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Geopolitics

Chile: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home

Chile: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home
Benjamin Witte

This week we shine the spotlight on Chile:

PACT OF SILENCE

Testimony provided by a former army conscript has turned national attention to a nearly three-decade-old human rights case and prompted Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to demand an end to the shroud of secrecy that has covered this and other crimes committed during the 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). "Enough with the silence," the center-left President said during an event earlier this week.

The events of the so-called "caso quemados" (case of the burned people) took place on July 2, 1986 during a pro-democracy protest in Santiago, where soldiers seized two young participants — Carmen Gloria Quintana, a university student, and Rodrigo Rojas, a photographer — allegedly doused them in gasoline and lit them on fire. The soldiers then loaded the victims into a truck, drove them out of the city, and dumped them in an abandoned lot. Passersby discovered the pair and helped get them to a hospital. Quintana somehow survived, despite extensive second and third-degree burns. Rojas died.


Military officials have long claimed that the burning happened accidentally. But in testimony given late last year — and made public earlier this month — ex-conscript Fernando Guzmán said Quintana and Rojas were intentionally torched. Guzmán's testimony prompted the judge overseeing the case to order the arrests of a dozen former soldiers, including the commander of the patrol, Pedro Fernández Dittus, who was charged Thursday with both aggravated and attempted homicide.


LOS 33

Spectators in Chile will have an opportunity Sunday to take a first peek at Hollywood's big-budget rendition of the 2010 horrifying ordeal and miraculous rescue of 33 Chilean miners who spent more than two months trapped deep underground. The 33 (Los 33 in Spanish), starring Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche and Lou Diamond Phillips, doesn't hit theaters in the United States until Nov. 13. A first trailer for the film was released this past week.

The movie premiere coincides with the fifth anniversary (Aug. 5) of the mining accident, which drew media attention from across the globe as millions worldwide watched the events unfold live on television.

Recalling what was arguably his finest hour as president, Chile's then leader, billionaire Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), said in a recent interview that "it occurred to me," at one point, to go down personally in one of the Fénix capsules, the specially fashioned devices used to rescue the miners. "At any rate, my wife, who knows me well … said, ‘Don't even think about it,'" he was quoted as saying by the daily El Mercurio. Piñera, a possible 2017 presidential candidate, also took the opportunity last week to publish a special Los 33video address.


SICK SALMON

Farmed salmon is big business in Chile, which competes with Norway as the world's top producer. Exports in the first half of this year topped $1.5 billion, three times the figure Argentina earned in the same period for beef exports, the Argentine website valorsoja.com reported.

But the industry is also highly controversial. Environmental groups have long taken salmon producers to task, saying that fish farms pollute the water and are unsustainable given that the salmon they grow require more protein (in the form of pellets, made primarily from wild fish) than they produce.

Health experts also warn about the overabundant use in Chile of antibiotics, which are applied, among other things, to treat a prevalent bacteria called SRS, or Piscirickettsiosis. Last year, the industry used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics (to produce 895,000 tons of salmon), 25% more than in 2013, Reuters recently reported. The situation is causing at least one major retailer, the Costco Wholesale Corp, to start favoring salmon from Norway, where antibiotics use is far more moderate.


AIR EMERGENCY

Chile's vibrant capital, with its mountain backdrop and mix of historic and modern architecture, definitely has its selling points. But it also has a serious smog problem, especially in the winter months (June-September).

Cold air, combined with Santiago's setting — in a valley between the Andes, on one side, and a range of coastal mountains on the other — create what's known as an inversion effect, trapping air pollution close to the ground and blanketing the city in a toxic cloud. On particularly bad days, when particle counts top 300 micrograms per cubic meter of air, authorities declare an "environmental pre-emergency," which involves traffic and industry restrictions. Residents are also warned, in such cases, not to engage in outdoor physical activities.

So far this winter, the city has declared 16 such pre-emergencies, most recently on July 26. Santiago was also under a pre-emergency alert on July 4, when it hosted (and won) the final of the Copa América soccer tournament.


HANDSOME REWARD

Chile's victory in the Copa América was its first ever in a major international soccer tournament. Fans were understandably euphoric about the result, which was especially sweet given that it came against neighboring powerhouse Argentina — and its superstar striker, Lionel Messi.

The win is also paying big dividends for some of Chile's starting players. Mohawked midfielder Arturo Vidal has just been transferred from Italy's Juventus, with which he reached this year's Champions League final, to German juggernaut Bayern Munich, where he will reportedly earn 10 million euros per season.

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Arturo Vidal — Photo: Ð"алерий Ð"удуш

Vidal was Chile's leading scorer in the Copa América with three goals. But he also caused a major scandal, right in the middle of the tournament, when he crashed his car under the influence of alcohol. The star player's father also had a recent run-in with the law. Erasmo Vidal was stopped in Santiago on July 28 — the same day his son was officially presented by Bayern Munich — and found to be carrying pasta base (a cocaine derivative) and illicit kitchen knives.

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