What's New in Chile
Devastation and Reconstruction
On February 27, 2010, at 3:34 am, Chile was struck by the seventh strongest earthquake in recorded history (8.8 on the Richter scale at its epicenter, 71 mi from Concepción, Chile's second largest city). The earthquake lasted 90 seconds and was so powerful it shifted the Earth's axis by more than 3 inches. Six of Chile's 15 regions, from Valparaíso to Araucanía, were affected, causing damage to cities like Santiago, Valparaíso, and Rancagua and severe damage to cities further South, such as Curicó, Talca, and Concepción. The cities and towns most devastated by the catastrophe, however, are those that were hit by the tsunami following the earthquake, which affected the Maule and Bío Bío Regions, as well as the Juan Fernández Archipelago.
Considering the magnitude of the disaster, the official death toll of 432 and 98 missing as of March 31, reflects Chile's strict anti-seismic building codes and the general preparedness of the population. Chile, located along the Pacific Rim, is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, with the strongest recorded earthquake in history (9.5 in Valdivia in 1960).
Rebuilding will take time and require significant resources, perhaps as much as US$30 billion. The government is considering several measures to finance the reconstruction, including issuing government debt, tapping into national reserves generated by copper revenue, budget cuts, and a moderate tax increase. Foreign governments have also responded to the emergency, providing basic supplies, water purification units, field hospitals, temporary shelters, satellite telephones, power generators, and rescue workers, for example. Many will continue to support the country's reconstruction.
In January 2010, center-right billionaire Sebastian Piñera was elected president of Chile, defeating former president Eduardo Frei and the coalition of center-left parties that had ruled the country for the 20 years since it returned to democracy. Given that the election was a close one—Piñera won by a little more than 3%—and that the Senate is controlled by the center-left coalition, Piñera will have to work with his political opponents, striking a balance between change and consensus. Among his campaign promises, Piñera vowed to create a million new jobs, improve public education, reduce taxes for small- and medium-size enterprises, and fight domestic crime.
In the 20 years since its return to democracy, this isolated nation at the end of the world has made great strides on a number of fronts. The World Bank classifies Chile's national economy as upper-middle income with only moderate debt, a drastic change from 20 years ago. Corruption is lower here than anywhere in Latin America, one of the factors contributing to the country's political stability and economic development. A member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group and an associate member of the regional trade block MERCOSUR, Chile has bilateral trade agreements with the United States, China, Canada, South Korea, and Australia, among other countries. On the political front, Chileans have democratically elected five presidents since 1990, including Chile's first female president, Michelle Bachelet. Though income inequality is a significant concern, from 2003 to 2006, the number of people living below the poverty line in Chile was reduced by 5% (from 18.7% to 13.7%).
Due to new economic success and global linkages, Chile is becoming more modern and increasingly globalized. A Subway sandwich shop stands catty-corner to the presidential palace, and the country has about three-dozen Starbucks. Given its stability and security, Chile is one of the most popular destinations in Latin America for exchange students, and is home to the regional headquarters of many multinationals.
Chile and the OECD
In 2007 Chile was invited to apply for membership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which unites 30 countries in Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia dedicated to supporting democracy and the market economy. Chile's application was approved in December 2009. Chile will become the first South American OECD member country, and the second Latin American country after Mexico, reaffirming its position as one of the most developed countries in the region.
Chile's 200th Birthday
2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Chilean independence. In 2000, former President Lagos created the Bicentenary Commission to oversee initiatives to commemorate this important occasion, ranging from infrastructure development to the preservation of cultural heritage. Specific projects include the Ciudad Parque Bicentenario (Bicentennial City Park), a large-scale, environmentally friendly urban development project in Santiago; the launch of Chile's first satellite; and the creation of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center in Santiago, replacing the Diego Portales building, a symbol of the Pinochet regime. Unfortunately, the massive earthquake that struck Chile on February 27, 2010, has cast a shadow over the celebrations, as many of Chile's historical buildings—particularly those made of adobe—have been damaged or destroyed.
Transantiago, an ambitious plan to make Santiago's transportation system cleaner, greener, and more efficient, was meant to use the city's metro (subway) system as its spine in conjunction with upgraded city buses that replaced the "micros" (an older system of independently operated buses). However, three years since its launch and billions of dollars later, the system—nicknamed "Transguatazo" (guatazo is Chilean for "flop")—has been deemed a failure. Commuters continue to line up for blocks to take the new buses, which run limited routes and require numerous transfers, while the subway is as crowded as Tokyo's. The old yellow micros have migrated to other Chilean cities.
Santiago Gets Hip
Chileans, and particularly Santiaguinos (residents of Santiago), have lately become much "hipper" and more design-savvy. Compared to their fashionista neighbors in Buenos Aires and Rio, Santiaguinos used to have a reputation for being drab and formal. However, with the openings of the Museo de la Moda (Fashion Museum) and Chile's premier mall, Parque Arauco, and the gentrification of areas like Bellavista, Santiago offers a richer and more diverse aesthetic experience than it once did and the capital is now a destination in its own right.
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