By GIDEON LONG
AFTER surviving for more than two months in a hot, dark tunnel deep underground, Chile’s 33 miners now face a different but no less daunting challenge – how to handle their new-found fame.
Since they re-emerged into the world last week, they have been inundated by requests for their stories. When they went home for the first time, many of them found scores of reporters camped outside their houses.
One newspaper cartoon summed up their dilemma. It shows a bewildered miner surrounded by journalists and agents offering him book contracts and film deals.
“I feel trapped all over again!” reads the thought bubble above his head.
Some of the miners have handled the pressure well. They have talked to journalists but refused to go into details about their subterranean life.
A few men have mentioned a “pact of silence”, apparently agreed below ground. But others appear to be feeling the strain.
Speaking at a dinner in their honour on Tuesday night, Mario Sepulveda – the extrovert of the group – made a direct appeal to the media.
“I personally want to ask you to have a lot of patience with us, to have a lot of delicacy, if I can put it that way, because the truth is that we’ve come back from below ground and we’re facing a new life,” he said.
“And, although you might not believe it, it’s very difficult for us,” he added, breaking down in tears.
“It’s very difficult, guys, very difficult.”
His fellow miner Edison Pena also appears to be finding it tough. He broke down too, during the same event, and had to be consoled and embraced by his fellow miners.
The scars of his ordeal were all too plain to see.
According to Francesc Pujol, an academic at the University of Navarra in Spain, this story had a far greater impact in the world’s media than Chile’s other big news story this year – the massive earthquake in the south of the country in February.
Pujol, who has published a study of Chile’s profile in the media, says the coverage of the rescue “has important implications for Chile’s long-term international reputation”.
“It has planted images and perceptions that are now indelibly linked to Chile in the minds of millions of people across the world.”
Until recently, many people outside Chile associated the country largely with the military rule of general Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it seems, they might associate it with the miners and their successful rescue.
“For a long time, the country was persistently associated with human rights violations. At last, the perception is different,” Chile’s best-known television presenter Amaro Gomez-Pablos said.
“Chile actually made that transition some time ago, but the world had not turned the page of history until now.”
Gomez-Pablos said he was struck by the image of Isabel Allende, a senator for the region where the accident happened, standing alongside the Chilean president Sebastian Pinera on the day of the rescue.
Allende is a veteran of the political left – the daughter of former president Salvador Allende, the man Pinochet deposed in 1973. And, yet, there she was, standing alongside the country’s first right-leaning president in a generation.
Pinera is certainly doing his best to keep the rescue operation in the media spotlight.
During his current tour of Europe, he has missed no opportunity to hand out gifts of rock from the San Jose mine as souvenirs.
According to Pujol’s study, the president has now superseded his mining minister Laurence Golborne as the face most closely identified with the rescue story.
As for the miners, they will have to decide what to do next. Some have already said they wanted to go back down the mines. Others seem certain to seek work elsewhere.
A few men have emerged as household names – the effervescent Sepulveda; Florencio Avalos, the first man to be rescued; Mario Gomez, the oldest man in the group; Franklin Lobos, the former professional footballer; and Luis Urzua, the last man to be rescued and the shift leader on the day of the accident on Aug 5.
But, regardless of how well known they are, all 33 men will, surely, face a tricky period of readjustment.
Less than three months ago, they went to work one Thursday afternoon as miners. Last week, they emerged from the bowels of the earth as celebrities. – BBC