SANTIAGO, Chile – Three-quarters of the Chilean areas hit by the devastating 2010 earthquake have been reconstructed, President Sebastian Pinera told congress Monday.
The 8.8-magnitude quake and the tsunami it unleashed on Feb. 27, 2010, killed 551 people, destroyed 220,000 homes and washed away docks, riverfronts and seaside resorts. Pinera said the disaster cost Chile $30 billion, or 18 percent of its annual gross domestic product.
"Today I can responsibly say that just over halfway through my mandate and thanks to the effort of all Chileans, three-quarters of the reconstruction efforts are complete," Pinera said in his yearly address to congress.
Former President Michelle Bachelet's role in the failure to issue a timely tsunami warning and the slow reconstruction effort under Pinera have been shaping politics ahead of an election to pick his successor next year.
Opposition lawmakers have criticized Pinera's governing center-right party for trying to link Bachelet to the failed tsunami response. During Pinera's speech, some of them wore pins with images of Bachelet, who is expected to run in the next election. One of them read: "No more abuses or fine print."
Former officials at the state emergency office, ONEMI, have been questioned in recent court hearings to determine whether they failed to issue a timely nationwide warning for the tsunami that killed 181 people. On Monday, Pinera announced his support for a plan to replace ONEMI with an agency in each of Chile's 15 regions that will have enough resources to provide early warnings and necessary help.
"Pinera did two things on this speech: He asked for forgiveness for his mistakes but reaffirmed that things are being done well. And that's the way he dealt with the reconstruction as well: He said it's been hard but we've done it well," said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University.
During his over two-hour speech, Pinera focused on Chile's solid economic growth, which he said is among the fastest in the world.
Salaries are rising at 6 percent a year and unemployment is below 7 percent. Over the past two years, investment grew 15 percent and exports rose 40 percent.
But Pinera also said deep social reforms are still needed to reduce poverty in one of the most unequal countries in the world.
"There are 640,000 Chileans living, or more like surviving, extreme poverty and more than 2.5 million living in poverty," he said. "When John Paul II visited us 25 years ago, he called on us to defeat poverty. Now it's time to honor his call."
To try to bridge the gap, Pinera announced plans for a one-time payment of 40,000 pesos ($80) for each lower income family already receiving subsidies that would be used to buy food. He said it would benefit more than 6 million people.
"This bond is good news for lower income families, but we didn't hear anything about the quality of jobs or minimum salaries," said Patricia Silva, an analyst for Barometro de Equidad.
Silva said Chileans are "demanding more deep-rooted reforms and not just superficial ones" and noted the president didn't address social unrest.
As Pinera spoke, thousands of student activists protested outside congress in the coastal city of Valparaiso calling for free education.
Pinera said his plan to spend up to $1 billion on thousands of new scholarships and lower student loan interest is a more just solution for addressing education problems.
"We know that some propose free education for all and not just the most vulnerable and the middle class," he said. "Frankly, in a country with so many shortages and inequalities it is not fair or convenient for the state to use the resources of all Chileans to finance education of those who need it the most."