The Chilean Mars Landing

Why all the fuss about the Chilean Miners?

What a bizarre few days we’ve had in the news.  The rescue of 33 Chilean miners has caused such euphoria and excitement across the globe that we seem to have lost all sense of proportion of the event, picking over every possible angle and ultimately telling a story of 33 people who were simply in danger and now are not.  Should this be globally significant news?  Not on the face on it.  Compare this with flooded Pakistan, where families have despaired, suffered typhoid and cholera, been just as patient, and finally rescued from the jaws of death not unlike the miners, but where so many thousands of others have perished.  Surely there were scores of such hopeful narratives in that tragic set of events?  Or do we prefer the hope without the tragedy?

In spite of this perspective, the Chilean miners’ rescue has undoubtedly been a wonderful story.  But it would be foolish to think that we were only concerned with the welfare of 33 workers, that we watched them being rescued one by one, embrace their families, be joyfully rushed to hospital, only because we hoped that those 33 men would survive fit and well.  There is clearly much deeper significance to this story.

Nationalism

No doubt the most obvious broad narrative in which the story has been told and received is Chilean nationalism.  Images of Camp Hope – the temporary settlement around the rescue operation – awash with Chilean flags have become commonplace on evening television around the world, whether flying from poles or lately draped around the shoulders of the rescued heroes.   This certainly seems to be a theme which has been embraced by the Chilean public, chanting the name of their country as they greet each newly rescued miner.  Somewhat more bizarrely, news networks on Thursday morning published footage of rescuers still in the mine, having completed their mission, pausing for a moment of jubilation centred on the flag and again chanting that now familiar “Chi Chi Chi, lay lay lay” before they began their own ascent.

As appealing as it has been, the nationalistic side of the story has by no means been an accidental outcome of the rescue.  The presence of Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera in the centre of the story would suggest a certain amount of deliberate staging.  He has his own national agenda too, which he’s not afraid to share: “the country is not the same after this”, he remarked in the midst of celebrations, Chile is “more united and stronger than ever”, surely the image any world leader would pursue for their voters and an international audience.  He seems at pains to distance Chile from the image of military coups and the Pinochet years.  Pinera is also demonstrating considerable political astuteness both by his presence and by his encouraging of the national significance of the event.  A billionaire, he is a right-wing leader on a continent where left wing parties, including in his own country, have the potential to become prominent.  There is no doubt that his opponents home and abroad will attempt to capitalise on this story of workers’ struggle.  Left-wing president of Bolivia Evo Morales has already promised Carlos Mamani, a national of Bolivia and the only non-Chilean miner, a house and guaranteed job on his return.  But Pinera has so far marginalised these voices.  For better or worse, that this has become a national event in Chile is beyond doubt.

Religion

The significant church involvement in Camp Hope suggests that this is also a story of good Catholics and Christian cooperation.  This has likely broadened the story’s appeal in largely Catholic Latin America and globally.  The implied narrative is not only one of a nation uniting to rescue its sons, but also one of prayers answered and religious fervour legitimated.  Lilian Ramírez, wife of rescued miner Mario Gomez was unequivocal: “I want a shrine to stay here, a lovely big shrine where people can come and where the families can give thanks to God, the Virgin Mary and all the other saints who gave us our families back. That they are doing well and all alive is a remarkable miracle.” (Source: Euronews)  And miracle is a word we’ve heard a lot recently, hinting that the events have already been interpreted by many as an act of God.

Mars Landing

But perhaps this story’s deepest meaning relates to the general human struggle behind the event. It’s a story of human frailty and of human inventiveness, technology and cooperation.  The nightmare of being trapped so far underground for so long is perhaps only matched by the awe and fear of space travel, which is the ultimate conquering of human physical limitations.  There is a certain irony that the miners were given guidance from space travel experts and even provided with “bio-harnesses”, designed for astronauts, to monitor vital signs.  Essential as this aid may have been, the comparison with astronauts doesn’t stop there.  The miners have been afforded the status of pioneers and national heroes, and the grainy footage of the kitted out rescuees climbing into a rocket-shaped rescue capsule emblazoned with the Chilean flag surely recalls television coverage of manned space missions.   The capsule is named “Phoenix 2” after the mythical bird, but the name surely also recalls the spacecraft of the same name which landed on Mars on 25th May 2008, incidentally humanity’s most ambitious space destination today.

Humanity has in this case overcome the odds with ingenuity and technology and the world celebrates.  This truly has been Chile’s Mars landing.

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