Renan Avalos Silva was the 25th man rescued from the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Oct. 13, 2010. (Photo by Gabriel Ortega/Government of Chile.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

A year ago, the world was transfixed by the plight of 33 men trapped in a copper mine in Copiapo, Chile.

At first, we were overwhelmed by the sense of inevitability that more miners had died in a country that didn’t make mine safety a priority.

Then, by a sense of surprise and hope as 33 survivors were found. And finally, in the feeling of accomplishment and jubilation as the world — and particularly the country of Chile — united to plan and execute a successful rescue.

At the time, I wrote that the rescue could be the country’s Apollo program — the thing that could propel Chile to greatness.

Well, a year later, it seems things didn’t quite turn out like that.

On the anniversary of the Aug. 5 mine collapse, the Washington Post and London’s Guardian newspaper returned to Chile to see how things had worked out for the 33.

Most are living in poverty, or dealing with depression, alienation and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Their unified front has collapsed amid criticism within the group about how some of the miners have benefited from their story more than others.

Thirty-one of them have filed a lawsuit against the government they once tearfully thanked. And Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who triumphantly met the first miners as they emerged from the rescue shaft after 69 days buried in the mine, now has an approval rating of just 26 percent.

And if you go back to stories that were published during the rescue, psychologists predicted all this. From ABC News to London’s Telegraph, they were saying things like:

“Some will struggle to cope with the temptations on offer as they are treated as heroes and celebrities, while others are likely to split from their families as they re-evaluate their lives.”

Reporter Tim Padgett went back in December 2010 to profile the men for Time’s Person-of-the-Year issue:

When we first arrived per our appointment to see Edison Peña, who had sung Elvis Presley songs on the Letterman show during a visit to New York, his wife turned us away because he was having trouble adapting to mood medications. Another, Samuel Avalos, said sarcastically as he pointed to the severe dental problems he developed underground, “I’d like to smile for you, but I can’t pay to get my teeth fixed yet.”

That was just two months after they had been rescued. For most of the miners, things have only gotten worse since then.

And the rescue certainly didn’t launch Chile to its own version of a moon landing. On the positive side, mine deaths have been cut in half over the past year. But rather than bringing the country together toward some grand goal, Chile has become violently divided, embroiled in protests and riots.

The riots don’t have anything to do with mines. They’re about education. Or more precisely, access to education.

Time reports: “The trouble stems, ironically, from Pinochet’s attempt in the 1980s to narrow the education gap between rich and poor. His answer was decentralization and school voucher-style privatization, the remedy of the conservative ‘Chicago School’ of economics he embraced. But instead of leveling the playing field, say critics, the policy solidified inequalities.”

The stories about impoverished celebrity miners may be riveting. But more than any story of individual tragedy or struggle, that paragraph may be the most important thing that Floridians, struggling with our educational direction, can end up taking from the disaster in Chile.