Fri, Aug 05, 2011 - Page 7 News List

One year on, Chile’s ‘33’ muddle through

AP, SANTIAGO

Former miner Dario Segovia stands next to his pick-up truck after selling fruit at a market in Copiapo, Chile, on Wednesday. Today marks the first anniversary of the accident that left Segovia and 32 others underground for 68 days.

PHOTO: AFP

One of the myths surrounding the 33 miners who were so dramatically rescued after being trapped for 69 days deep inside a Chilean copper mine is that they’re all millionaires and no longer need to work.

In fact, nearly half the men have been unemployed since their mine collapsed one year ago today, and just one, the flamboyant Mario Sepulveda, has managed to live well off the fame. Most have signed up to give motivational speeches. Four, so far, have gone back underground to pound rock for a living.

“Los 33” have filed negligence lawsuits demanding US$10 million from the bankrupt mine’s owners and US$17 million from the government for failing to enforce safety regulations, but years remain before any payout.

Despite rumors that miners got rich off media interviews, most received only paid trips, hotel stays and the kinds of gifts that don’t put food on tables.

Neither did they profit from the books written about them so far. Only recently did they reach a deal with a Hollywood agent for an authorized book and movie, but they have yet to see any money from that, either.

A year after they were buried alive by a mine collapse 0.8km below the surface, the remarkable unity that many credited with helping them survive has fallen victim to misunderstandings over fame and money. Only some plan to join Chilean President Sebastian Pinera in Copiapo today for an anniversary mass and museum inauguration. Sepulveda is among those who want no part of the ceremonies.

All have been hoping that Pinera would announce lifelong pensions of about US$430 a month for the 33. The government seems willing to pay, but the exact amount has been under negotiation for some time.

Many have gotten by until now on the philanthropy of an eccentric millionaire and Chilean mine owner, Leonardo Farkas, who wrote them checks for 5 million pesos (about US$10,950), threw them a lavish party and gave each a motorcycle.

However, many Chileans do not distinguish between government agencies and Pinera’s administration, which spent as much as US$20 million on the rescue only to see his approval ratings drop from 60 percent to 30 percent now, the -lowest of any Chilean president since the nation recovered its democracy in 1990, according to Adimark’s monthly tracking poll.

Housewife Cecilia Cruz, for example said that “the miners are a bunch of ingrates, after all the money the government spent rescuing them.”

Pinera has been beset by striking miners, students, teachers, earthquake and tsunami survivors, Mapuche Indians and others marching against his government. While in Copiapo today he will also likely face the 240 other San Jose Mine workers who escaped the collapse only to lose their jobs when the mine closed. Many are still unemployed and have only received 40 percent of their severance pay.

El Mercurio newspaper reported that of the 33 rescued miners 15 are unemployed; seven regularly give motivational speeches; three hawk fruit and vegetables in the street, two have small grocery stores and four have returned underground to pound rock for copper and gold. Others are unable to work as a result of continuing psychological symptoms and receive a fraction of their former salaries as government medical payments.

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