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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Current Developments in Chile

Special Briefing
Paul Simons, U.S. Ambassador to Chile
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
March 1, 2010


MR. TONER: All right. I think we can get started. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us today. We’re very happy to have Ambassador Paul Simons from Santiago, Chile to update us on the U.S. Mission’s response in the aftermath of the earthquake this past weekend. Ambassador, I’ll hand it over to you. You can make a few opening remarks and then we’ll open it up to Q&A. And we appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule.

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be with you this afternoon. The earthquake hit at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday and our primary responsibility and our primary focus over the last two and a half days has been to secure and ensure the safety and security of American citizens here in Chile.

So within one hour of the earthquake itself, we had mounted an operations center here at the Embassy, and we basically have been working 24/7 in two areas. The first has been to ensure that our 300 direct hire American employees and Chilean employees were safe and secure. And fortunately, I’m able to report that we have been able to locate all 300 of those employees and their families, and everybody is fine in the Santiago area.

Our broader responsibility is for the approximately 18,000 U.S. citizens who reside in Chile, are visiting here, or are students at any given time. And we activated a separate consular 24/7 operations center which has been reaching out through our wardens to locate Americans around the country. And we’ve been fairly successful here. We’ve reached out to most of our wardens in most parts of the country. And up to now, we do not have any reports of any American citizens who have died or had any serious injuries.

However, we have very limited reports in – from the area directly impacted by the earthquake. So this afternoon, we sent a three-person team down to Concepcion to have some eyes and ears on the ground to work with some of our contacts down there to do a little bit more active jobs in terms of seeking out the welfare and whereabouts of the perhaps 1,000 American citizens in the Concepcion area.

This earthquake really has been two earthquakes, to some extent. The situation here in Santiago is returning to normal fairly quickly. Electricity and water have been restored to most of the city. Stock market was open today. The newspapers are being issued. Traffic is fairly normal. There’s a fair amount of internal damage to buildings, but not too much structural damage. And clearly, Santiago is moving forward. But the Concepcion area, the Maule area, were hit very, very, very hard, and the situation there is quite precarious. And that really will be the focus of our efforts in the coming days in terms of American citizen work.

In addition, we’re delighted that the Secretary will be joining us here briefly tomorrow for meetings with President Bachelet and with President-elect Piñera. We’ll have an opportunity to exchange views. The Chilean Government yesterday indicated that it was open to receive offers of assistance from the international community. The foreign minister today – we’ve been in touch with him many times on a continuous basis to see what exactly it is that Chile needs, and to match that up with some of the resources that we have available. And certainly, that will be the focus of the Secretary’s visit as well.

So once again, I’m happy to be with you. I would say our embassy team has been working flat out for almost the last 72 hours. And they’re tired, but the morale is good, and certainly, we look forward to answering your questions.

MR. TONER: Great.


QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, this is Bob Burns from AP. You mentioned Chile being open to offers of assistance from the international community. And the State Department today said that they had made a formal request for some communications gear and some other items. I wonder if you can be more exact about exactly what they said they needed and what quantities and how soon.

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I’m afraid I don’t have all the details on that. I do know that we’re looking at the issue of communications equipment. We’re looking in a number of other areas as well – portable hospitals is one area, water purification equipment. I think some of the details will be worked out during the Secretary’s trip. But certainly, we are taking a look at the items that the Chileans have indicated they need and we’re matching them up with what we have available, and we’re doing it on a very expedited basis.

MR. TONER: Charlie.

QUESTION: Yes, Ambassador. Charlie Wolfson from CBS. Can you tell us whether the Secretary’s stop is going to be limited to the airport only or will she get a helicopter tour of any of the damaged areas?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I believe the Secretary will be coming in and visiting with both President Bachelet and Sebastian Piñera, and I believe at this point the idea is to do the visit at the airport.

MR. TONER: Elise.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Elise Labott with CNN. I was wondering if you can, in terms of some of the other – obviously, this isn’t a situation like Haiti. But in terms of the scope of the earthquake and the kind of typical U.S. response that we see in a situation like this, do you anticipate a USAID DART team going down for an assessment? I mean, are we going to be talking about a serious U.S. response? Obviously, it will be what the Chileans need. But what are you anticipate right now about the kind of response that the U.S. will be needed to mount here?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I think we’ll get into a number of those details tomorrow with the Secretary. The Chileans – or the first 24 hours, I think we’re focusing largely on immediate response issues and it really hasn’t been, I think, until say today that they have focused going in a little more comprehensive way through a list of those areas where they may need some international support. So I think the Secretary’s visit is very timely. We’ve had some preliminary conversations with the foreign ministry, with some of their emergency preparedness people, and I think the Secretary will have quite a bit more to say on this tomorrow.

