Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chile: Proud Miners and Populist President

It is fascinating to see how the odyssey of the Chilean miners has captured the world’s attention for several weeks and how their rescue conveyed a message of hope – mining accidents do not end well in general as the most recent ones including in the US (in West Virginia last summer) constituted a painful reminder. Especially after the earthquake that struck their country in early 2010 this victory over fate is what Chileans needed the most.

I lived in Northern Chile for nearly two years – not that far from Copiapo and the location of that mine. I saw every day the faces of those folks from the North, the so-called Nortinos (Northerners), who for the most part have a mixed European and Indian (Native American) background. Despite Chile’s economic takeoff since the early 80’s and continued economic progress since the return of democracy the Northern provinces (Chile’s First and Second Regions) are still populated by mostly poor people. So, the mining industry in spite of its very tough labor conditions that still result in shorter than average life expectancy, continues to represent a major draw for the population as salaries paid tend to be higher than average.

Also, the mining industry that remains the main production of the country is an immense source of pride for all Chileans. Ironically enough, beside state-owned Codelco most mines belong to foreign interests but Chile is proud to be the world’s largest copper exporter.

The national sentiment and love for the flag (there is a holiday called Day of the Flag - “Día de la Bandera” – in Chile and elsewhere in the region) run deep in Latin America. Chile in particular – and you will excuse the generalization here – has always suffered from some inferiority complex towards its bigger and more buoyant neighbors, mainly Argentina and Brazil. This is partly due to Chile’s long isolation – the long strip of land by the Pacific Ocean near the tip of the continent was not an obvious destination for world travelers for a very long time.

Today, while keeping some of that low-key national character and inferiority complex, the country is mightily proud of its economic successes (at least compared to those of its neighbors and case in point of Argentina, the land of booms and busts - for instance the country’s national airline company Lan and its retail giants have expanded throughout the continent), its mining industry’s world leadership, and its political stability since the fall of Pinochet.

All of this explains why Chileans remained riveted by this story for weeks, why soon after the miners were found to be alive spontaneous celebrations erupted akin to those only seen after la Roja (Chile’s soccer national team) victories, and why the country literally exploded in joy, emotion, and pride when all the miners were brought back to the surface alive and well.

In the process, Chilean President Piñera demonstrated how he has understood Chile’s soul as he got extremely involved in the rescue efforts. First – and to his credit – he held himself accountable by saying soon after the accident that those guys would not be abandoned under his watch but then when the happy outcome was soon to become a reality insisted to be there in person for days on end and was the first in line to greet each one of the rescued miners (even the young Bolivian guy… inside joke for those who know about the acrimonious history between Chile and Bolivia).

Piñera acted as a big-time populist here. He is no Chavez and no Castro – his politics or rather his economics are exactly the opposite of his Venezuelan and Cuban counterparts’ but my god, did he force himself on the media stage – prime time, national TV, the country’s hero in short (“Heroe de la Nación”).

He has bought himself enough political credit to withstand whatever crises (economic or political) may strike the country in the next 2-3 years…

Kudos to Piñera for standing up and putting his rear end on the line as he did – but let’s also recognize how he chose to politicize the miners’ rescue.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Good Hair Day

On my way back from Asia the other day I watched Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (see wikipedia page) that depicts the obsession of a lot of African American women about having “good hair”. Good hair means straight hair basically and the film does an excellent job of describing everything that so many women are willing and ready to suffer though to get their hair as straight as possible. Chris Rock has that charisma, charm, and instant connection and chemistry with folks so that he manages to get both women and men, as well as celebrities and no-name people in the movie to speak with their hearts about what “good hair” means to them – those comments are both funny and moving.

Incredible coincidence - my neighbor actually works for one of those LA-based human hair (from India!!) wholesalers. What were the odds, right? He said that the movie was quite accurate – so great job, Chris Rock, and a shout to my neighbor’s company

Rent or borrow this move if you can. It says so much about the American psyche and about the complexity of social justice, i.e. the fascination of those African American women for straight (in other words Caucasian-looking) hair.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Absolut (sic) Double Standards!!

I laughed the other day when I saw the Harvard subway station (T station) in Cambridge covered with big Absolut vodka posters. From time to time the Boston subway strikes a deal with a company to put its posters all over some given T station – and not only in the dedicated spaces. It is a little bit of an overkill from a subway rider’s standpoint but at least you can’t miss these ads…

Anyway, I was laughing when I saw Absolut going bezerk MBTA (Boston transit system) style because it made me think about how differently alcohol and cigarettes are treated in the US. Tobacco might well be another word for devil in this country…

Pointing to the addictive power of tobacco, its role in causing lung cancer and respiratory disease and other ailments such as heart disease is certainly the right thing to do. We don’t want our kids to start smoking, nor our grandmothers to smoke, nor our work colleagues, nor anyone around us for that matter because cigarettes stink. Alright…

But what about alcohol? How is alcohol less addictive than tobacco or less damaging to people’s health – to name a few possible repercussions, liver cancer, high cholesterol and heart condition due to alcohol high sugar content, and any dangerous situation that drunk folks can put themselves into?

I just don’t get it. Now, my point is not to discuss whether or not those among us who smoke or drink should be left alone as to how they choose to conduct their lives, what constitutes an addiction, or how much drinking and smoking cost to society from a public health standpoint.

What boggles my mind is just how smoking has been vilified whereas drinking is very accepted in this country’s culture. When I walk around in some Boston neighborhoods (you know who you are, Southie friends) and I see all those folks whose faces are totally ravaged by alcohol (and probably smoking too), I don’t understand how we as a society feel that it is ok. I live next door to a bar – a lot of folks are drunk when they leave. You find people going into bars and taverns at all times of day in certain neighborhoods. And this is more acceptable than people smoking a pack a day? I don’t see how.

In contrast, Europe has been as aggressive in its prohibition of alcohol advertising as it has been with smoking. Western European governments appear to consider that both drinking and smoking can have negative public health repercussions and thus, neither is encouraged – on the contrary high taxes on those products and limited advertising intend to curb consumption.

Why such a different outlook on drinking vs. smoking in the US? I don’t know... Enjoy the good times, Absolut!!