BBC News

2010: Chile's year of despair and joy

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

image captionThe miners' long captivity and subsequent release was followed worldwide

When Sebastian Pinera won Chile's presidential election in January, he can surely never have imagined that his first year in power would be quite so eventful. A devastating earthquake, the dramatic miners' rescue, a horrific prison fire - Chile's bicentenary has been a rollercoaster.

Within six weeks of Mr Pinera's victory, and before he had even assumed office, the country was shaken by one of the most powerful earthquakes on record.

With a magnitude of 8.8, it killed nearly 500 people and destroyed thousands of homes. It caused $30bn (£19bn) of damage, the equivalent of 18% of Chile's gross domestic product. Many towns and villages are still struggling to recover.

If Mr Pinera needed a reminder of the daunting forces of nature conspiring against his country, it came two weeks later on 11 March, when he took the presidential oath.

As he arrived at the Congress building in the port of Valparaiso, an ominous aftershock rippled through the city.

The building's giant chandeliers swayed disturbingly, watched from below by numerous Latin American dignitaries, many of whom looked truly terrified.

Mr Pinera pressed on with the ceremony, but he must have felt like a marked man.

Three months later, Chileans received a welcome respite when their football team went to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years.

Their defeat by Brazil in the second round was one of the few predictable events of the country's year.

Then came the miners.

Los 33

On 5 August, the roof caved in at the San Jose copper mine in the Atacama Desert, trapping 33 men below ground. For 17 days, nothing was heard from them and many people gave them up for dead.

Then, on that extraordinary day of Sunday, 22 August, the drilling team trying to reach them broke through to the chamber where they were sheltering.

When the engineers pulled the drill up to the surface, there was a note attached to it. "We are all well in the shelter, the 33", it read.

image captionThe miners' story was a source of pride but also raised serious safety questions

From then on, the miners' story captivated the world, becoming one of the most closely followed news stories of all time.

According to the Chile Image Foundation, which promotes the country abroad, it generated nearly 65,000 newspaper and magazine articles and more than two million tweets.

In the midst of the drama, Chile's bicentenary on 18 September took a back seat. So did a hunger strike staged by more than 30 members of Chile's largest indigenous minority, the Mapuche. They refused food for more than two months in a protest against the use of anti-terrorism legislation against them.

In any normal year, the bicentenary celebrations and the hunger strike would have made headlines but, as Mr Pinera acknowledged at a recent breakfast with foreign correspondents, this has been no ordinary year.

"2010 has been a very special year that we're never going to forget," he said. "We've lived through every emotion it's possible to live through. Not only has this year been tragic, because of the earthquake, historic, because of the bicentenary, and heroic because of the miners, it's also been a year of real renaissance in Chilean society and the economy."

Pride and shame

And there was more to come. The next morning, a fire started by inmates during a brawl spread through a jail in Santiago, killing 81 prisoners. It was the worst disaster in the history of Chile's prison system.

According to Amaro Gomez-Pablos, Chile's best-known television news presenter, 2010 has given Chileans "a more honest vision of our country".

"The rescue of the miners was a source of pride," he told the BBC. "'It was a first world operation,' you heard people say in the streets. But it was also clear that the accident was caused by Third World labour practices."

image captionFebruary's earthquake caused widespread destruction

The prison fire the same month was similarly revealing. Chileans have long prided themselves on their country's relatively low crime rates by Latin American standards but the fire, in a grim, overcrowded jail, showed them another, more unsavoury facet of their criminal justice system.

President Pinera has vowed to overhaul that system next year and to address a long list of other social ills.

"2011 is going to be a year of great structural reforms - reforms that are long overdue," he said, placing education and health at the top of his "to-do" list.

Ironically, given all that has happened, the key event of Mr Pinera's first year in office was arguably his own election.

"Earthquakes have always been with us. We don't know when the next one will strike, but we do know, we have always known, that there will be another earthquake," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.

"History will judge the most important event of the year to be the defeat of the centre-left government that ruled Chile for 20 years, and the election of a new, moderate, right-wing government. It's the first right-wing government since (Gen Augusto) Pinochet. That's quite something."

As they head off for their summer holidays, many Chileans will be glad to see the back of 2010. At times it has been a year of joy, solidarity in the face of adversity, and has generated a tremendous outpouring of patriotic sentiment. But it has also been a year of setbacks, terrible tragedy and pain.

"We're bruised as a result of this year, but we're more conscious of the problems and challenges we now face," Mr Gomez-Pablos said. "We're alive but we're more aware of our own vulnerability. And that's no bad thing."