MR. TONER: Courtney.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. There’s some reports that an LA search-and-rescue team has already been mobilized and is going to be heading that way in the next – in a matter of hours, potentially tomorrow. Have you heard anything about that?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: Again, I don’t have anything more on the specifics.

MR. TONER: Anybody else?

QUESTION: Is that report accurate, even if you don’t have the specifics?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I don’t have anything on that for you.

MARK TONER: Go ahead, Courtney.

QUESTION: If I could just ask one more, Mr. Ambassador. It’s Courtney Kube again from NBC. Are there any updated totals on casualty counts, not just Americans, that you’ve learned from the Chileans?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I believe the latest death count is 714. Most of the deaths have occurred in the Maule province on the beach, in some of the small beach communities, not so much in the city of Concepcion. Concepcion you see a lot of the footage, but the buildings there – Concepcion was completely destroyed in 1960 by the last major earthquake in Chile. And most of the building stock there was erected to a pretty strict code, so that housing stock held up pretty well.

But out in the rural areas, you still had a lot of adobe buildings, more precarious types of structures that just collapsed immediately with the earthquake. And so a lot of the fatalities were related to – not to any kind of large building implosions such as you might have seen in Haiti, but small, isolated one or two people being killed inside of their house.

QUESTION: Steve Cochran with Can you discuss any of the NGO activities that are going on because there have been reports that people have been sending down emergency personnel and supplies? Do you have anything to share on that?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: I’m afraid I don’t have anything on that.

MR. TONER: Courtney Kube.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any American citizens – mass American citizen evacuations out of Chile that are being organized through the embassy?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: We have reached out. We have a lot of American citizens here in Chile. A number of them are tourists. Some are student groups. And we’ve reached out. We’ve had meetings with them at the hotels, we’ve reached out to the universities. One of the goals of our team that’s going down to Concepcion is to meet with the students there at the University of Concepcion and to see how they’re doing and what – how they would like to move forward. So I would say one of our major priorities has been reaching out not just to the resident Americans here in Chile, but also to some of the transitory folks that come through.

Chile receives one of the highest numbers of American students of any country in Latin America. And so a number of those folks were down here, arrived right before the earthquake, and were a bit shaken up. So we want to reach out to those people, and we’ve been doing that. It’s been a high priority for us.

QUESTION: Ambassador, can you talk just a little bit about this area in terms of – you know, obviously, Santiago is a big city and – you know, just in terms of the area itself and, you know, how – in terms of how it’s affected, given the state that it was before the earthquake?

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: Well, again, I think the Santiago metropolitan area, while it was affected, seems to be bouncing back pretty quickly. Something like 90 percent of the supermarkets are back open, the banks are open, the stock exchange was open today, all the daily newspapers appeared even beginning on Sunday, less than 24 hours after the crisis. The phone system is back up and running. Cell phones are operating. Electricity has been restored and life is moving fairly quickly toward a more normal situation. And I would say that’s the case on the coast as well – Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, that area.

But when you move further south towards the epicenter, when you get into the Maule region and down into Bio Bio near Concepcion, and especially on the coast where this tsunami hit, there was major, major devastation – major loss of life and major loss of dwelling and major damage to infrastructure. And that’s really where the cleanup effort, the whole reparation effort is going to take a lot of time. And that’s clearly where the focus of the government activity is, and I think that’s what motivated the government to come out yesterday and make this request for international assistance.

The Chileans, as you know, they’re an OECD member. They’re a donor country internationally. They were a donor to Haiti. They were one of the very first countries that provided, for example, search-and-rescue teams in Haiti. They were working with the U.S. in countries like Paraguay and El Salvador to coordinate assistance. They’re working with us in Central America. So – Chile is a successful country, so it’s unusual for this country to be in a position of requesting assistance.

But in this case, clearly the magnitude of the situation, at least by day two, got to the point that the government recognized that it was important to reach out to some of its international partners. And that’s why we are responding. The President, in his call to President Bachelet on Saturday, indicated that we stand ready to move quickly to provide support. The Secretary made the same statement in her conversation with President Bachelet. And again, she’s arriving tomorrow. And I’m sure we’ll hear more from her on the U.S. assistance effort.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Any more questions?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. We’ll let you get back to many things you have on your plate. But we appreciate you joining us.

AMBASSADOR SIMONS: Thank you very much.

# # #

PRN: 2010/243

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