Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Building the Bicentennial Society?

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 7 2009 (IPS) - The Chilean government has embarked on major works of infrastructure, national programmes and 28 competitions, in preparation for the 2010 celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the country's independence. But the bicentennial projects, which began this month, have drawn their share of criticism.

The First National Government Junta in Chile, formed Sept. 18, 1810, marked the start of the independence process.

Although emancipation from Spain was not achieved until 1818, Sept. 18 is celebrated as Independence Day in this South American country of 17 million people.

The bicentennial celebrations kicked off on Sept. 4, with an event titled "Youth Orchestras Uniting Chile". Fifteen children's and youth orchestras, one in every region of the country, played the National Anthem in unison at the stroke of noon.

On Sept. 15, the historic flag by which the oath of independence was sworn in February 1818, restored for the occasion, will be back on public display in Santiago's National History Museum.

Two days later, the squares in front of and behind the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of government – Plaza de la Ciudadanía (Citizenship Square) and Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square), respectively – will be the venues for a mass cultural festival.

Also on Sept. 17, a traditional custom will be revived: people's homes will receive a facelift in the form of a coat of new paint in time for the national holiday. On Sept. 28 the results will be announced of a contest to pick the 200 songs that are closest to the hearts of Chileans.

The Chilean and Argentine navies will hold an international Bicentennial Regatta for sailing ships next year, while the air force will hold an air show and the army will organise a convoy that will retrace the footsteps of the Liberating Army through the Andes in 1817.

Meanwhile, the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet is undertaking 24 separate infrastructure projects and programmes of national scope.

Among the most important of these are the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, to be opened in December by Bachelet, and two cultural centres: one at the Chilean embassy in Argentina, and one named for renowned Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral on the site of the Diego Portales building in Santiago, which was destroyed by fire.

The burned down Gabriela Mistral building was built during the administration of deposed President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) to host the Third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

But after the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d'etat led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), it became the headquarters of the military junta and was renamed after conservative statesman Diego Portales (1793-1837), who was a virtual dictator of Chile for seven years. In 2006, a fire destroyed 40 percent of the building, located in downtown Santiago.

The new centre, whose original name will be restored, is to be completed in 2011 and will spearhead a future national network of cultural centres.

Occupying an area of 41,000 square metres, the centre is to include a national theatre seating 2,000 people, as well as exhibition and convention halls, a library, restaurants and shops. The University of Chile's Museum of Folk Art in the Americas will also be housed there.

One of the main projects at national level is the Network of Stadiums and Sports Infrastructure. Four stadiums were inaugurated in 2008 to host the International Football Federation's (FIFA) Under-20 Women's World Cup, and refurbishing of the country's main sports arena in Santiago has just begun.

Other regional stadiums are being built or remodelled, as well as high performance sports training centres, early learning centres and community multi-sports facilities.

The Gabriela Mistral Heritage Route has been opened in the northern region of Coquimbo. A Chilean educator, poet and diplomat, Mistral (1889-1957) was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

A modern urban development, the Ciudad Parque Bicentenario (Bicentennial Garden City), is being built on a 250-hectare disused airfield in the southwest of the capital, consisting of homes, schools, services, and recreational and cultural spaces set in extensive parklands.

A Bicentennial Children's Park is also planned, as well as the restoration and refurbishment of Santiago Cathedral, the Parque Quinta Normal (a public park, formerly part of a teacher's college) and the historic Protestants' quarter of the General Cemetery, all in Santiago.

Several ongoing public initiatives have received the bicentennial seal, like the National Seismological and Volcano Watch Network, the Cycling Route Master Plan for Santiago and the Rural Digital Network, which will provide internet access to three million people in 1,474 locations in every region of the country.

The Chilean Bicentennial Scholarship system will provide millions of dollars to fund studies abroad for graduate students. A programme for the development of the humanities, arts and social sciences will pay for new projects and the upgrading of infrastructure at universities.

The first Chilean Triennial of visual arts is to be held Oct. 5-Dec. 5, and the Fifth International Congress of the Spanish Language will take place Mar. 2-5, 2010 in the port city of Valparaíso.

Next year, Chile is expected to launch into orbit its first Earth observation satellite.

Short story, poetry, photography, music, dance, painting, "young art" and doctoral thesis competitions, among others, will also be held.

Anthologies of poetry by Mistral and fellow Nobel Literature Prize-winner Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), and of 200 years of dramatic works by national playwrights, have been published and launched. For several years now, prizes have been awarded for different academic and civil society initiatives.

According to Catholic Church sources, at an Aug. 14 meeting with President Bachelet the executive committee of the Chilean Bishops' Conference proposed a "jubilee pardon" for prisoners as part of the bicentennial. Recalling the biblical tradition of forgiving debts and releasing prisoners every 50 years in the "year of jubilee," the Roman Catholic bishops said they were preparing a specific proposal for consideration.

Patricio Gross, head of the Chilean Architects Association, said some of the most important projects include the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre, and especially the Network of Stadiums and Sports Infrastructure, because of their national impact.

But Gross has the impression that many of the buildings on the list of works undertaken for the bicentennial would have had to be built or refurbished anyway, he told IPS. "One would like the bicentennial works to be special benchmarks. Only time will tell which of them will be adopted by society as symbols of passage from one era to the next," he added.

Elizabeth Lira, head of the Ethics Centre at the private Alberto Hurtado University and a member of the Bicentennial Advisory Committee, created in 2008 by Bachelet, holds a different view.

"The bicentennial has served as a pretext to get on with a lot of things that needed to be done, like repairing the stadiums. I think it's a good enough reason. Why not?" she commented to IPS.

Gross also said he would like to see a broad social debate on the kind of country Chileans want to build in the future. "We have to rethink politics, the common standards we live by, the best way to promote national development, and how to manage our natural resources and energy sources in the light of climate change. I don't see anyone issuing a clear invitation to this debate," he said.

The architect and other intellectuals say that the government's building projects seem haphazard, that is, they do not convey the sense of a "discourse" or "narrative" for the bicentennial.

In Lira's view, the prizes and competitions have been useful for channeling public demands and interests, but unfortunately the media have not contributed to communicating these initiatives.

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