Yunuen Castorena-Romero:: Chile
I thought I had made it without any confusions or misunderstandings (apart from getting lost in NY Kennedy Airport) until I got to customs section of the Santiago Airport. Customs agents rushed to my bags as police dogs signaled they had found what they were looking for. My heart shrank as I saw them wrap my luggage in red tape and take it to another agent who immediately asked me to show my customs declaration form and proceeded to ask me a series of questions involving undeclared animal products.
I was sure everything was a mistake until I saw them pull out a sour-looking ham and cheese sandwich that I purchased during my 4-hour wait in New York. The culprit in hand, the agent proceeded to weigh it and describe its contents in detail. After about 20 minutes, I was ushered into an office with an unfriendly-looking man who filled out countless paperwork and recorded my official statement. I felt relieved when he mentioned the fine was being waved but warned of future incidents and hefty fines. Happy to be done with the issue, I signed the paperwork and made my way toward the taxi section hoping my ride hadn’t left. The heat of Santiago engulfed me as I traveled to the bus station thinking it had been a mistake to have worn my thermal with a t-shirt on top. However, the following 4-hour trip south to Linares was smooth and without complications, I was starting to feel everything would be just fine.
Almost three weeks later, I feel as if I were at home commuting to my work and focusing on the final stage of evaluating a project. The anxiety I felt during my arrival vanished as quickly as it came. I am rather perplexed by this and I am not sure whether this is a good sign or not. Apart from missing my family and wishing I could share these memories with them life continues as normal and I go home to a loving and hard-working family every night. More than twice my Chilean mother and I have sat at the kitchen table near the furnace drinking tea and eating bread with cheese and tomato until one or two in the morning chatting about our lives and our families. One thing is for certain; when the time comes to head home I am going to miss my Chilean family and memories we shared.
Defining what exactly I will be working on during my stay in Linares has been a definite challenge! Once or twice I’ve had to eat a chocolate-covered ice cream paleta (popsicle) at the plaza and watch people stroll by with their carriages or young couples walk hand-in-hand to calm myself down. Elena and I have spent the past couple of weeks listening intently to project coordinators give detailed explanations of their work hoping we would find a project that interests us and that would be of benefit to the Diocese of Linares. It seems that at last I will work on developing and executing an evaluation of a Youth Employment Program in the Maule Region funded by the Chilean Government and Elena will be working on an issue she is passionate about. These past few weeks have taught me a very important lesson when working with the people of Linares; sharing experiences and accompanying one another in everyday events is more important than following a structured agenda.
Looking out from my bedroom in the New Dawn sector of the city of Linares, one of the most marginal sectors in Chile’s Maule Region, it is evident that eradicating extreme poverty is no longer a question of whether it is possible or not but rather a question of how and when.
Thousands of Chileans poured their hearts out this morning waving goodbye to a leader that put the interest of the people before government and fought to eradicate extreme poverty among other goals. Michelle Bachelet made the interest of the poor a national priority and favored those that had been excluded from the benefits the rest of society had received for a long time. Her presidency ended with an 84% approval rating.
While Chile officially halved the proportion of their population living in extreme poverty it was only able to do so after establishing a network of social protection specifically designed to identify the most vulnerable and dedicate services to their advancement. After identifying the most vulnerable households, a wide range of government agencies with diverse programs covering infancy to pensions for the elderly are available at no cost to those who qualify.
The social protection network begins with the PUENTE program, or bridge, designed to raise the standard of living of the most vulnerable by bridging the gap between public service availability. A questionnaire is applied to vulnerable households who receive points based on their salary, or the presence of other material goods normally considered luxury goods. Those with the least amount of points qualify to receive government services.
To successfully eradicate extreme poverty the government needs to make the interest of the poor a national priority and successfully bring together the municipality or local government and the organizations who will execute the programs.
During a visit to nearby Yerbas Buenas I had the opportunity to speak with a representative of the municipality who explained the multifaceted issue of reaching out to rural areas who may be kilometers away from the heart of the town due to limited transportation. Nonetheless, the offer of additional services such as food baskets during the winter months stands for those who can make the trip.
My own Chilean family remembers when President Lagos personally handed to them, along with many others in the New Dawn sector of Linares, the keys to their new subsidized housing unit. Without the government subsidy, they may never have been able to purchase a home.
The Dioceses of Linares working with Caritas Linares is a non for profit organization who receives government funds to work with the most marginal populations in the Maule Region. They form part of the social protection network by working face-to-face with the beneficiaries of the programs. As the Maule Region is categorized by agriculture work, the organization works with a large proportion of temporal workers in rural areas.
One of the programs within the Dioceses of Linares, funded by the government agency FOSIS or Solidarity and Social Inversion Fund, is the Youth Employment Program which targets the Maule Region. Participants of the program are given skills training to enter the job market and obtain relatively secure employment. This is a step toward breaking the cycle of poverty associated with temporal workers in the Maule Region during the winter as they have virtually no other job options.
More than 70% of the Youth Employment Program participants are women and a large proportion of temporal workers are also women. Therefore, programs such as these explicitly aim at introducing women into the workforce and give them secure employment options.
The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami proves that while Chile has made strides in eradicating extreme poverty, the most marginal sectors were affected the most. Thousands of families with adobe homes now find themselves homeless and without the belongings they worked their entire lives for. Fishing families also find themselves without homes and without the means to provide for their families.
The recently inaugurated Chilean government will have to, more than ever, focus on providing the necessary tools for these families to provide for themselves and avoid a poverty cycle. Michelle Bachelet was categorized in many news stories as the woman who made the interest of the poor her national agenda and created diverse social agencies. It is up to the new presidency to focus on completely eradicating extreme poverty and reaching the rest of the Millennium Development Goals set for Chile.