World's Biggest Telethon Kicks off in Chile


Chile Teleton logo

The whole of Chile is Teletón crazy. Banners line every street. Motorists paint messages of support on their car windows and TV stations run endless commercials featuring the show's founder and host Don Francisco.

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Every year in Chile the nation unites behind a common cause: a 27 hour-long telethon to raise money for disabled children.

Businesses, individuals and the government all subscribe to the Teletón slogan: 'puro corazon,' or 'pure heart,' emphasizing the good intentions with which the program raises colossal sums of money.

But behind this marketing machine is a sad picture of governmental neglect and capitalist profiteering.

Twenty-six thousand disabled kids each year depend on donations given on this one — extended — day of the year. But not everyone feels the same enthusiasm for the work the Teletón does.

Wheelchair-bound Claudio Gonzalez, who took part in the campaign as a child, is one of 99 percent of Chile's disabled adults without a job. He's highly critical of its donors' motivations.

"The Teletón's sponsors earn money," Gonzales said. "They get publicity from the show. They want us to make the public feel sorry for us. They use us, and we're left with nothing."

Gonzalez was referring to the free TV advertisements that private companies receive in exchange for donating to the Teletón.

This fuels the more basic argument of the campaign's critics: Public policy not private philanthropy should be providing for the country's disabled.

Alejandro Hernández is president of Chile's leading disability NGO, the National Foundation for the Disabled.

"All the rehabilitation centers that work with children should be under the roof of the management and administration of the Ministry of Health not of businesses," Hernandez said.

Hernández said the Chilean government is shirking both a constitutional and UN declared responsibility to take care of the country's disabled.

But María Ximena Rivas, the National Director of the government-run disability ministry Senadis said that the government simply can't afford to do the work that the Teletón does.

"Why is the state not able to take charge of the Teletón?" Rivas asked. "The answer is simple: Because we lack the resources. Today in this country there is not enough money for the government to be able to maintain the operation of the Teletón with the quality, experience and resources that they have."

Last year the Teletón raised around $55 million — more than double what the Chilean government allots to Senadis, the disability ministry.

Even so, the Teletón's eleven rehabilitation centers still only provide equipment and services such as physical therapy for seven percent of Chile's disabled community, and only kids. Adults and those with non-physical disabilities are excluded entirely. Rivas said the government is simply overwhelmed.

"There are 93 percent of other people with disabilities who are not covered by the Telethon's work. Well, we have to work for them. So you can see our problem," Rivas said.

But Mauricio Muñoz isn't buying it. Muñoz was born blind, and has never been allowed to participate in the Teletón. He said it's nice that the Teletón raises so much money, and it certainly helps some people. But, he said the giant fundraiser also lets the Chilean government off the hook.

"In Chile, things are bad for us. We lack government support, and the institutions aren't doing their job properly. There is lack of motivation and will to resolve this problem, because things could be different," Muñoz said.

Whether or not that's true, few will say outright that there shouldn't be a Teletón.

Catalina Parot said if nothing else, the event draws international recognition to Chile and highlights the needs of the disabled.

Parot is Chile's first disabled government minister, and she said that the perception of those with disabilities has radically changed since she was a child — thanks to the Teletón.

"What Teletón founder Don Francisco has done, beyond any criticism that might exist, is to make people confront their fear of the disabled," Parot said.