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Chile celebrates bicentennial with miners' fate in focus

by Staff Writers
Santiago (AFP) Sept 18, 2010
Chile marked 200 years of independence Saturday, with the nation's attention split between official celebrations and the fate of 33 men trapped deep inside an underground mine since August 5.

The South American economic powerhouse with a population of 17 million is in many ways still consolidating its democracy following the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late general Augusto Pinochet.

This year Chile has seen a transition from leftist governments to the first right-wing administration since 1990, which took place just days after a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake -- the fifth most powerful on record -- that devastated the south-central coastal region.

The quake caused an estimated 30 billion dollars in damage and unleashed a tsunami that killed more than 500 people. Chileans rallied in the days after and in an outburst of patriotism raised millions of dollars for quake victims.

"This bicentennial finds the country ... recovering from the earthquake, with a consolidated democracy, but with the pending debt to incorporate the indigenous people," sociologist Eugenio Tironi told AFP.

At a special mass with the country's leaders in the main cathedral in Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz made reference to the country's ill treatment of its Mapuche indigenous minority.

There are some 600,000 Mapuches in Chile living mainly in the southern Araucania region, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) south of Santiago.

Thirty-four of them -- all but two of whom are jailed -- have been on a hunger strike for more than two months demanding that the government strike down anti-terrorist laws they say have been applied unfairly to their claim to ancestral lands.

The activists, who claim they are political prisoners, are also demanding the return of ancestral land lost in a 19th century military conflict that has since been split up among ranch-holders and lumber or farm companies.

On Saturday a small march of Mapuches ended in three arrests in the southern city of Puerto Montt.

"We are profoundly worried about the hunger strike of our Mapuche brothers," Errazuriz said, urging the activists and the government to begin "a generous and visionary dialogue." The Catholic Church has offered to mediate in the conflict.

In a surprise move, President Sebastian Pinera announced a four billion dollar investment Saturday in the Araucania region for schools, hospitals, and "creating work opportunities." The announcement comes ahead of talks with Mapuche community leaders next week.

Pinera however would rather focus on the plight of the miners, who became instant national heroes when they were found alive trapped 700 meters (2,300 feet) below the surface on August 22.

The president announced that he would visit the mine on Sunday along with Chilean novelist Isabel Allende.

Rescuers are in touch with the miners via a narrow shaft which is also used to send supplies. Despite two separate bore holes, and a third one set to begin early Sunday, rescuers do not expect to have them out before Christmas.

"We would have liked to have had them here" for the bicentennial events, Pinera said.

He said that the operation to rescue them will be called Prophet Jonah -- named after the Old Testament prophet swallowed by a whale.

Jonah "was rescued from the belly of a whale, and they will be rescued from the belly of a mountain," Pinera said.

The trapped miners sang the national anthem in unison with their compatriots across the nation at noon Saturday to mark bicentennial anniversary.

The miners' family members hoisted a Chilean flag signed by each of the workers in an emotional ceremony at a camp near the entrance to the San Jose mine, whose entrance caved in on August 5.

Bicentennial ceremonies were kicked off with a light show in Santiago late Thursday, and will include a naval review in the port city of Valparaiso on Monday.

Pinera and the country's four living ex-presidents unveiled an enormous flag on a 61 meter (200 foot) mast to fly outside the La Moneda presidential palace on Friday.

Pinera is hosting Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo over the weekend for bicentennial events.

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