Subterranean solidarity

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The entrapment and eventual release of 33 Chilean miners provoked a media frenzy. But beneath the self-serving sympathy of Chile's politicians lies the real story of solidarity.

"Renewing the wooden piles increased the cost of the mineral, so they were allowed to fall into disrepair. The result was that [they] were continually having to carry out an injured man or sometimes a miner killed when the roof collapsed in the deadly corridor. But the company always persuaded the men to return for a few cents more..." - Baldomero Lillo, El chiflon del diablo.

Lillo wrote his stories of the Chilean mines at the beginning of the 20th century. How little conditions have changed in the first decade of the 21st.

After the long days of waiting, journalists and politicians, priests and PR men gathered by the rescue shaft at the San Jose mine. All hoped to stand in the reflected limelight of these extraordinary, yet ordinary, working men as they emerged after 66 days trapped half a mile underground.

The president, Sebastián Pinera, Chile's richest man, declared that the rescue was evidence that the country had overcome its divided past. The minister of mines, Laurence Golborne, recently recruited from Exxon Mobil, echoed his delight at this new found national unity.

The moving celebrations at Camp Hope, above the mine, and in nearby Copiapo, were the outpourings of the men and women whose relatives have so often been claimed by the mines - 31 dead in 2010 alone. This was a rare victory not just over nature, but over a system that had driven the 33 - and many more - into a pit they knew was unsafe for wages they knew were inadequate.

The San Jose mine has been fined 42 times since 2001. In August, after the rock fall, the trapped men went to the escape shaft - but the stairway had not been built. Closed in 2005, after the death of a miner, the mine was reopened in 2009 after officials in the Geological Institute were bribed to give it a certificate. The company E Mining Technology gave the mine the all clear - and was then commissioned to organise the rescue.

The working class men and women who live under the harsh sun of the world's driest desert, the Atacama, where these mines are to be found, know that 90 percent of them do not fulfil the basic safety requirements. But this is Chile, where trade unionists were attacked and murdered under the military regime headed by Augusto Pinochet.

Having led the overthrow of the reforming government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet offered his country to neoliberal economists as a laboratory where they could experiment freely on a working class terrorised into submission. How well would capitalism function when there were neither trade unions nor civil rights to interfere with market forces? The mines, which had given birth to Chile's most combative unions, would be a perfect testing ground.

The whole economy was privatised, making millionaires of Pinochet, his family circle and a new breed of modern businessmen including Pinera, the Harvard-educated son of a copper corporation executive. He made his first millions introducing credit cards to Chile. His shares in electricity companies, the national airline and his 100 percent stake in media enterprise Chilevision raised his fortune above $1 billion. And when Pinochet left power in 1988, Pinera led the presidential campaign of Pinochet's finance minister.

This is the man who plays football with the rescued miners, whose perfect teeth and hair have appeared in every photo opportunity. But his sudden conversion to social concern is less than convincing. He has now promised a new law on safety at work - yet he grew rich in a system that abolished workers' rights and control of working conditions.

And while he may have forgotten, the relatives of the trapped miners remember well how hard they had to fight to keep the rescue attempt going. The mining company and the government are being sued by 26 miners' families for wilful neglect and complicity. As one miner's wife put it, "This is not an accident. It is a crime."

None of this takes away from the bravery of these workers and their families. But what kept them alive was not god or television - it was the solidarity below and above ground. The families in their makeshift camp fought to keep their men in the public eye and refused to move from the tents in the freezing desert.

In the cave 700 metres down it was the miners' shared destiny and their common feeling that kept the miners alive - the songs they sang, the memories they shared, their common enemy. The victory is theirs and theirs alone, whoever tries to take the credit after the fact with gifts and deals and last minute declarations of sympathy.

For Pinera their ordeal came at an opportune moment. It allowed him to divert attention from the hunger strike of over 30 leaders of the Mapuche indigenous communities in the south of Chile. They have been fighting for years against mining companies and others who had driven their communities from their lands. They had all been imprisoned and charged under an anti-terrorism law passed during the military regime and used against them under the previous (socialist) president Michelle Bachelet and now again by Pinera.

When the cameras have all gone home, the great national consensus will quietly fade away. But the memory of what solidarity can achieve will remain to inspire those who have battles yet to fight.