Mining Nationalism

     

As the world watched, thirty-three miners were pulled to the surface in a small, red, white, and blue capsule, one at time. It made for great viewing, over one billion people tuned in as it was covered live across the mainstream media. Worldwide, but especially in Chile, people had been focused on this story for days as the final preparations were made. Social media sites from Twitter to Facebook echoed people’s excitement over the rescue, and people expressed their relief and thrill once all the miners were rescued. Even here in America, people who may not even be able to locate Chile on a map were pronouncing “Vive Chile!”

Immediately the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. Nationalism has always bothered me. As a history student I studied nationalism from the perspective of its usefulness in modern state building, from Bismarck’s Germany to Calle’s Mexico. When viewed in terms of people actually using nationalism to establish power, as opposed to simply observing nationalism occurring spontaneously in groups of people, it takes on a more ominous tone. And I think it’s pretty safe to say that history has demonstrated a strong correlation between uber Nationalism and horrific events. But could unity and nationalism be a good thing? Is it possible that, as some people have told me, I should recognize this as a great positive event in which the Chilean people can share and build a stronger sense of community amongst themselves? It didn’t take a lot of research to come to the obvious answer: my skepticism had not betrayed me.

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First there are the underlying political motivations of those who have something to gain from the strong unified support this will bring. According to a wife one of the trapped miners, they timed the breakthrough to the mine cavity to the arrival of the first lady. During the course of the rescue, her husband, President Sebastián Piñera, wore the same red jacket that he wore immediately after the large earthquake that hit Chile in February.1 With a flag prominently displayed in the background, a capsule painted in the national colors of red, white, and blue, was slowly lowered down the rescue shaft. The first thing that Mario Sepulveda, the second minder brought to the surface, did was greet the waiting dignitaries with a hug, and gave them a gift of stones from down in the mine. Among those dignitaries was a little known gentleman by the name of Laurence Golborne, the Chilean Mining Minister, also in a red jacket.1 It has been suggested by many that Golborne, suddenly the most popular minister in Chile, would make a good presidential candidate, as Piñera has reached his term limit.4 The New York Times quotes a political analyst in Santiago as saying “Golborne is the new Bachelet. He emerged into the public view out of nothing. This is a man that says he has no political ambition and is not interested in politics. Bachelet used to say the same thing," referring to former President Michelle Bachelet.3

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Second there is the gain to be had from distracting the public from the cause of the accident. Sure the government got behind the rescue, but the state was the body responsible for regulating the safety of the mine. Yet one third of the cost of the rescue is coming from private donations. And as it turns out, according to an article from Associated Press, “The Aug. 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine’s checkered safety record into focus and put Chile’s top industry under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and violated safety codes…Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.”4 So the accident occurred in a mine owned by the state and regulated by the state. I should certainly hope that the state would step up to the plate. But does that absolve them from potentially putting the lives of the miners in danger to begin with?

After the first miner was brought to the surface, President Piñera stated that the rescue was “without comparison in the history of humanity…Never before has such a rescue been attempted.” The problem is, this wasn’t actually a true statement. According to the BBC, “In a similar operation in 2002, American rescuers spent two days drilling a hole just wide enough to fit a man to rescue nine miners trapped underground.”2 Regardless, Piñera continued by declaring that the mine would be made into a national monument, “to reflect hope for future generations.”

When the last miner, foreman Kuis Urzua was pulled from the mine, the President, with tears in his eyes said, “You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration.” The two then lead the others in singing the national anthem. Later, when talking to the foreman on TV, Piñera said, “Chile today is more united and stronger than ever and I think that Chile is today a country more respected and more esteemed by the world,” Piñera said after chatting with Urzua on live TV about how the men endured.4

Last, but definitely not least is what really concerns me, besides politicians just trying to take advantage of the moment in order to further their popularity, or hide the truth about regulatory negligence. Thirty-three lives were saved, but if the nationalist sentiment drummed up by this incident were to contribute to increased nationalism in a military conflict, that could translate into a whole lot more deaths, as history has shown. And Chile has plenty of conflicts with its neighbors in ongoing border disputes. Although Evo Morales was on hand for the rescue, since one of the miners was Bolivian, there is still tension between the two countries. Morales has continued to express that Bolivia has not given up its hope of regaining its lost coastal territory from Chile. In the last few years, Chile has also had conflicts with Argentina, with which it has a territory disagreement over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and Peru, for disputes over their shared sea boundary. In one military skirmish, excessive nationalism could lead to a very bad outcome, one that results in the loss of far more than thirty-three lives.

Notes

  1. "Chilean leader Sebastian Piñera hails historic mine rescue." AFP. October 14, 2010.
  2. Brown, Adrian. "Rescuers face tough challenge to save Chile miners." BBC News. August 26, 2010.
  3. BARRIONUEVO, ALEXEI et al. "Trapped 68 Days, First Chilean Miners Taste Freedom." New York Times. October 12, 2010
  4. Bajak, Frank. "As Chile celebrates, mine’s future in question." Associated Press.

October 18, 2010