A tale of miners, presidents and nations

The Chilean miners’ rescue, a inspiring story of human solidarity, offers the nation’s president a miraculous political reward. There are lessons for a European counterpart, says Goran Fejic.

A nation is energised and acclaims its head of state. The president and his people together rejoice and celebrate the shared achievement, which shows to the entire world a face of true heroism, genuine solidarity and deep humanity. “Yes, this is us; this is the way we are!” It all looks spontaneous, without the trace of a public-relations script. True, some later media coverage emphasises the “business-management” aspect of the operation: its perfect planning, risk-assessment, execution and marketing. Certainly, these aspects too deserve to be acknowledged. But the quality which absorbs the world’s attention remains the human dimension.  

It all started as a disaster: another tragic story of underdog lives sacrificed to money and greed...and the clock ticking, and the chances of survival of those trapped under 800 metres of hard rock getting (like the men themselves) thinner every hour. But soon, it turned out to be something totally different: an epic of hope and perseverance, togetherness and love. This is what makes the story truly unique and - in these sad times of wars and floods and spills and global misery - worth many hours of live reporting.  

The operation indeed required a lot of cool planning, management, and sophisticated technology; but none of this detracts from the operation’s human heart. And who, regardless of his or her affiliation, could reproach a politician who seeks political reward from what appears to be an extraordinary success?  

The nation is reunited! The divisions of the past are forgotten! The desaparecidos can rest in peace! (As to the Mapuche, poor guys, they really chose the wrong moment to raise their claims and need to be patient.) Chile is entering a new era with pride, hailed and admired by the world.      

Few presidents in recent times have had such a god-given chance and few have managed to take the right decision when faced with sudden disaster. There are many examples of those who got it wrong: George W Bush misreading the impact of hurricane Katrina, Asif Ali Zardari touring French chateaux while his people endured the worst flood in a century.

And where national “reunification” performances can be staged, it is hard for those responsible to ensure that their legacy continues to shine. Bush had his moment of glory on the aircraft-carrier, but his over-the-top “mission accomplished” message followed a tragedy and started a new one. Hu Jintao had his spectacular and impressive Olympic fireworks; but after the hangover, the world’s mixed feelings about the rising superpower returned - and an imprisoned dissident, abused by the state’s officialdom, was elevated to Nobel heights.     

The wrong dream

There is another president who is desperate to unify his nation. His slogan is “He who wants, can!” There is no doubt that he wants. He has really been trying hard, but somehow, the more he tries, the more the nation cracks. He tried to stage a countrywide, remote-controlled debate on national identity. It was a flop. He created a ministry for national identity. He was derided. He did his best to shield his nation from contaminating foreigners. He spread the fear of the odd world out, and deployed all his talents to convince his flock how nicely we would fare together, just us, our nation, if only we could get rid of those party-breakers, those unruly suburban teenagers with funny accents, those protesting students, those dangerous veiled women, those filthy Roma people, those blaspheming European commissioners and the like.

Nothing has worked so far. The nation stays stubbornly divided, and the nation’s wonders - its high-speed trains, its sophisticated research institutes, its enviable welfare system - are all, slowly but inexorably, grinding to a halt.       

This president must be dreaming of a deep shaft in some unknown corner of his beautiful country, and a capsule pulling out of the abyss a cheerful crowd of true patriots, faithful to the nation and to its leader.  

If this is his dream, it is the wrong one. The issue at stake is not about cloning true patriots or pulling them out of a shaft, and equivalent miracles. Rather, it is about showing some real empathy and solidarity with ordinary people: be they miners trapped in the depths, Roma lost in a crisis-ridden continent, or anxious elders, approaching the end of their working life and feeling tired and rejected in an increasingly selfish society.

The president of the miners, who happens to be a millionaire, is paying a visit these very days to his less fortunate counterpart. Perhaps the host - who, after all, is said to appreciate mingling with millionaires - could ask for some advice about how to pull a country together.  

About the author

Goran Fejić was senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

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Goran Fejic is senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He is writing here in a personal capacity

Also by Goran Fejic in openDemocracy:

"The trial and the wall" (6 November 2009)

"Midnight in Belgrade, dusk in Brussels" (12 July 2010)