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.

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