Tuesday 24 October 2017

Men from different worlds united by a crisis that gripped the globe

Chile was reborn as its president hugged trapped workers' foreman

FREE MEN: Miner Ariel Ticona is embraced by Chilean
president Sebastian Pinera after reaching the surface.
FREE MEN: Miner Ariel Ticona is embraced by Chilean president Sebastian Pinera after reaching the surface.

Rory Carroll

It was the moment two worlds united in a bear hug. Luis Urzua, the miners' foreman, stepped from the rescue capsule and embraced Chilean president Sebastian Pinera.

It was the climax to an extraordinary tale of survival that had mesmerised millions. As the two men embraced church bells tolled across Chile and TV viewers cried.

Even in this moment of high drama, with wellwishers flooding into the frame, you could see, etched on the faces of the two men, a story within the story. There was Urzua, black curly hair, stubble, calloused hands: a miner. Alongside him Pinera, silky locks, smooth chin, movie-star smile: a billionaire.

One laboured below ground in hellish conditions for just over €1,000 a month. Another sat in boardrooms finding ways to add another few million dollars to his fortune before moving effortlessly into the presidential palace.

"You have been a very good boss and leader of this group," Pinera said to Urzua, tears welling up. Urzua, his eyes invisible behind dark glasses, nodded and smiled. "Thank you very much to all the rescuers and everybody here. I am proud of being a Chilean. I want to thank everybody." Holding helmets over their hearts they led the throng at San Jose mine -- and a nation following it all on TV -- in the national anthem.

For a country still in the shadow of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship it was a unique and perhaps fleeting moment of solidarity. A conservative president, scion of the elite, side by side with a humble miner, representative of a tradition associated with leftwing activism and socialist values.

But when you looked into their life stories, surprising similarities emerged. Each man is educated, self-made, upwardly mobile and a natural leader. They may be from two different worlds but they orbit the same way.

Urzua, 54, grew up in a family that was of modest means and scarred by tragedy. His father died when he was still a boy. Murdered by Pinochet's security forces, neighbours told reporters, but Urzua's mother, Nelly Iribarren, said he had died of a kidney disease. There is no doubt, however, about the fate of Urzua's step-father, Benito Tapia. A member of the youth socialist party and leader of a copper mine trade union, he was abducted on 17 September 1973 by the "caravana de la muerte" -- the caravan of death -- run by the army and secret police. He was brought to Copiapo, tortured, killed and dumped in an unmarked grave.

Urzua, who was said to be close to his stepfather, was 17 years old at the time. He has not spoken about the death, so its impact can only be imagined, but it is known that as the eldest of six siblings he became a de facto father figure while still in his teens.

He married young and has a daughter aged 25 and son aged 22. Passionate about football, he trained a local team in Tierra Amarilla, a town in the Atacama region near the fateful mine. "I could visualise him down there rationing food, giving orders, because he's like that, bossy but organised," said his mother. A miner for 31 years, Urzua worked his way up to be a topographer, a highly technical job requiring an ability to read maps and survey instruments and calculate distances and angles. Promoted to shift superviser, Don Lucho, as he is known to friends, started working at the San Jose mine relatively recently but swiftly won the confidence of colleagues.

From an admittedly very different origins Pinera, 60, has followed a similar trajectory. Born in Santiago to parents of Spanish descent, the third of six children, he grew up in Europe and New York where his father was Chile's ambassador to Belgium and the UN.

He was a star student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and went on to an MA and PhD in economics at Harvard. He returned to Pinochet's Chile in the 1970s and taught at universities before moving into business.

The apparent silver spoon was made of tin: his family's businesses were in debt.

Pinera, a married father-of-four, proved a brilliant -- and controversial -- businessman. His forays into credit cards, the airline LAN and the TV network Chilevision, as well as short-term stock exchange trades, racked up a fortune which Forbes magazine last year estimated at $1bn. Don Tatan, as he is known to friends, was fined for insider trading and accused of violating banking laws. Colleagues describe him as a driven taskmaster who expects others to work as hard as he does.

Pinera said he voted against Pinochet in a 1989 referendum which eased the old dictator out of power but he showed rightwing instincts by becoming a senator for the National Renewal party. After spending a chunk of his fortune on the campaign he won the presidency in January this year.

Inheriting a country with a sound economy but traumatised by February's earthquake, the new president cast himself as a post-ideological pragmatist who would imbue Chile with a "young spirit". The continent's leftist leaders remained suspicious of what some critics called South America's answer to Silvio Berlusconi. Pinera's honeymoon with Chileans was brief: his ratings dropped soon after taking power.

And then, on August 5, a remote mine in the Atacama desert collapsed on 33 men, changing everything. Pinera rejected advice from officials to keep his distance from the crisis and summoned Andre Sougarret, a young engineer who ran a subterranean mine for the state-owned copper company Codelco, to his office. His instructions were simple: find the miners and get them out.

It emerged yesterday that advisers warned the president not to greet every miner personally lest some proved hostile or unpredictable upon surfacing. Some advisers also urged against broadcasting the drama live.

The former CEO and stock market raider ignored them and staked, yet again, his reputation on the rescue.

It was, as 1bn TV viewers around the world would bear witness, a triumph. A flawless operation in which every member of "los 33" emerged from the capsule grinning and only too delighted to hug the head of state.

After 22 hours it was the turn of Urzua, the last miner, to be winched up. Those who watched the moment he embraced Pinera will not forget it. The miners had experienced a "new life, a rebirth", said the president, and so had Chile.

Pinera arrived in Britain yesterday bearing rocks from the mine, brought as gifts for Queen Elizabeth and prime minister David Cameron.

© Observer

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