It has been a bittersweet anniversary for Chile’s rescued miners, who were honored as heroes in their hometown only to come under attack by anti-government protesters who threw fruit and small stones at them, accusing them of being ungrateful, greedy sellouts.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and his ministers joined most of the 33 miners on Friday at a Catholic Mass and then the inauguration of a regional museum exhibit recognizing their remarkable survival story.
However, the events were marred by scuffles between riot police and students, teachers, environmentalists and other miners, all trying to make Pinera bow to their pressure on issues from reforming public education and increasing miners’ pay to stopping controversial dams and power plants.
Some of the activists threw oranges and apples at the miners, accusing them of getting too cozy with Pinera’s government and trying to cash in on their fame.
The treatment shocked rescued miner Omar Reygadas into silence. His son told reporters that his father was deeply hurt to be accused of selling out to the government. Other activists shouted that the miners were trying to get rich with their US$17 million lawsuit accusing Chile’s mine regulator of failing to enforce safety requirements.
“My father was saddened, deeply saddened. He doesn’t understand how people could act this way,” said Reygadas’ son, also named Omar Reygadas. “When I got home I found him sitting alone, very sad. I asked him what happened and at first he wouldn’t say anything, but gradually he let on what happened.”
Some Chilean newspapers called the attack a low blow, especially considering how many of the miners still suffer from psychological problems after being stuck for 69 days underground.
“They aren’t heroes ... they’re victims who are simply trying to recover from their tragedy,” El Diario de Atacama, Copiapo’s hometown newspaper, printed on Saturday under a picture showing riot police with a confiscated box of oranges and apples activists had thrown at the honorees.
“We have become accustomed to judging the 33 of Atacama, forgetting that they’ve only been victims of the terrible circumstances that confront hundreds of Chileans every day,” the paper said.
Psychologist Alberto Iturra, who was part of the medical team that participated in the mine rescue, criticized the incident, saying the attack on the miners was “irrational, crazy.”
He said the incident is “part of a process of alienation — which implies not distinguishing spaces, people or anything, not being conscious of what they’re doing — that the students suffer from.”
The miners were clearly grateful for Pinera’s leadership of the rescue mission, which succeeded in bringing them all out alive more than two months after last year’s Aug. 5 collapse.
“I wouldn’t be here talking with you today” if Pinera hadn’t become personally involved, miner Jose Fuentes said. “We were down there praying that he would do it.”
However, Pinera’s ministers also are defending the government against the miners’ suit, saying that they have to protect the Chilean taxpayers.