What Time Is It in Chile? There’s No Telling

Government tinkering with daylight-saving time dates puts clocks on cellphones and computers out of whack

In Chile, residents know too well, the clocks can’t be trusted.

Here in this sliver of a country that stretches to the far corner of the world, authorities can’t figure out what time to set. The government has, with almost clocklike regularity in recent years, tinkered with daylight-saving time by changing the dates when clocks move an hour forward or an hour backward.

The changes mess up the time on computers, cellphones and other devices programmed to implement daylight saving on a specific date.

That leads a wife’s phone to say one time, but her husband’s another, ruining lunch plans. The owner of an antique clock store arrives late for work because the time on his cellphone moved back an hour when it shouldn’t have. And an engineer has to improvise a presentation to a client when a younger colleague shows up an hour late, convinced he was on time.

“People were just confused for days,” said entrepreneur Sean Park, who missed meetings recently after his electronic clocks changed when they shouldn’t have.

Chilean technology expert Cristian Ocaña compares the country’s self-inflicted dilemma with the Y2K bug that showed incorrect dates on some computers: “This affects our resources and it upsets a lot of people.”

Consider what happened to Claudia Marie Clemente’s lunch plans last month. The Brooklyn-born writer and filmmaker, who has lived in Chile since 2012, made plans with her husband to meet friends at a new hamburger restaurant for lunch at 1 p.m. With three small boys 3 years old or younger, they need lots of time to get ready.

Ms. Clemente thought she was on schedule when she looked at her Android phone, showing 11:30 a.m. Then she noticed the time on her home’s security-system alarm pad was 12:30 p.m. She asked her husband, Gregorio González, the time. His iPhone read 12:30 p.m., which was the actual time. But his Android phone, which was programmed to fall back an hour, showed 11:30 a.m.

“It felt a bit absurd, like being whisked by a time warp,” said Ms. Clemente, who stayed home with her two younger sons as her husband rushed over to the restaurant with the oldest. During the rest of the day she would periodically search on Google, “What time is it in Santiago, Chile?”

Many countries debate the value of daylight-saving time. Proponents say it helps reduce energy costs by providing more natural light in the evening. Critics say changing clocks has health consequences by upsetting people’s sleep. Few places play with the clocks as much as Chile.

In 2009, clocks were moved back in March to provide an extra hour of sunlight in the morning when Chile enters autumn. In 2010, the shift was delayed until April, following a powerful earthquake, to provide more light in the evening for emergency response. In 2011, it was implemented in May to save power during a drought. In 2012, the switch occurred in April.

Tired of the constant changes, President Michelle Bachelet’s government said last year it would scrap the time shifts altogether, keeping all year the summer time of three hours before Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC—a standard basically equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time that scientists use to set clocks around the world.

“We could see that people were very frustrated with all of these changes,” said Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco, who oversaw the government’s decision.

That move set off a new national debate. Most of Chile’s geographic location corresponds to five hours before UTC, meaning Chilean clocks were set to a time two hours later than what would be expected. That put Chile in the same time zone as Rio de Janeiro, which sits 1,800 miles to the east, on the opposite side of South America.

As a result, during Chile’s winter last June, the sun didn’t rise in Santiago until about 8:45 a.m.

Mr. Pacheco says the decision was aimed at reducing energy costs and crime in the evenings thanks to an extra hour of sunlight. It came under fire from those who complained about long, dark mornings.

The National Agriculture Society said the time setting cut into productivity. An occupational-health watchdog found the number of worker accidents while commuting to and from jobs rose sharply between May and September last year. School absentees increased as children struggled to get out of bed and parents were concerned about sending them out when it was still dark.

After a summer of debate, the government backtracked in March, agreeing to turn clocks back an hour on Saturday, where the time will stay for three months. After that, clocks will shift forward an hour. Next year and in 2018, the government says, it plans a similar nine month-three month split.

The Santiago-based LATAM Airlines Group said the change affects the scheduling of 4,300 flights, requiring the firm to contact 230,000 passengers. The Chilean Association of Information Technology Companies said it could cost some firms up to $150,000 to reprogram all their devices.

Mr. González, the father of the three boys who is the chief executive of fixed-income index provider LVA Indices, now writes out the time of his appointments in his Google Calendar in case the setting automatically changes.

Cristian Hermansen, the president of Chile’s School of Engineers, manually set his computer’s clock to the time zone in Buenos Aires, where there is no daylight-saving time, to avoid sudden changes to his digital clock and calendar.

Many expect further confusion this weekend when clocks move back an hour as cellphones and computers haven’t been programmed for the change.

Kyle Wiggins and Jack Fischl, the co-founders of Keteka, a Latin America-focused travel website, sounded surprised when they found out that clocks were being turned back again. They recalled being puzzled last year when they woke up one morning and couldn’t figure out what time it was. They asked people on the street, but no one seemed to agree.

“Oh, they’re going to change it again?” Mr. Wiggins said at a recent meeting. During last year’s confusion, he said, “I was like, it is ‘some time,’ we just keep going.”

The Wall Street Journal |

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