Mario Gomez emerges from the capsule that has raised him from his 69-day imprisonment 700 metres under the earth’s surface. As he is checked by technical personnel, the sound of cheers and claps greet the 63 year-old and he punches the air with both hands, thumbs pointing up in that ubiquitous international gesture: all’s well. The Chilean flag appears before him, which he holds and raises. An urgent correction is made by one of the team surrounding him so that the red, white and blue of the Lone Star faces the cameras and the global audience watching on their TV screens, laptops, and Smartphones.
The management of these images is indicative of how minutely controlled what we were seeing actually was. The Santiago Times, a Chilean English-language paper, reported that, at the request of the miners, the Chilean Safety Association gave them a week-long fast-track course in public relations. Via video conference, the miners were taught ‘how to properly respond to media questions, as well as how to construct coherent and appropriate responses.’
With such media-preparation being given to men whose lives were still at risk… With cameras being sent down both to monitor the miners and show the world the captive men… With each Are we really seeing anything close to the reality of the situation?action being brought together under the Lone Star in an abstract metaphor for national unity and anaesthetic for the nation’s wounds... We are touching upon the perennial questions that must be asked about international as-it-happens news coverage: despite the plethora of information and images, are we really seeing anything close to the reality of the situation? What is really being consumed by the audience?
The New York Times regarded this ‘universal story of human struggle’ as having ‘thrust Chile into a spotlight it has often sought but rarely experienced. While lauded for its economic management and austerity, the nation has often found the world’s attention trained more on its human rights violations and natural disasters than on uplifting moments’. Often framed and constructed thus, as Chile’s PR cure-all following a traumatic history, the euphoric images were relayed constantly on 24-hour rolling news channels and online newspapers’ live blogs.
In this context, the images were not simply representing the rescue of trapped men. The sight of a face emerging from the darkness as the first camera descended through the supply bore-hole; the note written in red ink — ‘Estamos bien en el refugio los 33’ (roughly ‘We’re fine, in the shelter, the 33’) — held aloft after 17 days without word; all the miners thankfully emerging, like Mario Gomes, to rapturous welcome as they reunited with their families: these soon-to-be iconic images, in this context, became much more than that.
While none of what is written here wishes to diminish the very real pain that many have undergone in this ordeal — something pondered upon extensively by the news networks — this was not exclusively an issue of human suffering. What we were seeing had gained a symbolic charge that (apparently) enacted a break from a national history of suffering, be that the terror under General Pinochet, or the cataclysmic earthquake in February of this year. The divisions of a nation split by one of the world’s worst income inequality gaps were momentarily plastered over.
A BBC newscaster fell back on the language of Chile as a “religious” and “patriotic” nation, celebrating as one. A genuine sentiment this may well be, yet the plotting of this event onto the national population writ-large is far more disingenuous. Even more so as it was not just the media who were in on the game.
The ever-telegenic President Piñera, standing beside his wife in the overalls of the miners of San Jose, his helmet resting on the podium before him, gave a speech in English claiming: ‘We have learned from adversity, we have learned from these accidents, that unity, faith, hope, courage, can achieve all the goals that we can set for our country’.
A rather ethereal exploitation had been taking place here (aside from, but connected to, the direct exploitation of the miners in an area of the market where finite resources are A rather ethereal exploitation had been taking place herecoupled with increasing demand). With these images being produced, commented on and repackaged, we were seeing, in the words of Tim Brennan, ‘the idea of a global periphery’ working as an ‘economic engine’. Instead of the Cold War-based first- and third-world nation-state distinctions or the more insidious use of ‘emerging’ and ‘developed’ markets Brennan’s terminology is taken from world-systems analysis, with an economic ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ making up the global market,.
The coverage of the rescue is an example of how this ‘idea of a global periphery’ operates as a general rule. Chile becomes a synecdoche of the images shown on our screens – as an entire nation is represented across the global news networks in the form of pre-packaged, commodified news-bites. This is not only very profitable for the producers of these images, but is profoundly disempowering for those Chileans being represented. As Samantha Holland warned on this very website, we should be wary of ‘problematic, partial and more of a “western” construction’ of a nation and its diverse peoples — such as that offered by the news during the rescue — which do not necessarily offer a genuine ‘reflection of a geo-economic or cultural reality.’
These constructions, with regards to the Chilean miners, operate a dangerous double function: if things go badly, as they did with the original collapse of the mine, then we are seeing the signs of an ‘emerging’ nation’s lack of advancement, a relapse into the infamous history readily associable to the periphery. However, if they go well, as was the case with the rescue, then Chile is praised for being ‘developed’, for laying aside the horrors of its past. In short, for temporarily and symbolically being promoted to the status of the cosmopolitan ‘centre’ of the global market.
The fine line between these two representations of the periphery reveals how the disconnection between the highly-charged symbolism of the news and the material reality of the situation can be so readily manipulated by certain interests; be they in the Coalition for Change, News International, or the BBC. So, as the euphoria subsides, the sad legacy of San Jose may be that despite how irrevocably the 33’s lives have altered, the geo-economic realities throughout the country have not. “Demoted” from the centre, the idea of the periphery may once again be available for exploitation in Chile. Let’s hope not.