the past 69 days.

Every time I visit the Atacama Desert, mining is always a topic at the dining table.

Ever since Chile was invaded by the Conquistadores five centuries ago, the ground has been a rich source of all types of minerals. Perhaps one of the richest in the world.

First it was gold. Then other minerals were valued such as iron and, of course, copper, which made Chile famous the world over for being its primary exporter to this very day.

Many of the innovative techniques used in the Californian gold rush of the 1800s were introduced by Chileans — especially those born and bred in the Atacama region — who made their way to California with the dream of becoming wealthy, ironically on ships that made an obligatory stopover in southern Chile to stock up on another one of this country’s main natural resources at the time, carbon.

The world has been marveled by the resistance of these 33 miners stranded in the San José mine and how they have organised themselves, working 12-hour shifts to clear the debris that cascaded on top them, filing their eyes and lungs with heavy dust, as the giant drill headed towards them, creating the shaft that would later return them to freedom. Freedom considered highly unlikely by experts before they were miraculously found alive two weeks after the accident.

Their courage and their resistance does not surprise me. Chilean miners have for centuries endured these momentous challenges. It’s as if these mentioned qualities are passed on from generation to generation, genetically.

The question is how many more accidents such as this one have to occur before preventive legislation is passed by the Chilean parliament to ensure that Chilean miners don’t have to endure more centuries of these inhumane, high-risk conditions that they have been exposed to for so long. The Chilean government is yet to respond. Maybe it is because the mainstream media — in accomplice with Sebastian Piñera’s government — is not asking the tough questions.

Before the rescue of the miners started, Chile’s public broadcaster Television Nacional de Chile  yesterday was  more interested in asking some of the trapped miner’s wives if they had considered visiting a hair stylist, having a manicure or even wearing s-xy lingerie ahead of the re-encounter with their loved one. Naturally, coverage on the commercial networks was of similar nature.

Even though rescue efforts have been applauded within Chile and on an international level, excessive media coverage and the media hype related to the miners created by President Piñera — a public defender of Augusto Pinochet in 1998 following the extradition of the former dictator — and members of his cabinet have been highly criticised by his detractors, who accuse him of political usage of the tragedy.

The San José mining accident has come at the right time for the seven-month-old Piñera government, overshadowing some very concerning issues in Chile at the moment. For the first time ever since the end of the Pinochet era, statistics have demonstrated that Chile’s poverty levels have drastically risen in the past year.

A controversial conflict with the indigenous Mapuche community also took place, with scores of Mapuche activists protesting against legislation passed in the Pinochet dictatorship — which sentences Mapuches protesting for land rights as terrorists — by going on a hunger strike for more than 60 days.

The accident has also lowered the profile of another hot topic Australian voters know all about — mining tax.

The San José mining accident has certainly helped to boost Sebastian Piñera’s approval rating. It has not ceased to increase since the miners were found alive on August 22.

The government created media-hype, the overdone nationalism, at a time when there isn’t much to be proud about and Chile’s mainstream media uninterested in making the tough questions have certainly assisted the Piñera administration and it’s denial of the real issues.

It seems that Chile and lamentable right-wing presidents, unfortunately, is another lamentable synonym.

Peter Fray

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